BQ Newsletter
Scratch Bikes has been hugely popular since its launch

Back to the bicycle

Wednesday 11 January 2012 6:00

A Porsche may be the ultimate executive’s dream but in these difficult times two-wheel transport can be the key to success, as Brian Nicholls reports.

The wheel is turning full circle as business amid austerity gets back to basics.
Would you believe there’s even a magazine and website devoted to bicycle businesses now: Bike Biz, Barbara Croce is a notable example of this new cycle of success.

She has some of the best small businesses in the North East, her triumph in the recent Women into the Network annual awards suggests. Like a growing number of small start-ups these days, her achievement in the regional awards has been partly built on restoring cycles to a moneymaking role.

Changed days, of course, from when the butcher boy or the grocery lad delivered orders door-to-door to our grandparents, making money for their employers on a nameplated bike.

But the outcome is the same. Doing business on and through cost-efficient bicycles and tricycles, geared by the internet, can take business creators the distance in more ways than one. Barbara Croce’s imaginative transformation of tricycles and vans for sale has enabled her to build three successful businesses over 10 years: Coffee Latino, Storm Tea and On Your Trike.

Croce, 38, claims now to be Britain’s market leader in “mobile” coffees. Customers in Australia, Iceland, Germany, the US and Dubai all enjoy tea flavours and coffee tangs from Durham County through Coffee Latino and Storm Tea, sent to them from a High Spen factory. There the family business fabricates, brands then sells coffee vans, tricycles, carts and trailers.

There too, it roasts imported coffee beans, blends imported tea to its own formulae, and gives barista training. It offers a choice from eight models of coffee van and two models of coffee cart, and can provide uniforms to order.

There’s an element of high technology also, for the coffee-making machines on the tricycles are solar powered, an inspired move introduced in 2007. And having started as a mobile coffee operation, the business also offers ongoing guidance to anyone keen to go into outdoor vending.

They say behind every successful man stands a successful woman. Conversely, Barbara Croce affirms that behind her success there’s certainly a man. That’s her husband Mario – “as good a husband as any could be”.

He’s a fully qualified chef, trained at the Marriott Gosforth Park Hotel, and subsequently a member of multi-millionaire Graham Wylie’s team running Close House Hotel, Heddon on the Wall. Mario, 39, is managing director and secretary of the High Spen operations, combining these responsibilities with that of company taster and vitally, househusband, at their home in Ryton, Gateshead, he looks after their three children – Luca, 10; Vito, seven; and Nito, six – while Barbara as sales director, sometimes works until quarter to one in the morning meeting orders for vehicles and commodities.

Their workforce of around 10 is inundated with phone calls from 7am to 11pm from many parts of the world, and the internet enquiries and orders just go on around the clock.
They run four websites besides, each offering a different service.

Before he retired, Mario’s father Antonio, was “Toni” to countless loyal customers who bought ice-creams from his van on the Quayside at Newcastle.
It struck Barbara that many promenaders might also enjoy a cup of espresso, a street-sale novelty then.

She converted first one van that she and Mario bought, put it on the road, and a year later found they could sell the vehicle at a profit.
One van followed another and the business developed.

Fabrications once carried on at the Croces’ home now continue on a larger scale at the factory. Tricycles imported from Holland and adapted there to carry the delicate coffee machines are also branded to clients’ preference.

A “pop-up” cafe enterprise, surrounding a coffee-making cycle with parasoled tables, is building nicely, used most recently at The Baltic in promoting the Turner Prize.
Coffee Latino cycles have appeared on television in The Apprentice and EastEnders.

Back at the factory, orders are going out to Canada, Ireland, Massachusetts and Colorado, Taiwan, Spain, Poland and Cologne in Germany. Storm Tea has recently extended its customer base into Poland and Germany.

Enquiries for bikes and trikes are 70% from overseas with the US a close second to the UK in requests for detail. Barbara Croce says: “The business has grown every year.
But this is our best year yet.” Bicycles and tricycles also have a key role in the success of Newcastle’s NE1 business development district covering the city centre.

Jack Payne and Robert Grisdale have proved entrepreneurs in this, wheelers and dealers literally – and so successful with their Scratch Bikes hire business that the retro-inspiration has impressed Newcastle fund managers Rivers Capital into backing them.

Grisdale and Payne, in their mid-20s, got the idea for Scratch Bikes while studying civil engineering at Newcastle University.
Grisdale says: “We’d seen and used other systems across Europe and loved the concept.

We wondered why they have to be so technology and infrastructure intensive – too expensive for any but the largest cities.” They planned their simpler solution, and launched it in September 2010 at Newcastle University. It worked. From the first week they got positive feedback from almost every customer.

They employ apps in their simpler system, so users can keep in touch and give feedback on possible new rental locations and difficulties or faults. Soon NE1 Ltd started working with Scratch Bikes.

It wanted just such a service and liked what it saw serving the university campus.
NE1 offered the finance and backing Grisdale and Payne needed to extend their business. Biz Bike says hire schemes may employ slightly different methods and pay structures, but all are driven by the basic principle of offering bikes for hire to navigate busy cities, providing an alternative to gridlocked roads and busy public transport.

Sean Bullick, chief executive of NE1 Ltd, says: “When we learned about Scratch Bikes we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. So we teamed up with them to extend their scheme across the city with 150 NE1 sponsored bikes.” Positioned at hire stations across the city, these also provide great visibility for NE1 Ltd, Bullick says, as more and more people take to hiring them. A growing number of businesses have signed up for their staff to use them.

He says: “Our investment has also enabled Scratch to develop the unique locking and tracking system which is being patented, and the company is in talks with international companies about selling the systems.

NE1 Ltd bikes for hire are here to stay in Newcastle.” As in Paris, Dublin, London and Barcelona, sightseers on Tyneside now pedal through the city, as do many local workers wanting a quick weave to appointments or on errands through heavy traffic.

The transport enables NE1 to avoid extending its motor fleet for short journeys – in keeping with “green” transport advice.

Indeed NE1’s Street Rangers and Clean Teams who help spruce up the city centre do so on bikes and trailers for rapid response to calls for help from businesses. Clean Team responds to litter, graffiti and hygiene issues at business premises, complementing the city council’s street cleaning. There are also two Info Trikes from which Street Rangers provide information and advice to the public.

These are like the old-fashioned butchers’ bikes, with a large basket on the front.
These days it opens into an information stand. These often stand at busy intersections in Newcastle, at the Monument for example, giving a focal point for public information and distribution of leaflets and maps.

NE1 buys locally too – from a recently-openedbike shop, Ride, on Westgate Road.
Infinite Design on Leazes Park Road designs the livery. NE1 Ltd, which also took an equity share in Scratch Bikes’ development company Grand Scheme (which is pursuing the patent for its locking and tracking technology), suggests the cycle revival in Newcastle, and the partnership with Scratch Bikes, offers a viable model for many cities at home and abroad.
Payne and Grisdale are looking at mainland Europe and the US.