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Even if you’re not familiar with the concept of a bike store/coffee shop, there’s no mistaking what The Bike Rack and Filter’s location in Monroe Street Market is about. The words announce it as you approach the doors, in all caps:
“BICYCLES + COFFEE”
Closest to Monroe Street NE is Filter, which serves Ceremony coffee and Hawthorne Fine Breakfast Pastry pastries. Directly to the left are helmets, gloves, and rows of bikes sold by The Bike Rack. The spacious repair shop occupies the far left, two-tiered section of the space.
An illustrated “bike plus French press” logo (a riff on a motif at Filter’s other locations) is plastered both outside and inside the shop: bikes and coffee, bikes and coffee, bikes and coffee. It gets stuck in your brain. Pinned to the bulletin board near the Filter entrance, there’s even a drawing of the logo by Ella (age 10).
The Bike Rack’s Chuck Harney and his friend, Filter’s Rasheed Jabr, jointly opened the Brookland store in April 2015. (It was the second District location for The Bike Rack and the third for Filter.) Business was a “a little slower than we anticipated” in the first year, Harney says, in part because a nearby residential development isn’t completed yet. But foot traffic has already picked up in year two, as have the numbers. And the concept?
It’s “great,” he says. “People love it.”
“They come in to get their bikes worked on, they grab a coffee while they’re waiting. Or they come in for coffee and browse the bikes… It’s worked nicely together so far.”
D.C. has been home to the most recognizable retail-food combo—books and coffee—for years in the form of Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, Busboys and Poets, and Politics & Prose, as well as Borders and Barnes & Noble locations that have come and gone. Books and coffee are a classic combination. Bikes and coffee (and Allen wrenches)? On its way there.
District Hardware and Bike, which has been operating in the city for more than 40 years, recently announced that it will open a 6,300-square-foot location in The Wharf development in Southwest, complete with a cafe that will serve Vigilante coffee, lighter food options, and beer and wine.
Stanley Conway opened the shop in Dupont Circle in 1971 (it’s now owned by his son, Neil Conway). Ten years ago, it moved to its current location in West End, where it’s part hardware store (District Hardware) and part bike shop (The Bike Shop). Last month, it told customers in an email that it was changing its name to District Hardware and Bike and promised more changes to come.
One of those shifts is an increased focus on bikes. Over the past several years, it became clear to the Conways that bicycling demand is increasing in D.C., but District Hardware and Bike is limited in how much it can grow that part of its business in its current space.
“We kind of came to the conclusion that this hybrid concept really helps smooth out any peaks and valleys from seasonality,” says minority owner Jarrett Conway.
So District Hardware and Bike began looking for other spaces and, with the help of The Washington DC Economic Partnership, was eventually connected to the development team behind The Wharf. They wanted to keep the hybrid concept, while making the new space “more community focused,” Conway says.
Enter the cafe. District Hardware and Bike looked at similar concepts in Colorado and Seattle, places with thriving bike scenes as well as a strong local-first mentality. “Something we wanted to emulate,” he says. “We’ve seen examples of it being successful.”
But the quality of the coffee is just as important as the quality of the retail offerings. That’s why Conway, who isn’t even a full-time employee of the business, says he visited “every single coffee shop in the area.” He eventually settled on Vigilante after many (many, many) visits to the roastery in Hyattsville. “Not that I mind,” he jokes.
Beyond the coffee, Conway says he also “enjoyed what [Vigilante was] doing at Maketto”—D.C.’s most adventurous cafe-retail-restaurant experiment, located on H Street NE—“because it showed that another hybrid concept could function outside of our throwback hardware/bike store.” District Hardware and Bike also plans to have a “really solid beer program” at its Wharf space, he says, as well as breakfast and lunch options.
Chris Vigilante, owner of the local coffee company that bears his last name, says he and Conway clicked initially over a shared passion for biking. Over time, Conway became a “friend of the shop,” and when Conway approached him about becoming a wholesale partner, Vigilante said “absolutely.”
Unlike The Bike Rack and Filter, which co-lease the Brookland space but maintain separate operations, District Hardware and Bike will run its own cafe at The Wharf. But under the wholesale arrangement, Vigilante will help District Hardware and Bike select and service equipment and train staff. That was one of the selling points, say Conway: Vigilante “seemed to be the ones to offer the most guidance and operational support for us to get set up and be successful.”
Vigilante also has a wholesale agreement with Maketto (the coffee company ran the upstairs cafe for the first five months then turned it over), as well as a number of local cafes including coffee shop-record store Bump ‘n Grind in Silver Spring. Vigilante says his company doesn’t approach other businesses about wholesale, and when they are approached, they vet potential partners thoroughly to make sure there’s a commitment to serving the coffee in a way that doesn’t reflect poorly on Vigilante.
Pairing local retail with a cafe that serves coffee and booze makes sense from a customer service perspective, but there are practical advantages as well. With rising rents and more big-box chains moving into neighborhoods like Navy Yard and NoMa, local retail is being squeezed.
In the process of finding its new space, District Hardware and Bike’s team learned that there are a number of resources for small, local businesses in D.C. The shop has also benefited from the following and name recognition it’s earned over the years.
“But D.C. is still a very high-rent district,” Conway says. “You have this battle: You don’t want to lose that local charm and that small footprint, but at the same time you’ve got rents in a lot of areas that don’t make it very conducive or fiscally sound to have anything but a large chain.”
“It’s a constant battle for us,” he adds. “We look at the rents that we pay now, and it’s quite substantial.”
Will Sharp, who launched his own men’s streetwear brand, Durkl, in 2005, is a co-owner of Maketto and is responsible for the retail component. “We’re in Washington. It’s uniquely, insanely expensive for commercial space for retailers,” he says, “but the foot traffic isn’t there.”
Since Maketto opened last year, Sharp says “from an internal business point-of-view,” it’s been “challenging.” (“Our business has to be very, very tight. But we’ve learned a hell of a lot in the first year, and we’ve gotten it under control.”)
But “externally, it’s been amazing,” Sharp says, adding that Maketto has allowed them to “bring our services and knowledge to people who wouldn’t normally walk into a retail store.”
Sharp points out that retailers across the country are “trying to figure out new ways to bring people through the door.” (Think coffee and beer in Urban Outfitters.) “For us, we have it all built in,” he says.
The success of Maketto’s three-in-one concept can be partially attributed to its design, Sharp says: a light-filled, two-level space with a courtyard that leads to the kitchen and a second-floor catwalk.
District Hardware and Bike’s Wharf space is being designed by Natalie Park, whose firm is behind the interior of Jonah Kim and Mike Isabella‘s Yona.
“We want each of the three spaces to feel distinct yet flow openly from one to the other,” Park says via email. “The café will be centrally located in the space, and during warmer months, cyclists coming off the nearby trail can ride straight in through the café’s garage door, grab a coffee or beer, and get their bikes serviced or pick up something for the house from the hardware store. The challenge will be making the big space feel smaller so that you can easily navigate through the store.”
Park adds that there will be three separate entrances, but no interior walls.
Harney says he would consider opening another Bike Rack location as part of a hybrid concept. (A developer approached Harney about opening a location in Navy Yard, he says, but with finances and staff stretched between two locations, he ultimately decided not to pursue it. The Bike Rack’s Logan Circle landlord plans to expand that space, which will allow the retail-only store to stretch out.)
“Bikes and coffee are awesome,” he says.
At both locations, Harney says community is key. “Both shops have to be an integral part of the community and also have relationships with other businesses,” he says.
Sharp feels the same way about Maketto: It’s a gathering place, somewhere to meet your neighbors, hang out, have a coffee or dinner, and do some shopping.
District Hardware and Bike, too, wants to be “a community destination,” Conway says, where you can “come in on your bike, bring your kid, your dog, be able to walk up and have a good morning—and maybe get some errands done in the process.”
A version of this story appeared in print.