I first stopped by Heritage Bicycles last fall onPark(ing) Day; the store wasn’t yet open but owner Michael Salvatore had set up a bench, several plants, and a couple of the bikes the store would be selling on AstroTurf outside. Salvatore showed me the inside of the Lakeview shop, which was still a work in progress: the bike repair room, the spot where the coffee bar would be, and the long table for customers to sit and sip their beverages.
The store will finally open to the public on Saturday, several months after Salvatore's original goal date. The licensing took a lot longer than expected, he says. I went by again this week to see the (mostly) finished space, which looks a lot more life a cafe than a bike shop when you first walk in. In fact, it's both: there's a brief drink menu that includes Stumptown coffee, pastries from Southport Grocery & Cafe, and sandwiches made in-house. The bike repair and assembly room is tucked away in the back, as is the small selection of bike gear.
But appearances notwithstanding, the focus here is on the bikes. They’re Dutch-inspired, built for comfort and style, and made in Chicago. The frames are welded by a guy in Humboldt Park, they’re painted on the south side, and then the bikes are assembled in the shop. Not every part of the bike is locally sourced, Salvatore says, because no one in Chicago is making chains and spokes. Still, he tries to be as local as possible. He's also planning to bring in youth who’ve gone through the bike repair programs at West Town Bikes for further hands-on training.
If this all sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, it’s worked for him in New York. Heritage Bicycles is a sister company to Bowery Lane Bicycles, which Salvatore founded with two friends in 2008. They were living together in a co-op when his friend Patrick took a trip to Amsterdam and returned with a love of Dutch bikes. So they started designing bikes, having them built, and selling them. “It was very organic, how it started,” Salvatore says. “We sort of boot-strapped it. We started with $10,000, and grew it little by little, and we’re still doing it.”
Because rent is so high in New York they don’t have a storefront, opting instead for what Salvatore describes as a “mini showroom,” open by appointment only. They also have bikes in boutiques and bigger stores like Brooklyn Industries and Anthropologie, where they function both as decoration and advertisement for Bowery Lane. “We avoid bike shops because a lot of times the bike culture is very intimidating,” Salvatore says. “The people we want on bikes are the people who don’t already have bikes.”
They started slow, but have been more or less doubling their production and sales each year. Last year they made 800 bikes and still weren’t able to fill all their orders. Salvatore doesn’t expect anything like that with Heritage, though, at least not right away. He says he’s hoping to sell 50 bikes this year.
Running Bowery Lane Bicycles has been Salvatore’s full-time job since 2010—and he’s continuing to run it, along with Heritage—but he decided to leave New York after he and his wife had a baby last year. “When you have a kid, you want to get the hell out of New York. I’m a fifth generation Chicago kid—city of Chicago. My roots are here. My heritage is here. That’s why we called it Heritage Bicycles.”
It's not Salvatore's first Chicago-based venture, though: while living here in 2006 he started a website called AudioSnacks that offered audio tours of countries all over the world, created by users of the site. It was featured in the Reader in 2007 in a piece that concludes with Salvatore saying that he can't think about the possibility of failure, since he quit his job as an options trader to pursue the endeavor. Reminded of this, he laughs. Six months after that article was published, he says, the technology started changing too fast for him to keep up and he had to give up on the business. The website still exists, but he stopped updating it ages ago.
Salvatore says he's learned from the experience, though. "I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel anymore. I’m just trying to do basic stuff. None of my bikes are performance bikes. They’re not breaking any records. I just want to make a bike that’s for everyday use."
There’s just one bike in the Heritage line so far, a mixte called Daisy (after the cow that supposedly started the Chicago fire), but the store will also carry a couple bikes from the Bowery Lane line. Over time, Salvatore hopes to expand, the way he did with Bowery Lane. And if not, he'll survive. "I’ve had a lot of failures in life, trust me. A lot. I’m okay with that."