Kinfolk - City Guide:Chicago

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A passion for bikes and coffee led Mike Salvatore and his wife Melissa to open up this dual-purpose, community-oriented shop in Chicago. We asked him a few questions about how it all happened.

Where did your passion for and knowledge of bikes come from?
My passion for bikes came unexpectedly while I was living in New York City. I mean, I was always intobikes growing up and throughout college, but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I found myself immersed in all things bikes. A couple buddies of mine were starting to build bikes from our NYC co-op basement and I just loved what they were doing. I kept offering my help and services in any capacity I could, and a few months later they asked if I would join their start-up. Five years and more than 700 bikes (sold) later, I am knee-deep in bikes. As for my knowledge of bikes, I look around at all the talented people in the bike industry and at my staff and I realize I don’t know anything! I guess I’m still learning and every round of bikes we make becomes better and better.

Was the dual concept for Heritage Bicycles and the General Store always conceived that way?
The coffee/bikes was intentional from the beginning. The time spent in NYC influenced what Heritage would become. We couldn’t afford retail space there so we had to do any markets, festivals and shows we could. After setting up in this type of environment—where food and drink are everywhere—a lightbulb turned on in my head. People love eating and drinking, pair that with a product and service, and it will create a really nice retail experience. Other factors for the dual concept were sales and exposure. I knew that having a bike shop in Chicago would be affected by winter. What better solution than to have a product that people want year-round? And with more people coming through the door on a day-to-day basis, the exposure would be far more than your typical bike shop. It almost works as a commercial playing nonstop for your exact target demographic, and as soon as they need a bike or bike repair, I hope Heritage is the place that comes to mind.

Heritage has been warmly welcomed by Chicagoans. Did you see this success from the start?
We saw the success from the start but we never anticipated it! It was amazing to see the reaction and write-ups about a place no one knew about or knew the owners. We received some great awards within a few months of opening and I just kept thinking to myself, “Have these people ever been here? How do they know who we are?” The city, our neighbors, or friends and family, have been nothing short of amazing and have helped support it from the ground up. It gave us the foundation to build upon on a national level. When we started, I was hoping year three would be our breakout year and maybe people would start giving us a chance, but here we are, just starting year three, and we’ve opened up Heritage Littles/A Little Photo Studio, we’re opening up a Heritage Outpost in July, we’re working on a new space for 2015—and that’s only on the coffee side. We’ve developed four bike models that we put in production and we are also starting a wholesale program with retailers across the country so we can get Heritage Bicycles in every state.

Since your arrival, what changes have you seen in the Chicago bike culture?
The bike culture here has been on a great trajectory since Mayor Daley, which has continued under Rahm Emanuel. We arrived to a great cycling city that was becoming even better, with 150 miles of new bike lanes and the addition of Divvy, the bike-share program. It’s pretty obvious something special is going on here with the bike culture and everyone wants to get involved.

Who are your customers? Do you have many out-of-town visitors?
We have daily customers, neighborhood folk who come in every day for a cup to go or just to camp out. We’ve also become a destination for out-of-towners. We will have people in here from all over the world who have heard about us through who-knows-where, who are surprised to see that it’s what they have heard, that the owners work there, that the staff is super-friendly, that bikes are beautiful and the coffee is delicious.

What is your favorite thing about this unique space?
I love the windows. The sunbeams that come in here throughout the day create the character for the shop and it never gets old.

Why have you chosen to focus on American-made goods?
Quality, accessibility and relationships all played a role, but we started this concept in the middle of a bad recession and I wanted to put my money where it would matter. I wanted to know the makers; I wanted to see the craftsmanship; and I wanted to invest in the people I knew and I hoped that people would invest in us.

What is the most popular bike service? The most popular food item?
Flat fix and coffee. In and out with a coffee while you wait? Can’t really beat that! Donuts on weekends from Glazed and Infused…so decadent, so delicious.

You specialize in custom-made bicycles. What’s the most interesting custom design you’ve built?
That’s hard to answer. I really love turning customers ideas into reality. Every week we have someone come in and push us beyond what we’ve done before and that is super-fun. To learn something new, to have a personal relationship with these people and then see what bike they come up with, it is all very intimate.

Do you ride a Heritage bicycle? If so, which one?
That’s a funny story. I do ride a Heritage bike…if I ever get to keep one. What happens is, I make myself a bike, plan it out, design it the way I want it and someone will buy it before I get a chance to own it. I will ride it around a few times and a couple weeks later someone will make me an offer on it. I can’t say no to that. I’m working on a new bike for myself right now, this one will have some cool components on it, maybe test out an electric hub…hopefully I can hold onto it for the summer.

Heritage seems to pride itself on creating and providing a community space. What’s the secret to building one?
Listening to the community. Get out there, be involved, be social, add value to the neighborhood


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