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Chris Bruntlett visits Blend Café in Auckland, New Zealand, to see the city’s first urban bike shop.
You’d be forgiven for suggesting that Drew and Sarah Duff-Dobson – the married founders of the brand new Blend Café and Bike Shop in Auckland, New Zealand’s stylish Ponsonby district – are sailing into uncharted territory. After working in the coffee industry for over 20 years, Drew launched Smith Coffee, his own roasting business in early 2013. And while both had been cycling for many years – including road, commuter, and mountain bikes – they didn’t get the idea to combine their two lifelong passions until recent travels through Europe and Japan. There they encountered similar shops in Edinburgh, London, and Tokyo.
But New Zealand’s largest city is a long way from those places. With a dominant sports cycling culture, and an urban bike culture still in its infant stages, it was always going to be a brave undertaking. To further complicate matters, the price of Auckland retail space was skyrocketing, so the pair found a small place at the back of a clothing store, and opened for business this past September. “Not only was Blend the first coffee/ bike shop in the city, it was also the first urban bike shop,” explained Sarah. “We had no idea what demand would be, so the shared space allowed us to enter the market in a desirable area, and begin trading.”
This has presented its own unique challenges. Being located at the rear of a shared space leaves very them with little option for signage, for example. “From the street, we have no visible frontage, and being a start-up, just a tiny marketing budget. For now, we are heavily dependent on word-of-mouth, and the modest media coverage we’ve received. We also have to stay open seven days a week.”
While the support from the local cycling community has been valuable, most importantly, Drew and Sarah have relied heavily on their own social circle to get the business off the ground. “Our friends have been amazing, and we honestly couldn’t have done it with out them. From assisting with setup, media pitches, photo shoots, and even walking our dogs when we’re both busy working.”
It was during that same trip across Europe that the pair discovered the joy of tokyobike, the bike manufacturer that has been spreading from the suburb of Yanaka (in Tokyo, Japan) to cities around the world, with retail outlets in London, Berlin, New York City, Milan, Singapore, Bangkok, Sydney, and Melbourne. “Upon our return, we delved further into the brand, and realized their philosophy was perfectly aligned with ours. We love to explore the city by bike, and really wanted to share that with Aucklanders.” Blend even offers a pair of tokyobikes customers can take for a complimentary spin. Designed to be light to ride and with an emphasis on comfort over speed, these bikes follow an ethos that the journey is as important as the destination. “And the support from tokyobike has been phenomenal. Being new to the industry, they really made us feel part of the family, and continue to assist us, and answer every single one of our questions.”
Blend also offers a curated selection of bike accessories, from companies such as Portland’s Walnut Studiolo, Montreal’s Oopsmark, Stockholm’s Bookman, and London’s Nonusual. “We both spent a lot of time looking at urban cycling websites and Etsy, then contacting the suppliers directly. We chose products we love, hoping that others will too.” These suppliers have also been incredibly supportive, allowing them to order in small quantities while they gauge demand, and recommending items that are popular in other, similar retail environments.
The couple’s next step will be to commerce on their website, so customers across the country can purchase their products. They also plan to showcase their bikes and accessories at the Silo Markets on Auckland’s Waterfront over Christmas, in the hope of promoting casual, urban cycling to the general public. “Long term, we hope to move to a standalone space with a storefront, affording us the room to offer a wider selection of products, and even have a bike mechanic on site.“
For Drew and Sarah, the best part of creating Blend has been sourcing these beautiful, bespoke products – many of which weren’t previously available in New Zealand – and the amazing reaction of customers when they discover them. As Sarah described, “It’s so much more emotional than just selling something. It’s about sharing the joy of riding a bike. Of course, we think every journey should finish with a really good cup of coffee. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”
To view the full collection of photographs taken by the author, please click here.
Chris Bruntlett is the co-founder of Modacity, a multi-service consultancy focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography and film. You can find him on Twitter: @modacitylife.