Order a Cup of Coffee and a Bike to Go at Heritage Bicycles General Store

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Michael Salvatore, owner of Heritage Bikes. Credit: Patty Wetli

The danger of walking into Heritage Bicycles General Store, 2959 N. Lincoln Ave., to order a cup of coffee is that you’ll walk out with a $700 handmade custom-built bike. Which, come to think of it, might be exactly what owner Michael Salvatore has in mind.

He doesn’t look like an evil genius but Salvatore, a gregarious Rogers Park native, does admit to being a “freak entrepreneur.” The unusual combination of a bike shop where you can also grab a latte and scone while you wait on a tune-up, or vice versa, made a crazy kind of sense to him. “Both those demographics are so geeked out by what they love,” he says. “Those go together–cyclists and coffee drinkers.”

At Heritage, Salvatore has created an altogether original business model: bicycle assembly as theater. The shop’s work space, situated in the rear of the store, is completely open to the front of the house. Instead of staring into their laptops, customers can kick back in the sun-drenched cafe, sip a cup of Stumptown Coffee and nibble on pastries from Southport Grocery while watching mechanics adjust saddles and brakes or put wheels to frame.

Salvatore became a fan of cycling in college as he pedaled around the University of Arizona’s Tucson campus. “It seems weird to me that people will hop in a car to drive three blocks to the grocery store,” he says.

For the past five years, he lived in bike-friendly New York City where, in 2008, he became a partner in Bowery Lane Bikes, which quickly built a following for its handmade, vintage-inspired cruisers. Salvatore almost immediately thought of bringing the Bowery concept to Chicago. “I bought the [Heritage] URL two years ago,” he says. When son Bennett was born in 2011, the timing was right for the young family, which includes wife Melissa, to head west. “I’m glad to be back.”

The Heritage brand, while separate from Bowery Lane, shares in its DNA an appeal to everyday riders, not performance nuts. “Bike culture tends to be exclusive,” says Salvatore, and also intimidating. Those Lance Armstrong wannabes who treat the Lakefront Bike Path like the Tour de France? “That’s the exact opposite of what we want,” he says. Rather, the ideal Heritage customer is what Salvatore terms an “advocacy cyclist,” someone who’s consciously chosen cycling as their mode of transportation.

“I ride my Bowery Lane bike,” says Salvatore. “I am so impressed at Lincoln Avenue and how many people bike.”

Buying a cycle from Heritage is as much an economic as environmental statement. As many parts as possible are manufactured in the U.S., the frames are welded by a fabricator in Uptown, painted on the South Side and assembled at the Lakeview storefront. Mention another famous Chicago bike manufacturer, Schwinn, and Salvatore laughs off the comparison. “I make 10 bikes at a time,” he says. “My margin’s not that great, but I want people on bikes.”

Heritage builds custom bikes for everyday cyclists. Credit: Patty Wetli

It doesn’t hurt that Heritage cycles–the flagship model is the “Daisy”–look so damned cool in a retro-chic, Ralph Lauren-ad kind of way. (I wasn’t kidding when I told Salvatore, “I want to wear that bike.”) Customers can choose from a variety of options: number of speeds, frame size, kickstand, type of brake, style of saddle and more. Standard handlebars are cork “for sustainability” and colors are brown or white or “you can customize the hell out of your bike with our mechanics,” says Salvatore. Depending on how far an order strays from the basic model, bikes can be assembled in as little as a day or take as long as a couple of weeks, the latter typically for a more unusual choice of paint color.

Two full-time mechanics will be assisted by teen apprentices from West Town Bikes, which provides youth with training and real-world work experience. “This space is more community-based than anything,” Salvatore says. A communal table–purchased from the ReBuilding Exchange, like most of the shop’s furnishings and fixtures–is intended to encourage meetings by advocacy groups. On Sundays, Salvatore will set aside space for Winter Session, which produces handmade goods, to display their wares.

A sense of being surrounded by like-minded individuals is what drew Salvatore to the Lakeview location, though he did take some ribbing from his family, still firmly entrenched in Rogers Park. (“My brother lives in a house our great-grandfather built.”) “I looked in Lincoln Park and around Southport,” he says. “I wanted something a little more raw, a little more colorful and off the grid. I fell in love with this space. Everything was exactly how I pictured it.”

Though Heritage softly opened this week, the official grand opening is slated for Saturday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. Drinks and appetizers will be served and you’re all invited. Remember, you’ve been warned about that $700 cup of coffee.

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