, made up of over 550 bicycle carts and quasi-employees, is quietly becoming one of the world’s fastest growing café chains. With mobile locations in 65 countries — more than Starbucks — it’s pushing against the notion that a café needs to stay in one place.
“Inspired by Airbnb and Uber’s new way of doing business, we wanted to find a way of bypassing the old laws of the industry by not buying physical space,” Wheelys co-founder and CEO Maria De La Croix tells Business Insider.
Anyone can start their own Wheelys café and buy a bike cart, which is tricked out with a sink, storage, a register, an umbrella, espresso machines, and juicers. All that gear allows cart owners to serve coffee, chocolates, and pastries rain or shine.
The carts have a lot of moving parts. If a customer orders a coffee, the bike’s owner lifts a module’s compartment and slides out a platform for a row of pour over brewers.
Wheelys, which launched in Stockholm in 2014, has only 10 employees at its offices in Stockholm, the US, and China. But people all over the world have bought its bikes.
In 2015, Wheelys was backed by Y-Combinator, an incubator for emerging tech companies. And in August, it raised over $940,000 on the Swedish crowdfunding platform FundedByMe.
Since the chain launched, it has doubled its number of locations every six months, and De La Croix says it plans to continue to keep expanding at that pace.
This month, it opened a new assembly plant, where the team makes the bikes. The latest rendition of the solar-powered bike includes seven retractable modules, so owners can transform their café into a juice bar, ice cream shop, or place for crepes whenever they choose.
Wheelys’ ultimate goal is to challenge legacy coffee shops and cafés, like Starbucks.
There are approximately 12,000 Starbucks in the US, and in many large cities like New York and Los Angeles, it feels like there’s one on every corner. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for new independent cafés to compete, De La Croix says. Depending on location, a startup café’s monthly rent costs can be a couple hundred thousand dollars or more.
A Wheelys bike, on the other hand, starts at a flat fee of $7,000 without the monthly rent. Add-on modules, which can make items like juices or crepes, cost an additional $450 to $3,000. The bikes’ owners need to purchase the items from Wheelys and the chain sets the prices (which De La Croix says are “a bit higher than mid-range”), but the owners keep all of their profits. Over half the products are organic or fair-trade.
De La Croix says her company’s main advantage over traditional cafes is in the bike’s portability. The employees manning the bikes can pedal where the customers are, rather than sitting in one location.
“For instance, the train station might be the perfect place to sell coffee during rush hour in the morning, but not during lunch time,” she says.
Going forward, Wheelys hopes to empower young people to start up cafés even if they don’t have the funds to launch a physical space.
“We’re enabling passionate people to operate their own cafés on unused grounds,” De La Croix says.
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