This story was originally published fall 2011 in dandyhorse Vol. 2 Issue 4, the Food issue.
No matter what food you like best, there’s a bicycle designed to deliver it to your door.
by Sarah B. Hood
Stifling, dusty, crowded and composed of an incomprehensible spiderweb of cracked streets and crumbling sidewalks, Cairo is a city where humour and resourcefulness are critical survival tools.
To drive there is to take your chances in a game of daring in which the concept of lanes has no authority and the car with the most dents takes precedence. Amidst this chaos ride the bread deliverymen of Cairo.
On antique iron bicycles, they forge through traffic with an ease that belies their steeds’ condition: spokes bent, forks wobbly, pedal shafts bare and brakes simply missing. The rider pedals confidently, proudly crowned with an immense platter bearing a mound of Egypt’s characteristically soft, yeasty, singed-smelling flatbreads. A doughnut-shaped twist of fabric is the only special tool he uses to keep aloft a precarious load that is often wider than his bike is long. But only the tourists pay him any attention as he performs his two-wheeled circus feat, for the bread bike is no more remarkable in Cairo than a fire hydrant in Toronto.
Egypt is only one of many places where the bicycle has replaced the horse or donkey as the vehicle of choice for fast, fresh food delivery. In Mexico, for instance, an army of hard-to-pedal parasol-topped tricycles with heavy cabinets wobbles along rutted roads to serve as mobile taquerías. But in the rest of North America, bicycle food delivery is relatively rare: the tame and cheerful ice cream cart is the only bike-based food delivery service in common use.
An exception is Montreal, with its family-run dépanneurs (corner stores) that deliver groceries and beer by bike – even in winter. In New York also, with its manic energy and its unquenchable Horatio Alger spirit, bicycle food delivery is alive and well. Manhattan’s food couriers ferry meals within a modest radius around small restaurants. Most Manhattan meal couriers ride beater bikes; the lucky ones use covered boxes or baskets with insulated fabric containers to keep food warm. Many, however, make do with slinging a cluster of plastic bags over the handlebars. Lately, quite a few have been switching to electric bikes, reawakening the always simmering ire of the local citizenry against the entire food delivery industry. Bike delivery riders are vilified for their sidewalk riding, for their disregard for one-way signals, for their speed and for their tendency to appear when least expected (qualities one would, however, value while hungrily awaiting one’s nightly hot-and-sour soup or pastrami on rye).
Whereas most bike delivery is very low-tech, gadget-happy Japan employs a unique contraption to avoid spilling broth from the back of delivery bikes and scooters. Wired magazine admiringly called the demaeki, which somewhat resembles a porch swing suspended by springs on an articulated arm, an elegant and simple hack. As the bike tips and turns, the demaeki compensates for every motion. One popular online video demonstrates that it even prevents spillage on a roller coaster!
Deliveryman with his tiffins
Each “tiffin” (lunch box) passes through many hands, beginning with the man who picks it up at the home in his uniform of spotless white shirt and smart peaked cap. He’ll secure numerous tiffins to the sturdy back rack of a heavy bicycle with full fenders, upright handlebars and one or more bells, before threading through treacherous Mumbai traffic with a stately gravitas and a gentle sway to the train station, where he’ll leave his bike to be used by a returning colleague.
The tiffins are biked from the train to the appropriate office and empties are returned in the same manner. About 175,000 tiffin encased meals are directed by a simple coding system to the correct recipients daily – and it has to be flawless. It’s no joke to deliver pork to a Muslim or beef to a Hindu.
The lucky office worker receives a cylindrical aluminum tower of three or four nested containers held together with a simple clamp. As the still-warm dishes are unpacked to release aromas of cumin or garlic, they will likely reveal flatbreads neatly folded into quarters and tucked in, some sort of vegetable curry, rice, with perhaps a dollop of yogurt raita or lime pickle on the side, a lentil soup, a little salad and a sweet. Since they were packed, the foods will have released their steam into the sealed dishes, moistening the bread and allowing the spice mixtures to mellow and blend appetizingly.
Canada and the U.S. have nothing like the dabbawallas, but a new generation of ethical bicycle food delivery businesses is emerging here. In Richmond, Virginia, Quickness RVA delivers 200 restaurant orders weekly by bike. San Diego’s Manivela Delivery sees sustainability as part of its work. Portland has SoupCycle and Portland Pedal Power. Then there are Edible Pedal (Sacramento), Fast Food Couriers (Vancouver), C.S. Courier (Columbus), Hot Spokes Delivery Company (Detroit) and Cycle Bird courier (Montreal).
Eugene Choi and the Sweet Lulu Delivery bike
San Francisco has two bike-based delivery businesses: TCB Courier and Shorty’s.
Shorty’s founder Andrea Frost delivers restaurant meals on a Schwinn Voyager touring bike with a front rack. “I want to deal with restaurants that are environmentally friendly,” she says. Along with the interest in fresh produce markets have come businesses that use heavy-duty trailers to transport market produce and related items like compost. In Winnipeg, the Landless Farmers Collective uses bikes for all its produce deliveries to support “urban food distribution without fossil fuels.” Similar businesses are Ann Arbor’s Arbor Cycle, Harvestcycle of Sarasota, Florida, VeloVeggies in Minnesota and New York’s Earth to Kitchen.
So far, Toronto has only seen faint stirrings along these lines, like fair trade chocolatiers ChocoSol and Sweet Lulu's Asian-inspired “fast food.” Recently, a solid Dutch single-speed work cycle with coaster brakes and a big bucket/basket has appeared outside Caplansky's Deli to ferry charcuterie to neighbourhood customers.
“I was in New York and I saw a liquor store that had a bike out front and I thought it looked so cool. I thought ‘We could do it here!’” says proprietor Zane Caplansky. So far, the deli bike only gets one or two outings a day, “but it’s growing as people realize that we actually do this.”
In the spirit of the dabbawallas, Seema Pabari, owner of Tiffinday in Toronto, delivers vegan Indian cuisine in tiffins and is working on converting an electric flatbed trike for deliveries downtown.
Toronto and the rest of North America still has a long way to go before bicycle-based food delivery becomes commonplace, but perhaps that just means there’s room for growth. “Delivering food on a bicycle is the fastest way to get food to you hot, a lot faster than cars and also very environmentally friendly,” says Frost. “It would be awesome if everyone did it.”
Certainly the time is ripe for entrepreneurial types to set the wheels of new enterprise in motion. After all, says Caplansky, “I’m told that Honest Ed Mirvish started his career doing milk deliveries on a bicycle... so who knows?”
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