Jesse Nelson would rather do business on two wheels than four, even if that means he has to pedal a 56-mile loop to make deliveries.
Nelson’s coffee roasting business, Conduit Coffee, offers free bike delivery to select Seattle neighborhoods with a minimum order of two 12-ounce bags per month.
“Bikes are so much faster, especially in this neighborhood,” said 31-year-old Nelson, whose roasting room is tucked away on Westlake Avenue North, flanked by a motorcycle mechanic and a metal shop near the Fremont Bridge.
But Nelson’s choice to bike has little to do with ease or speed. Not all deliveries consist of the minimum two bags; wholesale orders often exceed 100 pounds, all of which Nelson loads up on his 40-pound bike trailer and pedals to his customer.
And when Nelson is too busy, he calls on one of his two-wheeled friends to make the trip in exchange for some coffee or a home-cooked meal.
“For us, it’s not necessarily just about (using) only bicycles. It’s really just (about) not (using) as many cars,” he said. “Just because you have a car doesn’t mean you have to use a car.”
Nelson grew up racing mountain bikes in Boulder, Colorado. He himself doesn’t own a car, for many reasons. His choice to run his business on two wheels, he says, can be summed up by Conduit’s tagline: “Caffeinate the revolution.”
“A lot of what we’re doing is kind of challenging the status quo of how businesses and people interact,” he said. “Community interaction is what’s most important for people.”
On a bike, you notice people and places you might miss in a car, says Nelson.
“You’d be going too fast to notice (in a car). But if you’re on a bike, you can just pull over real quick and stop, and drop off a sample bag (of coffee),” he said. “We’d learn a lot more about our community if we keep our businesses local and interact on a more local level.”
Nelson, whose used to work in public policy, hopes to live up to his shop’s name and become a conduit for the people and the ideas within his community.
“It’s a pathway to bring people from one good thing to another,” he said. “And coffee is my catalyst to start these conversations. It’s just a passion. It’s not really a job; it’s a lot of work, but it’s a passion.”
Coffee isn’t just a catalyst for Nelson, who first began roasting beans at home during his graduate school years. He had just returned from a trip to Guatemala where he had seen coffee evolve, from farm to cup. Nelson has been trying to fine-tune his roasting skills since, burning out several home roasters before upgrading to an industrial-grade machine and launching his business 14 months ago.
And his work has already shown promise. Conduit’s single-origin espresso blend, called Locofocos, ranked second last year in America’s Best Espresso competition. And Roast magazine recently gave that same espresso blend a score of 91 out of 100.
Business is growing fast for Nelson, who roasts all of Conduit’s coffee himself. But he has no plans to stop making free bike deliveries.
“That was always something I was going to do,” he said. “I’m not in this to make millions of dollars.”
Nelson delivers to downtown Seattle and several neighborhoods north, including Fremont, Ballard, Crown Hill, the Shilshole area, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Wallingford, South Lake Union, and the Lake Union waterfront. But he hopes to expand his reach by establishing community drop spots, perhaps at local stores, where he can leave all of the neighborhood’s deliveries for customers to pick up.
“Learning that the community aspect is really the most important thing, and that people are looking for that, is really relieving,” said Nelson. “There is still hope, you know? Just because you can’t compete with Costco doesn’t mean they’re not going to buy your coffee. I’ve met so many cool people, so many business connections.”
A similar approach in the works in South Seattle
In South Seattle, a similar idea is brewing by way of a Kickstarter campaign.
The campaign seeks backers for Tin Umbrella Coffee, a planned coffee roaster and café in Hillman City, an immigrant-rich neighborhood just south of Columbia City.
Owner Joya Iverson, a Hillman City resident herself, knew all too well that the neighborhood lacked a coffee shop—“not even a Starbucks”—within walking distance. But she wasn’t sure such a shop could draw enough foot traffic in the low-walkability area.
“(I thought,) ‘What could we do to bring the coffee to the people if I can’t bring all of Seattle down to the café?”’ she said. “It was a fun problem to think about.”
The answer, she decided, is to bring the coffee to the people, on bicycles. Iverson, a marketing professional, recruited coffee roaster Jeff Miller for the venture.
“It’s fun, it’s green, it’s community-based,” she said. “It’s like Etsy of Amazon Fresh, but with a bike delivery angle.”
Tin Umbrella will offer 12-ounce packages of coffee in reusable metal tins with delivery available in Columbia City and Hillman City, possibly for a small fee.
“If demand is in other areas, we’ll find a way to get there,” Iverson said, adding she is also considering the light rail and buses as additional delivery options.
While Tin Umbrella is casting its net wider than its future storefront at 5600 Rainier Ave. S., Iverson hopes the cafe will help knit a community in the immediate neighborhood. She speaks some Amharic, and has been spreading word about the planned café to her Ethiopian neighbors. She plans to offer an eclectic menu of pastries, including Ethiopian sambusas, to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood.
“The idea is to bring people in to experience something a little bit deeper than a cup of coffee,” she said. “I think there’s some excitement, honestly.”
The Kickstarter campaign runs until Aug. 3. Tin Umbrella’s grand opening is scheduled for July 27.