Kieran Howells talks to Jenni Gwiazdowski about the past, present and future of the London Bike Kitchen

Catching up with Jenni Gwiazdowski of the London Bike Kitchen

In the latest edition of Bike Biz Magazine, we caught up with Jenni Gwiazdowski of the London Bike Kitchen for our Dealer Profile segement. Below you can find an extended version of our interview about the past, present and future of the iconic shop.

Could you run us through the concept of the shop?

We’re a do-it-yourself bike workshop, where people can come in and use the tools whenever they want, we’re open four days a week to the public and people can hire the work stands, they pay £12 an hour at the moment, that rate gets people the work stands, the tool hires, we’ve got a Rozone Smartwasher as well that people can use, and greasing materials. We sell all the common parts and accessories, we have about 12 open trade accounts, and if we don’t have something we can order it in for you.

How did the concept come about?

There’s other ‘bike kitchens’ in the states, they’re quite popular in California where I’m from. I’d never heard of them, and in 2009 I bought a frame that I wanted to build up. I had no idea how, and I thought the must be a class somewhere where I can learn to build it, and there wasn’t.

The frame just sat in my room. People offered to fix it up for me, but I wanted to learn and do it myself. I work well in a classroom environment and I wanted that. I got a new flatmate from California and she asked if I’d heard of bike kitchens. I looked them up and I was like this is amazing! They’re mostly volunteer run spaces, and in the states they’re huge, they have loads of second hand parts and people can just work on their own and tinker.

So I was like, I need to start this in London. I knew nothing about bikes and I was working doing PR for an environmental charity and I just started working on the idea. I think everything just came together at the right time. One year later we opened in March of 2012, so it’s been exactly 4 years.

How were those first 12 months?

Really difficult. It was kind of just me most of the time for that first year and people were confused by the concept. We were only open on weekends because I still had my day job, and so I worked all week and then worked here at the weekends. That’s when it really started to pick up momentum. The year before I was doing lots of online stuff, lots of social media promotion and I think that really paid off, it kept increasing. My first newsletter went out to 40 people, now we have 2600 people on the mailing list.

In those four years, the bike scene in London has massively taken off especially with the Olympics in that time, do you feel like that has really propelled the idea?

Yeah sure well we’re located in hackney, which is the most ‘cycling-est’ borough in England, so it was very much the right place at the right time. They sought us out, they googled bicycle repair classes and we were one of the first things that came up.

It’s four years later now, so what’s changed, what challenges have you faced and overcome?

We’re almost doing things every single day of the week. On Monday nights we’ve either got worker meetings or our WAG nights every second and fourth Monday of the month. And that’s kind of seen as a stepping-stone for people who aren’t generally encouraged to pick up tools, and get used to this kind of workshop environment. This environment is pretty scary and fascinating, because this is not an office, it’s a workshop. It’s kind of welcoming people like behind the curtain and they’re shocked when we pick up the hammer and say you’re going to fix your bike with this!

The women and gender variant nights, what do they entail, is it just a lesson or is there talks involved?

It varies completely night to night. It started out just being lessons, and what we discovered is that it’s a very social thing. People want to hang out and talk. It often revolves around bikes or cycling . We’ll talk about culture, so we’ve talked about street harassment in cycling, we’ve talked about cycling history, we’ve had two talks now by doctor Sheila Hanlin who focuses on the history of women in cycling.

That lead to last year, one of the WAG volunteers Monica who works at Pearson’s cycles had this idea, why don’t we put on a festival? I was like yeah why don’t we? And so WAG fest was born. We tried to do too much that first year. We’d just gotten a load of women who are very big in the cycling industry, we had 4 different panel discussions and we ended with a talk by Emily chapel.

It was really well received so we did it again last summer, and again in November. We’re planning on doing more, this year we’re going to take a group of people track riding for the first time, so it’s really just trying to encourage woman and gender variant people, saying ‘you can do this!’ Its really about giving people confidence.

So where do you see the shop heading in the next 12 months?

Hopefully we’ll get the second workshop because we want to do repairs for people. So one space will remain just the drop in workshop, and the second space will be for all the repairs in the back, but also a classroom. The most popular class at the moment is the BYOB class, and because we have this one room, which is 6 meters by 4 meters, and it’s rammed in here!

And so we’re trying to teach this one person how to completely take apart their bike and put it back together and then there’s all these people coming in and it’s unfair on the student. So what we want to do is create a second classroom so that student is going to get a way better experience.

I also definitely want to do more workshops for the local kids, so many kids come here to use the tools a lot and we want to help them, we teach them, but we’d really like to do classes for them. So that’s actually something you can buy as a package on the crowd-funding page.

So why is the shop here, why this area?

This road out here was actually my commute to work, I used to work right next to old street, in Hoxton. Every day I’d cycle down here and this parade of shops was almost completely empty. And then I was looking for a space for this idea, I had searched on the land registry to find out who owns this building, they didn’t want to be found so I asked one of the other shop owners if he knew. He helped us out and so we got in touch with the landlord and they liked the idea so much, they gave us the first years rent for free.

Then the building got sold to a property developer. We were going to get evicted! And then Russell Brand got involved. Residents’ rents were going to go up by 400%, they were going to build on top of the roofs of these buildings, and knock some down, and Russell Brand saved the day with Hackney council. It worked, and then it was bought by a housing association.

So if people are interested in membership, what do they get for that?

It’s a yearly membership service, it gives you 10% off of everything we offer, off time in the shop, off tool rental and lessons, accessories and you get a membership card. Sometimes when we do events we give away little perks too like a free beer eetc.

You guys do your own range of products, what do you do and are you planning on expanding that range?

We do t-shirts, we have these cool jerseys with Sheldon Brown in the pocket, and we do our own bicycle caps and tool burritos with and without tools. For the crowd funder we’re doing some cool stuff too. I like this stuff but it’s not our focus. I mean its good to have. Everyone loves a cycling hat! We’re designing new ones at the moment, which looks really cool. I kind of hate branding but it’s totally our identity.

Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?

We just want more people to ride bicycles. As a bike shop we are ambassadors of that world. We need to be accessible, we have a lot of power and we shouldn’t abuse that! You want more people to come back? Be nice! It’s not hard to be nice. Also, hire more women! They totally change the environment and I really think that’s a good thing. We have the chance to get more butts on bikes!

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