by Suzanne Cope
Forget the jingle of the ice cream truck—this summer Bostonians can be straining their ears for the whirr of the coffee trike, coming to neighborhoods around the city.
Equal Exchange, importer and roaster of the first fair-trade coffee beans in the United States, will have two pedal-powered coffee carts on the roads of Boston. This effort was spearheaded by Meghan Hubbs, café developer at Equal Exchange, who worked with Wenzday Jane and Erik Petterssen, co-founders of Somerville-based Metro Pedal Power to design and build two carts—known as trikes—with mobile brewing capabilities.
Equal Exchange, based in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, sells fair-trade coffee, tea, chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, sugar and bananas primarily via wholesale to retail storefronts around the country. In 2006, however, a retail partner in Seattle helped Equal Exchange create their first bricks-and-mortar retail venture by offering them a small space for a coffee shop. Hubbs went to the West Coast to help with the marketing campaign of that first Equal Exchange café.
“That learning curve was long and painful,” she notes, but adds that the experience in Seattle gave her the confidence to look for a larger space in their hometown of Boston. In December 2008, the Equal Exchange Café opened near north Station—a bright, high-ceilinged space offering brewed coffee and tea, Equal Exchange products and baked goods from numerous bakeries around the Boston area. The goal of the retail cafés has been to connect with customers to reinforce the company’s mission to support fair trade and local business.
Not long after the opening of the Boston café, hubs came up with the “dream idea,” as she called it, to become even more engaged with the community. Inspired by the coffee culture in Central and South America, Hubbs began looking into a mobile coffee cart for the Boston area. In keeping with Equal Exchange’s business philosophy she wanted to work locally, and sought out Metro Pedal Power, whose mission is to provide eco-friendly delivery options for urban areas. Working with Jane and Petterssen, the three began brainstorming in spring of 2010 to create an initial design for the tricycle.
“It was a great dialog,” Jane says. “In order to make sure we understood her needs for the mobile café, we each did research and reconvened three times before we decided on a direction and went for it.” Hubbs expressed the same considerations that went into the layout of the café, “only this time we had to assume a single employee with a much smaller work space.”
The three worked collaboratively to address every possible question, from where people line up or pour their milk to how to make the trike as compact and lightweight as possible. “It was like putting together a tetris puzzle,” Hubbs says. The engineering design was finalized in May 2010 and the first of the two mobile coffee trikes made their debut in August. The graphics on the trikes were created by goodgood, a small, local design company whose mission is to “promote positive change in the realms of economy, equity and ecology.”
The final version of the cart features a cooler and water jugs that are stored out of sight beneath the body of the trike. When the trike is parked, the barista hooks the water to the pump, which flows to the brewer. The water pump and brewer are powered with electricity via an extension cord when possible and use a battery when on the road. Hubbs recognizes that the battery is heavy and says, “We are looking into affordable new technologies and research, including lithium ion batteries, pedal, wind and solar power, which could help us brew more, be lighter and lessen our environmental impact.”
There has been one trike stationed at the MGH red line t stop in Beacon Hill since January, but it will be hitting the road in May. Starting this summer, the mobile coffee carts will offer regular and decaf coffee, iced coffee, tea and other Equal Exchange products. Everything on the trike is eco-friendly—even the cups and lids are fully compostable. Customers who bring their own mug receive a discount.
Aliza Gordon, the Equal Exchange barista who works the trike, has been training with Metro Pedal Power by riding along on some local deliveries. “I’m really excited to ride,” she says, “and to do what the trike was designed for.”
Jane is also enthusiastic to see the trikes on the road. “It has been great working with Equal Exchange,” she says. “We have been pioneering the pedal power transportation system in Boston and it is exciting to see another company taking on this kind of project. Part of our work is to get out there and demonstrate that pedal power vehicles can do more than weekend rides on the bike path. Having these trikes on the road is an inspiration for us to keep going.”
This summer, Gordon will pick up her trike at Equal Exchange’s South Boston warehouse and ride it to the current Mgh location to greet her regulars at 7am. Equal Exchange has secured a permit to park at the greenway for the afternoon alongside other food vendors and is looking into additional potential stops. “The great thing about the mobile trike,” says Hubbs, “is that if the location isn’t working we can just move.” She explains that it usually takes about two to three weeks to determine if they have hit upon a winning spot. Hubbs hopes to use the trikes as low-risk pilot projects, adding, “If we find a successful spot we can look into a permanent location.” getting the trikes on the road, however, wasn’t always an easy ride. Hubbs had to navigate the city’s regulations and permits, which were set up for food trucks rather than beverage-only people-powered carts like theirs.
Getting the word out is another challenge. Hubbs plans to use social networking to inform customers of the trikes’ whereabouts, basing her strategy on the food truck culture in New York City, Austin and Los Angeles—as well as the burgeoning scene here in Boston. “We have to rely on social networking,” Hubbs said, “People have their coffee routine deeply ingrained and if you want them to change it, you have to be where you say you are going to be and when.”
Still, Hubbs hopes to persuade many to change their ways to support the fair-trade, farmer-focused mission of Equal Exchange. And while coffee is not, technically, local, Hubbs wants to reach out to area locavores as well. She says, “People need to look inside themselves and ask: ‘What do you like about local?’ If local means knowing where your food comes from and having a direct relationship with the producers, then Equal Exchange coffee and products are local.”
Gordon has succeeded in fostering a following at the MGH redline location and has been able to engage them in conversation about Equal Exchange’s mission as well. “I’ve gotten into some really great conversations about fair trade,” she says, “but to most people that is just a bonus. What it comes down to is that they really like the coffee.” Gordon says she’s looking forward to bringing Equal Exchange’s message to even more customers around the city. She will continue at MGH redline stop Monday through Friday starting at 7am and will move to the greenway around noon, with other potential stops to be announced. Metro Pedal Power is putting the finishing touches on the second trike, which will also be making its way around the city at locations yet to be determined.
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Suzanne Cope teaches writing at Berklee College of Music and Grub Street. She has written about food, family, travel and pop culture for various publications and is working on the book Locavore in the City: Upside-down Gardening, Cheese-Making, Fermenting, Foraging and Other Delicious Local Pursuits, to be published in 2012. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her adventures at www.locavoreinthecity.com and www.twitter.com/locavoreincity.