When I imagine John Hanna-Barton pedaling Shift Bicycle Café to the corner of West First and Warner streets in Chico in the pre-dawn dark, I see a ghost ship. Maybe it’s the mahogany box, dark, smooth, and shiny like a ship’s deck, that holds the café’s contents. Maybe it’s the way the 1500-pound café looms out of the darkness, without rocking, like a spectral ship on a sea of glass. It takes a while to set up, no ghost ship this, but soon John’s bicyclepowered coffee café is ready to soothe the caffeine cravings of Chico State students on that corner, Mondays through Fridays, 7am to 2pm.
How did John end up pedaling this box he opens to brew and serve espresso? It’s complicated. There are references to former jobs both pulling coffee and repairing bikes, to Velominati and The Rules, to Eddie Merckx, the Tour de France, and Faema, the Italian company that makes espresso machines and that sponsored Merckx during his racing career.
John will suggest you Google them. He’ll scroll you through before-and-after photos that show disassembled parts from the 1963 Faema espresso machine he bought on eBay, parts he then spent six months degreasing, descaling, refurbishing, such had been the effects of the machine’s fifty years of service. He’s got a story about a fellow on eBay in Albania who sold him parts for the Faema. He’ll narrate two and half, three years’ total preparation, dependent on money flow, engineering and re-engineering the bike, which is built in the style of a Dutch cargo bike to pivot on the front axle so the whole cargo box turns. (“You can take a sharp corner,” says John. “You just can’t take it fast.”) He also wants to show “you can run a business car-free.”
They’re fun stories. In a way, they boil down to the short version of how he came to sell espresso from a bike café: “it’s the social aspect.”
To grease the sociability, of course there’s coffee. John sources his from Northbound Coffee Roasters in Mount Shasta. All the coffee beans are fair trade, organic. “It’s really good coffee,” John says, “and the consistency of [owner] Keith’s roasts is stellar.” He continues, “I want to support that kind of local craftsman.” And the support is mutual: once when Keith forgot a Shift Bicycle Café shipment on the UPS dock, he drove it down to Chico the same day. “They make me look good,” concludes John.
This November will mark Shift Bicycle Café’s second anniversary on the streets of Chico, looking good. Most have heard of it by word of mouth. “If you’re walking up to my cart,” asked John, “what kind of experience are you going to have? I want you to walk away with a smile,” not just about the coffee but about the interaction. He offers espresso, cappuccino, latte, Americano, cold brew, chai and dirty chai, tea, hot chocolate, café de olla. At the cart, he’s a barista, a cyclist, sometimes a bartender. “I get to listen,” he says. People leave with a coffee and a smile. And they come back.
Find Shift Bicycle Coffee in Chico Monday through Friday, 7am to 2pm, at the corner of West First and Warner streets, and Sat, 7am to 2 pm, at the corner 2nd and Wall.