Recently in Manchester, cheeks puffed out and bikes dismounted as the annual, week-long cycle race, the Tour of Britain drew to a close. Some two-hundred miles away in East London, cyclists were congregating at a place that’s proven just as synonymous with the cycling community. It wasn’t a finish line. It was a cafe.
Just shy of its ten-year anniversary, Look Mum No Hands! founder Matthew Harper reveals the origin story of setting up a cycle-cafe that was born from the shared aspirations of three friends uninspired by their jobs, looking to create something worthwhile. Today it’s perhaps the city’s most popular cycling hub and attracts cyclists from all over the world passing through London. But you don’t have to ride a bike to get a coffee there…
Adjusting their saddle
For Matt, first came an accidental career in finance. “I’d been trying to find something else to do anyway but then I got made redundant and that was the catalyst for me to act on a conversation I’d been having with my very old friend, Lewin”. A friend who was also looking for something slightly different and had experience working in cafes and restaurants that would prove essential. “Basically, we wanted to combine our passion for bicycles and cafes”. A third guy was introduced. Sam was someone they knew from the London bike racing circuit and was a mechanic in the city who was sick of working in other people’s workshops. “The three of us decided we’d take all the things we loved and tried to squeeze it into one interesting space”.
And so in April 2010, a nameless cycle-cafe was launched among the bustle of Old Street. Matt had taken care of property hunting, planning and licensing while Lewin and Sam took care of the rest.
Creating an Identity and an appeal
Three people had brought a concept to life but desperately required an identity. “We didn’t want to do what other cycle brands and bike shops were doing — the guys in there could be quite patronising if you didn’t know about bikes. We wanted to be about cycling as a whole. We were as much about a fifty-year-old on a shopping bike as we were about a mountain biker or a track cyclist or a road-racer”.
Still, why would three cyclist enthusiasts not focus their attention predominantly on that two-wheeled community? “I think we knew from the start that we were going to be screwed if we were only relying entirely on cyclists. We knew we had to appeal to everybody living around the area, regardless of whether or not they were a cyclist. Get the balance right and not be too intimidating.”
When it came to naming the company, lots of initial names were dismissed because they always seemed to be oiling the chains of something more conceited and elitist. One late-night discussion eventually led to Sam suggesting Look Mum No Hands! — “I think we all regretted it immediately and thought it was a stupid name that everyone was going to laugh at”, Matt explains.
From Bikes to Brand
A number of agencies were approached but as he remembers, “no-one really seemed to get it”. At the same time as discussions with OPX, the studio happened to be working with Graham Bignell and his letterpress workshop. Matt recognised that the typography of the letterpress seemed to fit with the trio’s brief. “We showed a lot of old-fashioned bike adverts from the 30s, 40s and 50s — we liked that style. As soon as we saw Look Mum No Hands! in that typeface, we knew that was it. We haven’t altered it since.”
As he points out, Look Mum No Hands! wasn’t the first cycling cafe but they were the first to encourage events and showcase a cycling space that was fun. Was this a conscious thing?
“We just caught it at the right time I think. We had talks and screenings and an alcohol licence always helps.” He remembers there was a period of a couple of years that allowed the cafe to cement itself as a popular attraction in the capital. “I think 2010 was about the time that the TFL bikes started to appear and there was a bit of an upsurge in cycle lanes. Basically, when we opened up until summer 2012, there was this steady ramping up. Summer 2012 was mental. There was the London Olympics and Bradley Wiggins won the Tour De France for the first time”.
ITV didn’t have the rights to broadcast the Tour De France so Look Mum No Hands! made sure it was hitting their screens. “It wasn’t on any of the pubs so there was nowhere to watch it unless you had Sky at home. Throughout July for those first three years, you just couldn’t move in that cafe. There were people out on the pavement with their faces squashed up against the window”.
These days, with the windows unclouded, there remains a loyal constituency of customers. “We have quizzes, book launches, film screenings and film clubs, but we never really planned our own events other than putting the sports on the screen. However, if you look at our calendar, there’s all sorts going on but it’s people coming to us, asking to use our space”.
And while it’s obvious the merchandise line is a device used to ensure commercial success, how do you keep a company feeling like the organic start-up it once was?
“It’s never really been about rinsing it for the cash. I hope it still comes across as a product of our passion for what we’re doing. We’re all doing it because we wanted to do something a bit different. There’s something a bit youth-club about it”.
The charm of the capital
From a business perspective, London’s been essential according to Matt.
“It helps when you know the area really well. We could envisage where we wanted to be”. He recognises the city as being a place that encourages quirks. “If something slightly off-the-wall is going to work, London is always going to be the place for it. People seem quite quick to embrace new and interesting things…they’re not too set in their ways.”
Old Street was a place that had always been on his radar. “The residents are a bit of a mix of everyone. From the estates that exist behind us to probably quite expensive, affluent properties. I knew we were getting everything which is what we wanted. I’ve always thought the best pubs are the ones where there’s a real mix of people.”
It turns out that the best cycle-cafes might be too…