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Meals on wheels

This article appeared in Treadlie Magazine, Issue 10, March 2013

An innovative social enterprise and small business incubator is pointing bike culture in Brisbane in a delicious new direction.

When architect and design educator Helen Bird heard that the Gold Coast is set to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it got her thinking. About how the city – Australia’s sixth largest – will manage the descent of thousands of spectators on its beachfront and hinterland, about how it will move them around. About how it will feed them, and how to present Australia’s burgeoning multiculturalism.

Inspired by Asian, South American and North European hawker-style street food and bike culture, she came up with the concept of a kind of pop-up, bicycle-powered, mobile kitchen infrastructure that can be mobilised in line with local development, not just during but also after the Games.

It intersected with her desire to move cycling culture in a different direction, and within a month she was thinking big. “I thought, you know what? This is really exciting! Why don't I try and make this happen in Brisbane now?”

So she hatched Street Food Australia (SFA), an organisation that aims to remove barriers and provide support to migrants and refugees wishing to enter the food industry as business owners; bicycle-powered, street food selling business owners. Now CEO and Manager, Helen enlisted the support of fellow architect, business partner and design tutor Billerwell Daye in the role of Operations Manager, and celebrity chef Luke Nguyen as a patron.

They gave themselves two years to realise the project, but it’s taken just a little more than 12 months to get the first bike pedalling (and peddling) on the streets. They raised more than $21,000 via crowdfunding site Pozible, and quickly realised their first Council-approved design, a bike purpose-built for steamed Chinese dumplings that looks like a giant trapezoidal Chinese takeaway container.

The second bike to pass muster with the local Council is a Mexican-themed bike. Essentially a mobile barbecue with a giant cold storage unit underneath, it that looks suspiciously like an ear of corn, and will be operated by 26-year-old chef Lukas Russell.

"I enjoy kitchen work, but also love interacting with people and contributing to the energy of the street,” says Lukas. “Having the opportunity to make a direct connection between my food and the people eating it is really unique. I get to see people enjoying my food and appreciating the love I put into my work!"

You can find Lukas – and his Mexican food bike – on the north side of the pedestrian bridge (Victoria Bridge) that spans the Brisbane River, just opposite the Treasury Casino and Hotel, a spot where thousands of people pass by every day. He’s been selling out of everything, and it’s no surprise; Lukas’ offerings of grilled corn (with chipotle mayonnaise, pecorino, coriander and fresh lime), and organic barbecued pork ribs (in a tequila marinade with tomatillo salsa) are pretty darned yum.

Also on the cards for SFA”s fleet are a banh mi (Vietnamese baguette) bike, a bungeoppang (Korean waffle) bike, and two beverage bikes: one for coffee and the other for kegs – think beer, cider, and ginger beer.

This is just during the project’s six-month trial stage. After that, SFA will utilise existing multicultural services to start bringing refugees and migrants looking to get into small business into the program, and receive job training. They plan to add four bikes to their fleet every six months; over a two-year period there will be 16 bikes operating.

And that’s just for Brisbane; in a couple of years, the program will be refined and ready to be passed on to councils’ throughout Australia. Getting a project like this – Australia’s first – up and running in such a small space of time is no mean feat.

Each bike is custom designed and made, and costs between $12-20,000 to develop. But finding a bicycle up to SFA’s brief was their first challenge. After extensive research, the duo decided on Danish company Sorte Jernhest’s three-wheeled cargo bike.

“We chose the Jernhest (which translates as ‘black iron horse’) because it has a much tighter turning circle than other bikes,” explains Helen. “The steering is at the back; the load is at the front, so the rider is never going to be under great duress, and the engineering of it can take a greater load than other bikes. The smaller wheels at the front also allow more space in the chassis for drawers, doors and openings.”

There was no cargo bike dealer in Brisbane, and no Jernhest bike dealer in Australia at all, so Pearler, Helen and Billerwell’s design business, now has the Australian distribution rights. Then there are Council health and safety and food handling regulations to adhere to – another challenge, as there weren’t any for bikes.

“We have to treat a bike as if it's a kitchen, so each bike needs water supply for hand washing, refrigeration, and so on. We based our protocols on the requirements for mobile food trucks. The Council have been really supportive; they’re very keen to help us make this work,” says Billerwell.

Helen reckons there's some sort of spontaneous eruption going on. When she first started looking around on the Internet for examples of food bikes in Western culture, she could only find one example similar to what she had in mind: a coffee bike in Copenhagen. Since then, she’s come across a dumpling bike in Portland, a Vietnamese food bike and a second coffee bike in Copenhagen, and a sushi delivery bike with a refrigerator on board in Northern Europe. Brisbane has also revealed a vegan hotdog bike!

“Food on bikes has existed in Asia and South America and other parts of the world for centuries,’ adds Helen. “It's anything on wheels that will help you move your barbecue, your pot, your wok or your cooker, from A to B; to where the people are. If people will buy your food, you're in business. That's the bottom line, so your food has to be good.”

“But the more westernised and urbanised cultures become, the less street food there is. There's a lot less bicycle culture in Chinese cities than there was five or 10 years ago. So we can see it disappearing there; here, we're trying to ‘reappear’ it!”