Innovative Retailer – Look Mum No Hands!

Brought to you by and PCMS 

The Name: Look Mum No Hands!
The Place: Old Street, London EC1

The Story: Back at junior school Matt Harper and Lewin Chalkley…

Matt Harper
No, seriously. You can’t start a business story at junior school. I was only going to say that two of the three founders of Look Mum No Hands! – a workshop and café with a biking theme – were friends from school who used to bomb around on their choppers together. That’s all.

OK. As you were. And as they got older and stayed in love with biking they met Sam Humpheson on the cycling scene. Their day jobs were all dovetailing nicely towards Look Mum No Hands! – one managed coffee shops, one worked in bike shops and Harper worked in the City in compliance and surveillance  for big banks.

How does that last one dovetail? Ok, it doesn’t but then he was made redundant and the bike/café plan that had floated around for ages came to fruition and in April 2010 they found the perfect site and opened to a lot of publicity. As Harper says people often come in saying ‘you nicked my idea’ – always the mark of a timely opportunity taken.

And the opportunity is what? A big rise in interest in cycling, the launching of the Barclays cycle hire scheme, Bradley Wiggins’ sideburns, and crucially there being nowhere to watch the Tour de France, or any other cycling on television. ‘Football is everywhere but nothing for cyclists’ Harper points out.  And Look Mum No Hands! only shows cycling . But if they are showing sport then they ought to sell sport too and that is where the bike maintenance and workshop are a ‘logical extension’.  

Profitable?It’s only 25% of the total turnover – Harper likens it to an extra days trading in the café – but along with Sam there is enough for four mechanics to do. There is occasionally talk of actually selling bikes but there isn’t enough space for everything and they are not desperate to do it. But the maintenance courses in the basement draw cyclists in and the site has been specially chosen for its bike-friendly location.

Which is? On a main arterial cycle route through London. With lots of space inside and big windows for light to see all the bikes hanging from the ceiling and for the cycling paraphernalia you can buy. Outside space is also essential and the room for a workshop too. The founders looked all over London before they found the right place and they have been looking for another bigger one for a while. As Harper says ‘If we were just a coffee shop we could walk into hundreds of sites’, but what they need is hard to find.

Can I ask a question about lycra? No. Ideally the founding team would like three sites in London. And there are a couple of other cities in the UK that might be ready for a European style café-bar with bikes. Namely – Bristol, Cambridge, and perhaps Glasgow. Longer term maybe somewhere in the cycling-mad south of France or Italy.

Drinking and riding actively encouraged.
So who eats and drinks at Look Mum No Hands! All sorts. In the morning they are selling coffee and breakfast to commuters. When they have seen enough people go by with big chain coffee in their hands they begin the coffee amnesty where they give you one of their Square Mile coffees as a free replacement. Social media picked up on this and the press followed close on. Then as the morning continues the big light space is used by people for informal meetings, and then it’s the lunch crowd and as day turns into early evening they host book launches, turn the sport on, screen cycling programmes and use the walls for exhibitions. And once a month there is a bike parts jumble sale.

All going well then? The café broke even within six months and the turnover on food and drink goes up by 80% year-on-year. Harper has been astonished by the publicity and reach the brand now has. The online shop sells branded t-shirts and mugs to Japan/USA/Australia to people who will never come to Old Street. Their best customer sums up the reach of the place – a middle aged lawyer who comes in suited every morning for his museli and then comes in on the weekends too with his bike.

Does he wear lycra? Let go of the lycra thing. The founders knew there would be a market for cyclists obviously but they’ve now become part of the London coffee lovers’ route.

There’s a route? There’s a London Coffee Guide no less. And people walk around with it visiting coffee shops. Look Mum No Hands! has its trusty  ex MoD coffee wagon and they take it around the streets and to external biking events like Bespoked in Bristol to spread the word. And next year there is going to be a top secret pop-up for a few months.

Oooh. Where?Honestly, I’d have to kill you. Harper is sure that the Olympics was a spike in cycling interest which won’t fade out. ‘People come in wearing Team Sky jerseys now’ and the food/drinks offering cleverly skews according to what tour is on – more of a Spanish feel for La Vuelta for example. The main food time is still lunch but a new head of food is ramping up the evening offer and of course the place is totally rammed for any big cycling event.

What’s their recipe for success? What they do very innovatively is join different interests together i.e. cycling and craft beer. People like to feel part of a like-minded community and that’s what they get here, other people like quirky café/bar venues and that’s what they get here too. Everyone’s happy.

What beers are they selling right now? They sell a lot of a Belgian beer called Malteni. If you are a cycling aficionado then you will be on the floor laughing uproariously by now. It’s a cycling in joke. Another popular seller is Czech pilsner Slag. Yes, more hours of fun.

Do they have Lycra club nights? Just be quiet. 

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