Biking couple blaze trail to year-round profitability

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 28, 2008 - 10:21 PM

Peddling coffee and art -- as well as bikes -- keeps One on One on a successful path by tapping into the zest for urban cycling.

Gene and Jennifer Oberpriller take a break at their studio in Minneapolis, a combination of bicycle shop, gallery and coffee shop.

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune

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When Robin Williams recently visited the Twin Cities, he asked someone where he might find "a really cool bike shop."

Williams, a bicycling enthusiast who owns a garageful of the machines, was promptly directed to a starkly furnished onetime massage parlor along Washington Avenue in the downtown Minneapolis Warehouse District.

What he found at an establishment called the One On One Bicycle Studio was a whole lot more than a bike sales and repair emporium. He also could buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the coffee shop that fronts the bike display area. And he could peruse a sampling of bike-oriented posters and photographs offered by local cyclers in an art gallery that shares its space with the bicycle display area.

This unusual -- perhaps even unique -- combination of businesses is the brainstorm of Gene and Jennifer Oberpriller, a couple of former professional mountain-bike racers who have been described by a One On One customer, Adam Newton, as "a force behind urban cycling" in these parts.

Thanks to a growing interest in cycling, both as recreation and a way to avoid high gasoline prices, expensive parking and annoying traffic jams, the Oberprillers have yet to feel the squeeze of a sputtering economy.

Since 2003, when they took a small, part-time bike-retailing business full time, the Oberprillers have built sales in 15 to 20 percent annual leaps to a 2007 total of $665,000. And so far in 2008, revenue is on track to reach $775,000.

For good reason, said Newton, a financial consultant with Wells Fargo Investments: "It's the hub of the Twin Cities cycling community."

How unusual is the business model? There are a dozen or so bike and coffee shop combinations around the country, said Gene Oberpriller, 46, "but we're the only one with an art gallery, as far as we know."

Williams isn't the only celebrity who has found One On One; rocker Steve Earle and members of the Scottish group Franz Ferdinand also stop by when they're in town. And the Oberprillers recently filled an order for 30 bike-oriented posters placed by racer Lance Armstrong for a bike and coffee shop in Austin, Texas.

All of which is not to suggest that the One On One art gallery is a threat to the Walker Art Center. There are a few paintings and a lineup of sample posters and photographs strung on a wire running along the east wall of the bicycle display area, offering visitors the opportunity to select a favorite and place an order.

But the Oberprillers also run periodic evening showings that highlight the work of various artists to an audience of 300 to 400 invited guests from their client list. The results can be eye-fetching: At a showing in April, they sold upwards of $10,000 worth of posters.

The ensuing commissions don't add much to the gross, said Jennifer Oberpriller, 39. "But it's a very low-budget kind of advertising for the store."

That's the kind of strategic thinking that created the One On One business model out of a spare-time, by-appointment bike-retailing business that Gene started in 2001 in a tiny cubicle at the back of what then was the massage parlor. It was mainly a way to augment his income as a bicycle courier in downtown Minneapolis.

But when the building became available in 2003, the Oberprillers jumped at the chance. They started with the bicycles and quickly added the art gallery, which Gene saw as a way to attract "the many riders who have artistic backgrounds and interests."

Indeed, there apparently is a bevy of bicyclists out there who regard a well-built machine as a piece of art: "They actually hang them on the wall and never ride them," he said.

There was a similar rationale behind the coffee shop: Looking for something to carry them through the winter, the Oberprillers sought to make the store a social center for the cycling community as well as a diversion for those waiting for bike repairs.

"Drinking coffee and hanging out with your peers before and after a ride is part of cycling," Gene said.

The bonus has been the many non-biking professionals working in the Warehouse District "who have come for the coffee and gone away with a bicycle," said Jennifer, the mother of two preschoolers who doubles as One On One's chief financial officer. She said the coffee shop generates about 25 percent of total sales.

Gene, a biker since high school, spent 11 years on the national and international mountain-bike racing scene, collecting anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 a year to supplement seasonal jobs at bike shops and occasional gigs as a model for bike catalogs and ads of companies that sponsor racing.

The Oberprillers' marriage was made, if not in heaven, then on the racing circuit: Gene met Jennifer in 1992, when they participated in the Midwest Mountain Bike Series, a three-month string of races across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. She also raced professionally from 1998 to 2001.

They married in 2000.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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