Look Mum No Hands! - an unusual name for a cafe - but, as it turned out, weirdly prophetic. In 2010, three friends who were into cycling, launched LMNH and, unwisely for a new business, had no plan for failure or running at a loss. Just like a small child learning to ride a bike, full of confidence and knowing no fear, the trio "opened the doors, and in they came!" Huge acclaim followed. Ride Velo met with co-founder Lewin Chalkley to discover their recipe for success.
LMNH is so much more than just a cycle cafe, and has always been much more than just a cycle cafe, but that's what makes it so special - and a formula that many want to copy. What they do is much more visible these days since they hired PR and marketing expert, Alex Davis, to promote their events. But they've always had on-site mechanics, hosted functions and exhibitions, run product launches, parties, screenings, and done outside catering... in addition to the usual cycle themed coffee and cake, of course. "We've always had brilliant stuff happening here but now we have Alex working here lots more people know about it," said Lewin. The Rouleur Classic 4 day show was just one of the high profile events that LMNH has catered for recently.
Founding partners, Lewin Chalkley, Matt Harper and Sam Humpheson have been lucky too. They were looking for something new to do when they discovered the Old Street shop for rent at a good price. It had already been fitted out as an organic cafe by the previous owners, with no expense spared. It had outside space, huge gates, and it was on a busy road into the City, with masses of natural light. "You don't get outside space like that very commonly in Central London," explained Lewin, "the space just did it."
Similarly, their hugely successful product range happened almost by chance: "that was never planned," said Lewin. It started with the LMNH staff T-shirts. We got emails from Australia and America and people trying to buy these from all over the world - it's just gone from there." Next they made the Look Mum No Hands! race kit - Sam, Matt and Lewin were all members of London cycle clubs and raced in their spare time so the kit was initially for them. Then Sam's girlfriend and her friends got in on the act: "The women were far better than us at racing - it was natural that they raced in our team kit." Now they stock dozens of products from apparel to games, bike bits, mugs, gifts - lots of fun stuff - just take a look at their website and read our reviews.
We were still curious about the name though. "Sam came up with the name. It's a bit like forming a band trying to decide on something. A lot of the design people we spoke to were a bit doubtful - they went quiet when we told them! But it's a name that everyone can identify with. It's not a macho or a sporty name. Cycling should be about fun and enthusiasm. Bike shops that are very male spaces can be quite intimidating - our name is inclusive. We didn't want to be lumped in with the 'hipster cafe' thing although we opened at the time when the whole fixed gear thing exploded." And true to Lewin's word the cafe's customers we saw included people coming to get their bikes serviced, Mums with toddlers, city types in suits, urban cyclists, creatives with laptops and twenty-something ladies who lunch.
That philosophy continues with the charming and helpful maintenance guy Frank, who is as happy to repair your buggy's tyre as he is to service your Colnago. We didn't meet 'Digger' who runs maintenance classes in the cafe's basement, but when Lewin described him as quite a character: "part comedian, part philosopher, part mechanic," we wanted to sign up to his tutorials immediately!
We asked Lewin about a rumour we'd heard that the concept was going to be franchised across Asia where there is a huge demand for cycle cafes: "We sort of talked about it, maybe one day... It's probably a good idea to monetise the brand, but we should open a few more cafes ourselves first. People think we're a big company, but we're not."
It hasn't all been plain sailing for the LMNH team, however, as their second shop in Mare Street, London, closed in September after the landlords demanded a 400% rent hike. "We had absolutely no control over that. It was disappointing as we had good staff and we got emails from people saying they were unhappy that it was closing. The cafe was part of people's lives and we had nothing to replace it with."
So what does 2016 hold for LMNH? Over the last year, the guys have been opening pop-ups and looking at other perfect locations for new cycle cafes in and out of London. "In the New Year I'm going to be looking at new properties and new sites. We'll put 5-10 up on the drawing board acknowledging that half of them will probably fall through. Cambridge is a possibility," said Lewin - he and I are both from Cambridgeshire and Ride Velo will be reporting on some exciting cycling developments in Cambridge over the Christmas holidays.
Even more interestingly Lewin tempts us with the prospect of a pop-up LMNH very close to the Ride Velo home in South London. We can't say any more about it at the moment but watch this space! We're already drooling at the prospect of crumbling cakes, luscious lunches and creamy cappuccinos... please Lewin ... South London needs you!