Published June 3, 2018
Omaha Bicycle Co. is owned by Sarah Johnson. The bike/coffee shop combo is located in the heart of Benson at 6015 Maple St and first opened its doors back in October of 2012. Sarah told me that she always drinks her coffee black, like a true coffee connoisseur.
Q1: Are you originally from Omaha?
Ms. Johnson grew up on 58th and Nicholas. She went on to obtain a journalism degree from UNL.
Q2: What are some of your hobbies?
“Basically, my life revolves around this place,” Sarah told me. Omaha Bicycle Co. hosts group bike rides, potlucks, and other events that she always attends. “Bikes and coffee is all I do,” she commented. Sarah also founded Mode Shift Omaha, a nonprofit that advocates for better transportation that enhances life for everyone in Omaha. She currently sits on the board for that organization.
Q3: Where did the idea for Omaha Bicycle Co. come from?
Sarah helped start a bike/coffee shop hybrid with her ex-husband when living in a small, touristy Colorado town (Grand Lake, CO) and was unfortunately forced to leave that business and come back to Omaha. In her early years out of school, Sarah had worked a typical office job and managed to last an entire seven days.
She knew that when she returned to Omaha from Colorado that she would not be able to just work any job; being a business owner was in her DNA. Since bikes and coffee was all she knew, she decided to start a business around her passions. However, Ms. Johnson did not have the financial capability to start a business on her own and was looking into getting jobs in different cities around the country. Her friends and family knew she would be miserable working a job in a different city and being away from Omaha so they actually created a Kickstarter campaign for her. Together, they were able to raise $15,000 in 45 days. Thus, Omaha Bicycle Co. was born!
Q4: Where did you come up with the name Omaha Bicycle Co.?
Ms. Johnson left the Colorado business in June 2012 and had opened Omaha Bicycle Co. in October of the same year. She explained that it was such a quick scramble to open up shop that she randomly came up with the name one day. She said that she knew the name would stick because it was classic and timeless. Additionally, Sarah wanted to make sure that “Omaha” was in the name because she has a great love for the city.
Q5: How did you know this was your passion?
While in college at Lincoln, Sarah bought her first bike from a fellow student for $100 and took it into a local shop to get tuned up. While there, the guys told her that her new purchase was actually worth $500. She continued going back to that shop to buy a helmet, gloves, and eventually a better bike. Eventually Sarah said that, “The guys there were like ‘you’re here all the time, you should just work here’ and I was just like alright!”
After she started working there, she became even further involved in the biking community and started racing with their mountain bike team. She continued her involvement in the biking community, but decided to quit her job at the bike shop and got a job that aligned with her degree. She obtained a position at the Lincoln Journal Star selling advertising where she lasted a whopping seven days before realizing a “normal” job was not for her. She went running back to the bike shop and knew that she had found her passion.
Q6: What was your goal when starting Omaha Bicycle Co. and how has that changed?
Initially, Ms. Johnson simply wanted a new shop to hangout in where she could live out her passion every day. Additionally, she wanted to make sure that her business had a good culture, ensuring that employees would only work five days a week, and prioritizing quality of life and a strong community.
She went on to say, “I think probably the big goal was to just find a place where I felt at home and I knew that I wasn’t going to go anywhere for awhile.” Ms. Johnson felt very strongly that she will never expand to a second location, so her goal now is to just maintain what they are currently doing and continue to facilitate a comfortable, community-oriented business.
Q7: Did you develop any key partnerships along the way?
Of course, all of Ms. Johnson’s friends and family were very supportive of her and her vision. One family member in particular helped her out tremendously – her Uncle Jim. He had been a realtor for a while and new that Sarah was looking for a storefront. He bought the building space for Sarah, and she leased it from him until she was able to buy it from him. Ms. Johnson also said that the Benson BID, along with the entire neighborhood have always been very encouraging and welcomed her business graciously into the area.
Q8: Were there any businesses or individuals you looked up to when starting Omaha Bicycle Co.?
Sarah responded by admitting that she looks up to any business owner “because it’s 24/7 even if you’re not open 24/7 you really never stop thinking about it.” Sarah mentioned that she looks up to women business owners in general. In particular, Ms. Johnson referenced Anna Schwinn, a good friend of hers in the bicycling industry. “She just knows what she thinks is right and keeps going,” Sarah said about Anna.
Q9: What has been one or two challenges you’ve faced along the journey?
The hardest challenge Omaha Bicycle Co. has faced involves its recent expansion to the bay next door. Sarah had planned on knocking a hole in between both units to combine them into one; however, quotes for that project were around $50,000. She admitted that it was sometimes difficult since the business now has two separate front doors and back doors and is two physically separated spaces. They got creative, though, and use walkie talkies to communicate back and forth, as well as created a “virtual hole in the wall” with cameras and TVs that show the other side.
The other challenge Ms. Johnson referenced was battling the internet. People can purchase bikes and equipment from places such as Amazon at very competitive prices, but she knows that the Omaha Bicycle Co. offers something that online businesses can’t – human connections and a welcoming environment.
Q10: What products and services does Omaha Bicycle Co. offer?
The business is a bike and coffee shop. They sell pastries, cinnamon rolls, cookies, coffee, tea, juices, etc. in the coffee shop at the front of the store. Then bikes are in the back of the store. You can purchase a variety of different types of new bikes, including electric bikes. They do not sell used bikes or do rentals. Omaha Bicycle Co. also provides maintenance to bikes. “We work on anything and everything; we’re a full-service shop from full custom builds, wheel building, we do a lot of fit work,” Ms. Johnson explained. Omaha Bicycle Co. also hosts group rides and advocacy work.
Q11: What makes Omaha Bicycle Co. unique?
“One thing that definitely sets us apart is that we’re a woman-owned shop,” Sarah said. She went on to explain that there were no other bike shops that she knew of, especially in Nebraska, that were owned by women. Obviously, the fact that the bike shop is also combined with a coffee shop is unique in and of itself. Ms. Johnson is also very proud that she is able to build a true biker community, whereas other shops do not really focus on that aspect. Finally, it is uncommon for shops to have a fit station that helps make sure you are comfortable on your bike, even if you have an injury.
Q12: Do you find it difficult to manage your business’ budget?
Sarah joked that she “just kind of keeps showing up and hopes the money keeps showing up too.” She admitted that she does not really have a budget or strategy. The business cuts costs by not really paying for any advertising.
Q13: What advice would you give to someone just starting their own business?
“Don’t plan on thinking about much besides your business for the first, uh, forever. Also be nice to yourself, make it manageable, and know what is important to you.”
Q14: What’s next for Omaha Bicycle Co.?
“More of the same.” Ms. Johnson explained that every year since she had opened up the business, there has been a major event that has been challenging. One year involved the expansion of the store, another year she purchased a new house, and still a different year she faced health complications. “Doing nothing and appreciating what is working,” is what Sarah said was “next” for Omaha Bicycle Co.
Q15: Describe your relationship with the Omaha community?
As previously mentioned, Ms. Johnson puts on many events and gatherings for the bike community. Personally, she has a love-hate relationship with the city. She acknowledged that it has been cool to see it evolve over the decades. She went on to confess, “After living elsewhere and coming back to Omaha, I’ve realized we have a long way to go. Omaha is very conservative as far as just baby steps in any direction we are taking.”
On a deeper level, Sarah shared that her and the mayor don’t see eye-to-eye or get along very well. “She kicked me off of the Benson BID board, audited my business, so she and I maybe have some room to grow,” Sarah explained. According to her, Omaha has a sort of boomerang effect where you move away and think you’re gone, but before you know it, you’re getting sucked back in.
Q16: What is your favorite part about doing business in Omaha?
“Omaha is just full of great people,” she said. Sarah described Omaha by saying, “It’s like a small town with a lot of people.”
Q17: What is your current view of Omaha and where do you see the city headed?
Ms. Johnson said that she thinks Omaha is going in the right direction, but is moving slower than she would like, especially in regard to transportation. She has been pleased with the people who have been running for office and seeing a push for changes in all areas. She believes that the streetcar should not be classified as a transportation project, but rather an economic development project. Personally, Ms. Johnson is looking forward to continuing to show people the culture and lifestyle of living on a bike.
Q18: Why should someone from New York, LA, or Chicago move to Omaha?
“I think that when you come from a bigger city and you move to Omaha, it’s pretty easy to get plugged in here and to come up with a plan and implement it.” Of course, Sarah Johnson also mentioned how the people here are super nice and it is a friendly place to be.