The Bike-Powered Coffee Cart That Could Take On Starbucks

With a solar-powered-battery powering the coffeemaker, Wheely’s wants to reinvent the franchise model: sustainable, hip, and affordable–but with the power of a global brand.

There are over 13,000 Starbucks in the U.S. In cities like New York, where there are over 100 locations in Midtown Manhattan alone, it feels like there’s one on every block. So it isn’t exactly easy to start an independent cafe that can compete. Depending on location, startup costs for a storefront space can be a few hundred thousand dollars or more. But a Swedish design firm hopes to make it possible for young people with small budgets to start their own mini coffee shop–with a bike-driven, solar-powered mobile cafe.


The designers hope to reinvent the franchise model, making a chain that a younger generation might actually want to invest in (and that they can afford–in Europe, where Starbucks is beginning to offer franchises, the cost is around $250,000).

“We wanted to use what we learned from working with big brands,” says Per Cromwell, cofounder of the Nordic Society For Invention and Discovery, the company developing the mobile cafe. “The idea is to use all the advantages of a franchise; branding, social media, pricing and product development, but in a much cheaper way.”

The project is currently raising funds on Indiegogo, and for an early-bird price of $1,800, someone can get an entire Wheely’s Cafe: A bike with a solar-powered battery to run a coffeemaker, a sink, storage, and an umbrella to protect customers from the sun and rain. Everything is branded with the Wheely’s identity so cart owners have the advantage of being recognizable.

“We love the small independent coffee shops but can’t but admit that belonging to a brand is an advantage,” Cromwell says. “We think we’ll challenge Starbucks more with a branded coffee instead of an unbranded one. The last 40 years has seen this huge success of the global brands.”

When someone purchases a franchise from Wheely’s, they’ll get rights to cover a certain geographic area. But the company also hopes to connect franchisees in a broader global network so they can each learn from each other. The company will continue to provide support for much of the administrative part of running a business, from legal advice to marketing.

Though the company wants to challenge the hegemony of Starbucks and other chains, they don’t necessarily want to become huge themselves. “Super brands make the world boring, but brands in themselves aren’t bad,” Cromwell says. “We’d like Wheely’s to become reasonably big and profitable enough to allow us to expand and develop it. But aiming for world domination is not what we’re into.”


Ultimately, Wheely’s hopes to offer a new opportunity for work to those who have been struggling to find a job and who don’t have the capitol to start something up otherwise. And it’s a chance for consumers to support coffee shops that have virtually no carbon footprint.

“We want everything to be as sustainable as possible, from the cargo of the bikes, to the cups,” says Cromwell. “We fully believe this is the only long-lasting way to head into the future.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.