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Bikes and Beer: How one local shop is overcoming a supply shortage

It was a bad year for the bike industry, but it's beer to the rescue
Posted at 5:05 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 17:24:09-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.  — The bike industry took a hit this year with supply shortages caused by the pandemic backing up orders and leaving holes on the walls of local bike and gear shops.

At the same time, with people itching to get outdoors and participate in pandemic-friendly activities, The Washington Post reported that bicycle sales jumped 120% between 2020 and 2019.

“Things that you just normally never even think would be out of stock; racks and tubes and tires,” said Ryan Olthouse, owner of Switchback Gear Exchange on Plainfield Ave in Grand Rapids.

Olthouse said he’s had to turn away customers looking for something they don’t have.

“They’re so fired up, they’re like, my friends tell me I’ve got to go try this, my family is telling me I’ve got to go try this, I’m ready to try it,” he said, “and then you go, ‘ah, there’s nothing available.’”

Because of the shortage, Olthouse and his staff have had to brainstorm ideas to keep the cycling community engaged, and simply keep their doors open.

“Luckily we’re all daydreamers,” he said. “Everyone on the team are daydreamers, so we kind of already had like 15 dreams ready to go.”

One idea was a café that went in earlier last year. It took over a section of the store that used to house gear, and Olthouse said it’s been a success so far. But as the year went on, the Switchback team turned to another of their many ideas

“We decided to go all in,” he said.

Switchback is now in the process of simultaneously obtaining their liquor license and building a beer garden out back that, they hope, will be ready to serve people by summer’s start. The city planning commission recently sent their application through.

Olthouse said while it’s an idea they had cooking already, they might not have made the move this soon and this deliberately if they weren’t forced to.

“We can look at things as hardships or opportunities. Sometimes they both come at once,” he said. “We probably would’ve continued with the same business model as before had COVID not made us kind of think about it. Because we had a lot of downtime.”

It’s also a means to an end, not just a way to stay afloat. Switchback wants to fund some of their community outreach initiatives, like their youth bike rental program that provides long-term bike rentals to kids at drastically reduced rates. They also are working on a program that would let people – at the same low rates – rent all-inclusive camping kits complete with all the gear you’d need for a weekend in the woods.

Olthouse says they also want to eventually source all their food, coffee and beer from locally- and minority-owned businesses.

“You need to be healthy as an organization to do that and we should feel obligated once we are healthy to implement those programs,” he said. “That’s important to us.”

You can visit Switchback Gear Exchange at their website here, or at their Facebook page here.

Olthouse also gave us his top-ten favorite hiking and biking trails in West Michigan. Check out the map below to see where his favorite trails are.