As the main proprietor of Spoke Café, 13-year-old Alec Olson has been pedaling and peddling this summer, serving nitrous cold brew and root beer floats to the community from his bicycle beverage cart. Perhaps River Forest’s youngest entrepreneur, Olson is steering both the business and the bicycle forward.
“We decided we would get into the natural cold brew market since it’s one of the fastest growing markets,” said Olson of the café’s origins.
Always looking to diversify his portfolio, the rising eighth grader added root beer and root beer floats to the menu to satiate younger customers while working the block party circuit. Spoke Café sources the soda from Chicago-based Filbert’s Old Time Root Beer, making routine purchases of two three-gallon-kegs.
“Not everyone sells root beer by the keg,” Olson said.
The ice cream currently comes from the grocery store, but Olson, always eager to strike up partnerships, is hoping to land Forest Park’s Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor as a supplier.
Sputnik Coffee Company, located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, supplies Spoke Café’s cold brew, which Olson serves in the morning to commuters, setting up shop near train stations.
The bicycle’s cart is equipped with a serving tap as well as storage compartments for the kegs and nitrogen. Olson paid half the cost of the specialized bike, which had a price tag of about $500, using money his grandparents gave him for Christmas.
The other half came from a capital investment made by his parents, who help Olson sign contracts and procure equipment. Olson credits his father for helping with the business’s financials and his mother for Spoke Café’s social media, where he posts the café’s locations for the week each Sunday.
His parents also provide some supervision during selling hours.
“He can do it on his own,” said Olson’s mother Misty. “But there’s a little part of me that doesn’t want him sitting out there alone.”
Her son pretty much does everything else, she said. Olson routinely displays the shrewdness of a seasoned professional, taking the necessary steps to legitimize the café, including building a website. Customers can purchase T-shirts emblazoned with the Spoke Café logo, which was modeled after a bicycle wheel, on the website.
“The logo, my cousin came up with,” he said. “She’s a teacher.”
To ensure the café meets legal standards, he got a business permit in River Forest, which required him to fully insure Spoke Café. Olson is also in the process of getting a business permit for Oak Park. He has already received certification to handle food.
“To get the food handler’s license, the food has to be kept in a commercial kitchen,” said Misty Olson.
As luck would have it, River Forest has a commercial kitchen. Spoke Café rents refrigeration space at the kitchen to store the perishables in compliance with certification standards.
Spoke Café has been a pricy start up for the 13-year-old. With the cost of insurance, rental space, supplies, taxes and business expenses, the café has yet to turn a profit.
“We’re doing better than we thought we would,” he said. “We’re making about a 30 to 40 percent margin.”
Once the café does become profitable, Olson does not intend to pocket all the profit himself. Rather, he hopes to donate 10 percent to a local charity, citing Beyond Hunger as his organization of choice.
Spoke Café is far more than just a summer job for Olson, who intends to limit his work schedule to weekends once school starts. He is also undeterred by the prospect of cold weather. He’s taking the change of seasons in stride by looking for suitable substitutions for cold brew and floats.
“If we can figure out some way to get this [bike] to go on snow, we’re thinking about maybe finding a way to sell hot chocolate and maybe hot coffee.”