Flying Pigeon LA peddles bike culture north of downtown

On the third Sunday of each month, a dozen or so people pedal out of Highland Park atop steel-frame bikes straight out of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or on more luxurious Dutch cruisers -- all in search of dumplings.

The bicycle ride, dubbed Get Sum Dim Sum, is used by brothers Adam and Josef Bray-Ali to get people to try the Chinese bikes their shop is named after, Flying Pigeon.

The monthly ride also is part of a larger plan to sell not just bikes but a vision of a different Los Angeles.

The shop, on a small commercial strip on North Figueroa Street, is unassuming from the outside, with no more than a white sticker of a pigeon riding a bike on the window and a line of bikes on the sidewalk to identify the business.

Inside, the emphasis is on commuter bikes, both the sturdy Chinese rides and Flying Pigeon LA's other specialty, high-end Dutch cruisers. All come with fenders, racks for cargo, fully covered chains and wide, comfortable seats.

"The bikes we sell, you won't find in general bike shops," said Josef Bray-Ali, 30. "For one, these bikes are comfortable, and they don't jar you around like most performance bikes people sometimes get talked into buying. But most people aren't as used to this idea of the bike as a durable good and a real, daily mode of transportation in L.A."

Flying Pigeons run $300 to $700, depending on the model and appointments. The Dutch bikes, by brands Batvus and Gazelle, sell for about $700 to $1,400 each. The shop also sells a basic road bike: the $349 Torker U-District, which features a flip-flop rear-wheel hub, so owners can choose between fixed-gear and single-speed riding.

The brothers also rent bikes for the ride for $10.

In addition to the dim sum outing, the Bray-Ali brothers host an art gallery ride the second Saturday of each month. Unlike the dim sum trips, which attract families and middle-aged participants, the Spoke(n)Art Ride brings out a younger crowd more akin to the hipster, fixed-gear riders in their 20s and 30s that make up most of the packs venturing around Los Angeles.

Although the organized rides have attracted a lot of attention, not too many Pigeons fly out the door after the treks, Adam Bray-Ali said.

"As a marketing tool, it's great," the 35-year-old entrepreneur said. "But it hasn't yet translated into direct sales."

Still, the rides haven't been a waste of time. They have helped build a rider community in northeast Los Angeles and have led to word of mouth that has spread virally on the Internet, attracting buyers to the shop, Josef Bray-Ali said.

"People drive in from Venice, Malibu, Santa Monica to buy the Chinese and Dutch bikes because we're the only guys in the city who sell them," he said. "Usually they've been to Europe or Asia, and they look at bikes a little different than Americans."

Over the last year, Flying Pigeon has brought in $150,000 in gross revenue, said the brothers, who are the shop's only employees.

Flying Pigeon's main competitor, Bike Oven, is a nonprofit co-op just two doors down that teaches people how to work on their own bikes and offers free parts to those who volunteer there. Some Bike Oven volunteers even build their own bikes free of charge.

And the Bray-Ali brothers wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, it was Josef who started the Oven in 2005 out of Adam's Highland Park garage.

The Oven drives much of Flying Pigeon's day-to-day business, Josef Bray-Ali said.

"From a traditional business perspective, it doesn't always make sense to be next door to someone who does what you do for free," he said. But having a bike shop near a bike co-op is an idea that is catching on, he said.

"The business model works, and it's proven and it's working here and it's growing something," Josef Bray-Ali said. "That's why I started the Oven, to build that community."

Because of Bike Oven, people know Josef Bray-Ali and want to support Flying Pigeon, said Brian Bonilla, 18, who lives a couple of blocks away from the two shops.

"He's known in the biking community, and he'll help out anybody," Bonilla said. At times, Josef Bray-Ali will sell parts at wholesale cost, just to help a neighborhood kid fix up a bike, said Bonilla, who estimates that he's spent hundreds of dollars this year on bike parts from the Pigeon. He has used the parts to build five bikes at the Oven, where he volunteers.

"People come from all over the Eastside to help out here," he said. "I've made a lot of friends here, and it's kept me out of trouble."

Josef Bray-Ali serves up East Hollywood's corner of Melrose Avenue and North Heliotrope Drive as an example of what is possible in Highland Park. There's a successful bike shop called Orange 20, a bustling co-op called Bicycle Kitchen, restaurants and a popular ice cream shop called Scoops.

"If we can make this block a cool place to hang out, if you can come here and see your friends and get a drink or something to eat, if there are things going on this block like our bike rides, then our business will do fine," Josef Bray-Ali said. "They've built that over there, and it all started with the Bike Kitchen."

Bicycle Kitchen inspired Josef Bray-Ali to start Bike Oven, which moved in 2007 to North Figueroa Street, just south of Pasadena Avenue. The brothers opened Flying Pigeon in August 2008 at another Highland Park location and moved the shop in April to the same commercial strip as Bike Oven.

Orange 20, a more general bike shop, has been on Melrose and Heliotrope for three years, owner Jim Cadenhead said. Like Flying Pigeon, it too started out with a modest customer base but has since blossomed into a store with annual revenue of $1 million, Cadenhead said.

"We want more people on bikes, we want more bike lanes, and we want a more bike-friendly city," Cadenhead said. "That's all more important than profit."

In Mar Vista, the Bikerowave co-op recently moved to a new location across the street from L.A. Brakeless, a popular fixed-gear bike shop.

"All over town, bike shops and co-ops are feeding off each other's business," Josef Bray-Ali said. "It's exciting."

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nathan.olivarezgiles@latimes.com

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At a glance

Business: Flying Pigeon LA specializes in Chinese and Danish commuter bikes.

Owners: Adam and Josef Bray-Ali

Annual revenue: $150,000

Rides: Get Sum Dim Sum, third Sunday of each month; Spoke(n)Art, second Saturday

Source: Times research

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction Flying Pigeon: An article in Tuesday's Business section about the Flying Pigeon LA bicycle shop, which sells Chinese and Dutch bikes, was accompanied by a box labeled "At a glance" that incorrectly described the Dutch bikes as Danish.
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