As a brisk wind blew through Davis on Tuesday night, Alex Roth pedaled his bicycle-powered coffee roaster in a parking lot between the railroad tracks and an impound lot. Roth created the contraption: an old Schwinn, its wheels removed, with chains that turn a roasting drum.
While he pedaled, chaff from the cracking beans ignited and swirled like fireflies around his head. Train whistles wailed. The scent of roasting coffee filled the air.
"Sometimes I worry about finances," said Roth, 35, who grinds out a modest living as owner of the Pepper Peddler. "But when I first catch the aroma, it's so pleasant and enjoyable, the worries melt away."
The Pepper Peddler, which delivers coffee by bike to homes in Davis and will start delivery in Sacramento on Friday, is one of a growing number of pedal-powered businesses across the nation.
They include pedicabs, delivery companies and food vendors along with more unusual ventures, such as bike-drawn pole-dancers in New York City and companies that collect scraps for compost.
"We're seeing a rebirth of bicycles and bicycle businesses," said Ben Morris, 29, owner of the nation's largest pedicab business, Pedicab Outdoor, which has branches in San Francisco, Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The simplicity of bike businesses to market and manage, combined with fuel savings and customers' desire to go green, are encouraging expansion and innovative uses for pedal power, he said.
"The options are endless," Morris said. "There are so many things you can do."
The local hotspot for bike-powered businesses is Davis in Yolo County, where thousands of cyclists crisscross the UC Davis campus each day.
The bicycle-obsessed college town with its bike lanes, bike turn signals and bike crossings and tunnels is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and was the first U.S. city to earn a platinum rating from the League of American Bicyclists in 2005.
Today, Davis residents can get around by pedicab, have their yardwork done by landscapers who pull trailers on bikes, and sip Roth's organic fair-trade coffee, delivered by bicycle to their doorsteps each week in reusable Mason jars.
Interested in moving to the town? Real estate agents peddle homes by bicycle.
Agents Leslie Tuel and Leslie Blevins who call themselves Team Leslie and wear cycling jerseys emblazoned with their logo keep a fleet of rainbow-colored cruiser bikes for clients to use.
"It seemed like the perfect idea in Davis," Tuel said.
Last weekend, Team Leslie showed a home listed at $1.2 million to UC Davis physician Erik Laurin, his wife, Sacha, an Australian cheesemaker, and their three children. All arrived on two wheels, the youngest wearing a green shark helmet.
As they oohed and ahhed over the hot tub, outdoor fireplace and climate-controlled wine storage, they said arriving by bike gave them a better sense of the neighborhood and appealed to their cycling sensibilities.
"We try to run errands by bike," Sacha Laurin said. "It's our family ritual to bike to the farmers market on Wednesdays."
Andrew Watters said he started his Davis Pedicab business last year, after his son was born. "I wanted to make the world a better place for him," he said.
Now he and his riders pedal college students from downtown bars to their apartment complexes, earning tips along the way. He wants to develop connections with mass transit.
"We're working on getting integrated into the town's culture," he said.
Roth said he started his business as a way to earn a living after graduate school. He hand-built his stationary coffee roaster and parked it in a carport behind a local bakery. The county health department didn't know what to make of him.
"I'm considered an open-air barbecue," he said.
Now Roth has about 150 home-delivery customers in Davis and also sells coffee to the Davis Food Co-op and several restaurants.
Friends come around on Tuesday nights to help him roast in exchange for coffee and pizza. They include Alex Tremeau-Bravard, a French biologist, and Rusi Gustafson, a kindergarten teacher who plays guitar and sings country songs as he pedals.
"We're basically human hamsters," Roth said.
On Friday, he'll take his bike on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train and deliver coffee to Sacramento for the first time. He has two customers: one in Curtis Park and another near McKinley Park. He's hoping to expand.
Susan Handy, a UC Davis professor and expert on cycling behavior, said she is excited about the new breed of pedal-powered businesses, which are especially popular among 20-somethings and in urban areas from Boston to Portland.
"They are a lot of fun. They're cool and gimmicky" and may be an "indicator of the growing strength of the bicycle movement," she said. "How big they can ever get or how pervasive, I don't know," she said. The question, she said, is "do they have legs?"
Editor's note: A photo caption was changed to correctly identify Savannah Mayer.