An all-volunteer group of cyclists hop on their bikes to help a Tampa neighborhood's restaurants stay afloat during COVID-19.

By Susan B. Barnes
April 24, 2020
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Volunteer Ben Montgomery
Sean Morris

As word of statewide closing of restaurants and bars due to COVID-19 began to circulate, Tampa, Florida-area restaurant owners, along with those nationwide, scrambled to change gears and shift to take-out-only business models. At the same time, Devon Brady, a captain with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, began thinking of ways to support his local community in The Heights, a collection of three neighborhoods with a vibrant dining scene, just north of downtown Tampa.

"As a captain in fire rescue, emergency response is kind of my thing," says Brady. "I could see from that perspective what was going on with the virus, what was being suggested in terms of shutdown, and knowing business owners in the neighborhood and needs they would have.

"It's a pretty small, tight-knit group of business owners who are running these types of mom and pop establishments here [in the Heights]," Brady, who has lived in The Heights for more than 20 years, continues. "Everyone's on a first-name basis with each other and we know each other. Most of us have worked together in different ways over the years." He's also a co-founder of a cooperative design, research, and production facility and has worked with many of the neighborhood restaurants and bars.

A bicyclist in his free time, Brady reached out to a group of friends with whom he frequently rides and floated an idea by them: running deliveries for The Heights' restaurants.

"Everyone in the group was interested, so I put feelers out to a few of the [restaurant] owners I know and they were really excited about it," Brady says. "We started putting it together from there, and it came together relatively quickly."

Drawing upon his experience in setting up a dispatching operation in fire rescue, Brady and his friends cobbled together an entirely-volunteer-based operation: the Heights Citizens Bicycle Brigade.

"We didn't have the means to expand a delivery system; we were just rapidly trying to get on our feet and stay open and play this new take-out game," explains Melissa Deming, owner of Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe. "The Bicycle Brigade is awesome."

Courtesy of Heights Citizens Bicycle Brigade

Veronica Danko, owner of Independent Bar and Cafe and a sometimes-volunteer rider with the Bicycle Brigade, agrees.

"It's this neighborhood. No matter what happens, it's so supportive," she says. "A couple of my friends who have signed up [to ride and deliver] are enjoying it. It just feels good."

Danko had completely closed The Independent during the first week of the shutdown "to decide what to do." Eventually, she reopened three nights a week, and is now open weeknights with most of the menu available for take-out and delivery.

"It's pretty cool when the Bicycle Brigade comes up on their bikes," she says. "The people who are getting the deliveries are very appreciative."

When he's out making deliveries on behalf of the Bicycle Brigade, volunteer Brenton Wiernik sees that appreciation first-hand. A professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, Brenton is "still doing my full-time job doing research and teaching online classes, and I'm volunteering alongside that."

"I deliver a lot of meals to people who are immune-compromised, who have kids, or who are older and really don't want to or can't get out and risk social contact," says Wiernik. "There's one woman who, every Tuesday, orders a fish dinner from Heights Seafood Co., and I've delivered that to her a few times. She is always so grateful — I'll leave it on her porch and she'll shout her thanks out to me (from her house) as I leave."

Wiernik delivered the Bicycle Brigade's first order from Ella's, and is riding an average of six nights a week making deliveries; he's clocked about 260 miles so far.

"That's one of the fun things about the Brigade," says Wiernik. "None of us has ever tried to do something like this before, so this is kind of, let's create a system from scratch and make it work and organized."

Since its inception last month, the Heights Citizens Bicycle Brigade counts 30 volunteers amongst its riders and dispatchers, and there are close to 30 participating restaurants. More than 200 orders were delivered within the first month of operation.

As a free service to The Heights restaurants and customers, the Bicycle Brigade is also a more beneficial option for restaurant owners over Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash, which charge a percentage that eats into the restaurants' profits.

"We're already scaled back in sales, and then all of a sudden having to turn around and give them [food delivery services] 30 percent…," Deming starts to explain and trails off. "We rapidly updated our website to include an online ordering system with the Bicycle Brigade as an option for delivery, so here in the neighborhood, you can get online, place your order and go."

A close-up of the shirt worn by Heights Citizens Bicycle Brigade volunteers.
Courtesy of Heights Citizens Bicycle Brigade

In its first weekend, Deming said Ella's updated website "worked really, really well, and the Bicycle Brigade was a big part of that." In fact, the weekend's Brigade deliveries surpassed those made by Uber Eats and GrubHub.

"The Bicycle Brigade allows the business to keep all of the proceeds," explains Danko. "If customers tip the riders, the Brigade gives the tips to the staff of business. It's a win-win situation.

"The generosity of the neighborhood and support — it's really encouraging," Dankso says.

"This neighborhood understands what restaurants have meant for the revitalization of our community, and we don't want to see that go away," says Deming. "We are very proud of our independent spirit around here, coming together whenever there's a time of crisis or need. We definitely appreciate it here at Ella's."