Meet Piotr Drabik (he likes to be called Pete). Barista, coffee-machine maintenance guy, all-round handyman, and builder of bikes. Here he tells us how he began his career in coffee and bikes, about his love of fixing things, and his desire to share his skills.
I became friends with Pete while we were baristas together at BREW, a specialty coffee shop in North Oxford. He often rocked up to his shift on a yellow Filibus cargo bike, which he calls 'the yellow bus', carrying 12 litres of milk and a box of tools.
He's a diligent barista, dedicated to the craft, and he knows a thing or two about coffee machinery.
His passion for fixing things extends to bikes, and alongside his job as a barista he runs a bicycle maintenance business.
Pete, how did you learn to repair and maintain coffee grinders and espresso machines?
I worked in a warehouse complex when I first moved to the UK, just outside of Oxford, in Witney. Across the business estate there was a coffee roastery (UE Coffee Roasters) and they had an amazing van with the whole back door covered in vinyl, presenting a barista doing latte art. So I went there and asked for a job. I said I would take anything. I didn't know much about coffee, but I did have an interest in it. I wasn't drinking instant coffee, I had a grinder and I enjoyed the taste of good coffee, but I couldn't say much about the origin or different brewing methods. I told them I loved fixing things and that I'd like to do a degree in manufacturing or engineering.
They gave me a broken coffee machine and told me to take it apart, put it back together, and see if it worked. It took me two days, but when I put it back together it fired up! There was a burning smell coming from it so we quickly turned it back off, but Ori (who now owns a coffee shop and roastery in Oxford called The Missing Bean) said it wasn't working at all before I arrived, so he hired me.
That's a beautiful story. How did you become interested in mechanics and engineering in the first place?
It all started in Poland, where I grew up. My dad was a car mechanic and I did a college degree in car maintenance. From 13 years' old I learned about fixing cars from watching my Dad because the garage where he worked was attached to our house. My passion was for cars. I loved them and I didn't cycle anywhere.
You used to prefer cars to bikes! What changed?
There was a car accident involving a deer. I didn't kill the deer, I swerved and I hit the tree. Also I was short of money and trying to save, but I didn't see life without a car. The idea of not having a car was an impossibility to me. But when I crashed the car and couldn't afford to buy a new one, I started to ride my bike. I had neglected my bike in favour of my car for 7 years!
I started out by cycling to work, which was about 6 miles from my house, on a ladies town bike from the 1970s. It was nice and had chrome mudguards and it looked like an American car from the 50s. You know, the muscle car? Lots of chrome. I did it for two weeks and I started thinking that life without a car is possible, and it saves a lot of money. I no longer had to pay for insurance and services.
When you were driving a car, did you think about the environmental impact of owning one?
Not at all. It wasn't until I stopped driving and I started cycling that I started to notice the fumes that cars emit. When a car passes you, you can smell it straight away from the exhaust pipe, and it's really unpleasant.
When did you start fixing bikes? Was it a natural progression from cars to bikes because you suddenly had a bike instead of a car to keep maintained?
No, actually it wasn't that easy. I could fix a car, pretty much every part of it, but I couldn't fix my bike because it's so different. I didn't know that you had to change the chain every two months and lubricate it, and pump the tyres every two weeks.
Every two weeks? I didn't know that.
I told you! When I fixed your bike. Have you not been doing it?
So how did you learn about fixing bikes?
I broke my wheel and I took my bike to the bike shop. The quote they gave me for a new wheel was so much money compared to the price of the bike. So I bought a book on bike mechanics and I started learning. I began by maintaining my own bike and then started fixing bikes for friends, and my business progressed from there. I started to make money from it.
When you moved from Poland to Oxford, did you find that you had a lot of business in buying, building, and selling bikes? Oxford is full of cyclists.
Oxford is exceptionally good. The average price of a second-hand bike outside of Oxford is about £50 lower than it is within Oxford, because there is so much demand. But like with lots of things in Oxford, it relies on the students being around. There are peaks and troughs. Just before term, or during term, you can sell any bike, but outside of term or towards the end of the year, business is pretty quiet. It relies on the student community.
You do all this outside of your full-time job with BREW?
Yes. In the future it might become something more, but so far it's my hobby and my passion that I do out-of-hours.
Do you find that working in a coffee shop, meeting a lot of people, helps with your bike business?
Yeah it helps. People often ask in coffee shops where it is they can find a good bike shop. Often a coffee shop is the first place that a person will go to when they arrive in a new place. They come in with their suitcases.
That's nice. Why do you think that is?
A coffee shop is a social place, and if you're new to town you want to become part of the community. It's a great source of information.
What do you think of a place like The Handle Bar Cafe, that is both a coffee shop and a bike shop?
It is the ultimate. I think it's great. I did have the idea of combining the two even more closely, by having the workshop and the cafe in the same room, but you can't really have that because a workshop is dirty and a cafe is clean. Handle Bar have found the best way, with the cafe upstairs and the bike shop beneath, but it feels very connected.
What do you think of cycle.land and the idea of bike-sharing? You say that in Oxford the prices of second-hand bikes are increasing because of demand, so do you think there is room for a community of bike sharers?
It's a great opportunity for cycle.land. Students are here for a limited time, so they buy a bike but then they need to get rid of it when they leave, which is a hassle and not very cost-effective. Sometimes when they buy a bike from me they ask if they can sell it back to me at a lower price after just one semester. I'm usually happy to do that, but not every bike seller is, so I think it's fantastic to have the additional option that cycle.land provides, of renting a bike for a period of time at a very low cost and then being able to hand it back to the owner.
How do you feel about our culture of throwing things away and buying new things rather than fixing what is broken? Do you think people lack the skills and knowledge to repair and maintain?
I don't think it's the people that are at fault, though they do lack the skills. I think it's a failure of the education system that children aren't introduced at a young age to doing practical things like mending a puncture. It's left up to the parents to set a good example, but not every parent has time. I learnt car maintenance from my dad but not everybody's dad is a car mechanic.
You recently started volunteering for Broken Spoke, which is a great bike co-op that teaches people how to fix their own bikes. You must therefore have a passion for passing on your skills?
I've got strong feelings about sharing skills. There are very few people who can invent things from the ground up, but people are really good at improving what has already been invented. So I think we should share the skills and our ideas and then each person can improve on it and it becomes a collaborative effort, and we can build great things. I think anybody with skills should be very open to teaching others and be willing to share their knowledge. For example in Oxford we have very few coffee machine engineers and I want to teach as many people as possible to do that so we can bring the price down (it's very high at the moment). Independent cafes can then afford the servicing costs of their machines, and will be willing to look after them more often than they are now. It makes me sad when machines are not looked after. I think we should all share our skills, whatever they may be - maintenance, engineering, knitting! It's a good thing to do for your community.
If you want to say hi to Pete and talk to him about bikes (or buy one from him!), you can find him serving coffee at BREW in North Oxford.
Photo by Meike Clever. For more awesome pictures, check here.