By Marie Autrey
Quick! Name America’s oldest bicycle manufacturer.
Here’s a hint: they stock frames for rider weights up to 600lbs. They have their own hubs, rims, and even tires, and maintain replacement parts for bikes forty years old. And if you work in the city, you might even eat lunch out of one of their creations. Of course you searched online, ya big cheater, but now you know the answer is Worksman Cycles, in business since 1898. (Their contemporaries Schwinn and Columbia predate Worksman by a few years, but no longer manufacture in the States.)
Begun as an alternative to the light horse carts then used for retail delivery, Works- man expanded into ice cream trikes, with the front cooler box, and industrial trikes that carried workers and tools through the vast factories of the machine age. Along the way, they made a few thousand hot dog wagons and even a trike with a piano on it. Bicycle Times chose to investigate this survivor and see if the ideas that it started with remain valid, or if Worksman is coast- ing on a century of stored momentum.
So we loaded our gear and journeyed to an exotic part of the world known as Queens, New York, two blocks from the rattle and hiss of the elevated train. I’d expected the beige pizza box that comprises most factory architecture, but Worksman Cycles stands in three stories of brown brick and tall windows, its rooftop water tank converted to a cell phone tower, in a neighborhood of tidy row houses. You can almost hear the condo developers salivating. A cargo trike, freshly painted with the logo of a commercial bakery, dominates the reception area. A lift of the lid shows that its cargo box is precisely sized for six trays of cupcakes.
I’d expected to meet some PR guy, a thirty-something with a name like Chip, wearing khakis and a company golf shirt. Instead I got Wayne Sosin. Wayne is the visible face of Worksman, a 31-year veteran of the company, and now its president. He’s maybe 5’6" with wire-rimmed glasses and a hairline that’s slipped; he could easily play the good-guy boss or teacher in any movie.
He moves fast, like most New Yorkers, and doesn’t waste time. While I fumbled with a new tape recorder, he used the 45 seconds to dispatch some email. He’s got a bright openness that goes supernova when the topic turns to American industry and Worksman Cycles, the little company that could, and did, and does, for the past 112 years.
BT: I was surprised to learn that Works- man was actually a guy’s name, not just a trademark. Is that one of those Ellis Island names?
WS: From my understanding, part of the family came in as Werksman with an “e,” and that might have been the proper spelling, and some came in as W-o-r-k- s-man.
BT: You’re on expensive real estate in a high-wage part of the country, selling something that China made 41 million of last year. How do the books balance?
WS: Actually, I’m going to dispel the myth. Yes, it’s a very expensive piece of property, but we own it. And there’s a wonderful talent of labor that’s available in walking distance from here. First genera- tion immigrants—you’ve got all different skill levels, so we beg to differ with the myth that it’s expensive to operate here.
BT: The recent economic crisis demol- ished a lot of businesses bigger than Worksman.
WS: Sometimes small is beautiful. We had the ability to adapt, retrench and tighten the belts. I think that sometimes it’s harder for a big company that has a lot of infrastructure in place.
BT: I heard that back when you first started doing the Good Humor trikes, it was because Schwinn didn’t want to take a chance on them.
WS: Well, that’s the way it’s been told to me. Good Humor called Schwinn and other companies as well, looking for some- body to make ice cream tricycles for them. We apparently had a small reputation in the New York area, and so the relationship began that way.
BT: And ice cream trikes are still part of the business?
WS: It’s more of a legacy thing for us than a big business, but it’s our philosophy that bikes should be used for more than just recreation. Somebody operating a small business from one of our ice cream trikes—it gives them a good start, it’s vis- ible, there’s nothing negative about it, so we continue to do that. We’ve expanded into much more sophisticated food vend- ing carts and trucks as a separate part of our business.
BT: In past years, Worksman supplied cargo bikes to Pratt and Whitney, General Motors, and Mead paperboard. But now your catalog has items in it like chariots and recumbents. Which of these do you see as Worksman’s core?
WS: The core is the industrial bike busi- ness. We have always made that the focus of what we do, and the other products that you’re seeing, the chariots and dual trikes and things of that nature, are mainly offshoots of the industrial bike business. But it’s growing and we see this as being really good for the future as people get older and people get greener. But it’s not an either-or thing.
BT: What part of the product line are you most excited about?
WS: That’s like asking which child you like better! I like all of it. And that’s one of the reasons I like what I do, because on any given day, I can speak to an independent pizza shop owner who needs one pizza bike, or I could speak to global purchasing at Boeing, who needs a fleet of tricycles, or to a delivery service in Germany. It’s what makes us unique and I enjoy it very much.
Having said that, we’re getting particular joy lately out of the fact that our custom cruiser line has grown and is getting sup- ported by individuals who love what we do, who support the fact we make our bikes in America. They like the durability and the uniqueness, and that’s a lot of fun. It’s really neat when someone designs their own Worksman cruiser with two-tone paint, with painted rims, and when they own that bike, it’s something they take tremendous pride in.
One new thing is a line of lighter-weight Worksman bikes, in the Dutch tradition— commuter bikes. Why not do an NYC Dutchie? That’s one of the new markets for 2011. So we’re going to work on getting a lighter-weight (not light-weight) Works- man commuter, Dutchie style. We’ll have it done this year, but we’ll start promoting it for next season.
BT: Tell me about the “design your own” cruisers. How are they different from the industrial line?
WS: Basically, it’s more of a marketing and choice situation. We didn’t want the industrial customer to think they’re buy- ing a fashion bike, and we didn’t want the individual person to think they’re just buying an industrial bike. We took the basic frames and wheels and put them in a situation where people had a choice of colors, of wheel upgrades, tires, paint jobs, forks, so we allow them to be more creative. It gives the enthusiast the op- portunity to buy something that they’ve really created themselves.
But by and large, they’re buying a Worksman industrial bike that’s been done as a cruiser. As time goes on, we’re finding people getting more and more into tricking these things out. One customer bought three bikes for their family, two-tone paint jobs, alloy rims, 7 speeds, drum brakes, and I have to tell you, the bikes were absolutely spectacu- lar. They had painted rims, pink rim in the front, black rim in the back. People really have an opportunity to make their bike, their bike. And they’re available with alloy rims.
BT: Are the alloy rims as durable as the steel ones?
WS: It’s our own alloy rim. So it’s the same heavy-duty Worksman rolled edge rim, and the 11-gauge spokes are stainless steel. As far as I know, we’re the only bike company using an 11-gauge spoke. I haven’t seen any other company using that anywhere.
BT: Speaking of the “design your own” cruiser—at the paper mill where I used to work, we used hundreds of Worksman bikes, and the guys would literally get into shoving matches over who got to ride the red bike with the chrome fenders, versus one of the black beaters.
WS: Those sorts of stories have been legendary, where the bike becomes something that’s real personal. In some companies, they assign a bike or a trike to a rider, which is a perfect situation, because people are a little more prideful of what they have and less abusive. In other companies it’s basically a bike-share program, and if you think about it, Worksman was involved in bike-share for the last 75 years. And we’ve also learned our lesson: if you don’t put your industrial-type bikes in [ownership] situations, they’ll never make it, because the riders are abusive. It’s not their bike—they don’t care. It’s a challenge to see what they can do to mess it up.
BT: It’s inspiring to watch a guy with his basket full of power drills and hammers riding through the mill building and flat- tracking the corners with one foot down.
WS: We’ve found on that note that many companies have switched over from Worksman bikes to trikes as time goes on, because you can literally move hun- dreds of pounds safely, and there are no stability issues. That’s where companies can benefit, because now they’re moving merchandise that they used to move on a golf cart, which costs five times as much to buy and ten times as much to maintain, with the added benefit of getting employ- ees in good shape. So it’s a win-win. It’s just not the easiest sell to make, because people have not witnessed what tricycles and bicycles can do. You can envision a lot of people who work in these plants are middle aged, overweight…
BT: Smoker, six-pack drinker…
WS: …they start riding their tricycle, and the first week it’s very tiring, and then all of a sudden they realize they’re not as tired anymore, and then they love it. And maybe that’s going to contribute to some better overall fitness activity. It’s reward- ing when it happens, but we hear it both ways: “Oh yeah, they make us ride those tricycles instead of using golf carts,” then you hear, “Oh, I love your tricycles, it keeps me in great shape.”
BT: One thing that really impressed me about your product line is the number of handicap-adapted bikes. The handcycles, the cerebral palsy bikes. How did that prod- uct line come about? WS: It was market driven. Customers see our tricycles, and the next thing you know they’ve got a special-needs fam- ily member riding one, or their children go to school where they have our cycles. That’s the single most rewarding thing we do: we sell a product, it ends up getting used by a special-needs rider, and you get an email saying “God bless you, you’ve made a big difference in my child’s life, in my husband’s life.” So we’d like to see that grow. Whereas most special-needs products are very, very pricy, because our products are really just extensions of what we do anyway, people consider them to be very reasonably priced.
BT: I’ve got a friend with a high performance wheelchair, and she paid more for it than I paid for my titanium mountain bike.
WS: I went to a trade event for the special-needs market, and there was a company there selling an adult tricycle. We had our tricycles that we were selling for $400, and they had a tricycle that wasn’t as good as what we had, for $1200. So at the end of the trade show, I went over to introduce myself, and I said to them, “I think I could save your company a lot of money. There’s no need to have to sell this for $1200, I could sell you a tricycle for a quarter of that price.” And he looked at me and said, “You don’t understand this market. They’ll pay it. That’s why we charge it.” That really taught me a lot about that special-needs market. There are things being sold there for ten times what they should be sold for. We look at that as an opportunity, to offer products at a reasonable price.
BT: Those enormous front hubs you use: are they buy-out items?
WS: No, some of those we make. The front hub is unique, the spoke and rim is unique, the frame is certainly unique. That’s a big portion of the bicycle—things you won’t find on any other bike, whereas any other bike manufacturer, they’re us- ing components you’ll find on virtually any bike. So the Worksman bike, you’ll find that 80% of the bicycle is completely unique. We’ve always said that if you’ve got a Worksman, we’ve got the parts. Not a week goes by that we don’t get a request for a repair part from 1970.
BT: For decades, Americans have been told that the only proper bicycle is one that’s “high performance.” What do you say to that consumer?
WS: Oh boy, it depends how you rate performance. Americans historically have used bikes for recreation more than for commuting or going to the store. I un- derstand that performance is the reason people go out on Sunday and do their 50-mile rides. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about the utility, the comfort, getting from here to there. I wouldn’t want to ride a Worksman bike on a century ride. It’s good for what it’s good for: to go to the store, to visit your friends, to ride the boardwalk. Americans are rethinking transportation op- tions. Around the country, so many people commute less than five miles to work each way, and yet they use a car. That’s silly. Regardless of what style bike you want, there’s a bike that’ll get you to work and keep you in shape.
BT: Tell me about the Atlantic Coast Cruisers. Do you feel that this dilutes the Worksman message by having an imported product?
WS: No. We really brought those in because we were losing a lot of business to low-priced imports. We generally sell those to the bicycle rental fleets, we re- ally don’t push those to the consumer at all. It doesn’t dilute the Worksman name. In fact, it doesn’t have our name on it. If it says Worksman, we make it. If it says something else, we just sell it.
BT: Some people find it ironic that bicycle production can be such a “smokestack” industry. I understand you’ve done a lot here to minimize your impact on the environment.
WS: We started our green initiative in 2005 and it came to fruition in 2008. We went solar — one of the first facilities in NYC to go solar — 35% of our electrical use now comes off our solar panels. We changed every lighting fixture in the building to high-efficiency lighting, we started a recycling program, and we resurfaced our roof with a reflective coating to fight global warming. We challenged ourselves to see what we could do to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
BT: What kind of bikes and trikes do you use here in the factory?
WS: Unfortunately in New York City, a lot of things are vertical, and our factory really doesn’t enable us to use our own product. Even though it’s 100,000 square feet here, there’s no more than 30,000 square feet on any floor. So it’s really not conducive to riding a tricycle. It’s ironic.
BT: I’ve seen a lot of pedal rickshaws in Central Park and around the country. With Worksman’s experience in load- carrying bikes, are you competing for that niche?
WS: It’s a market that Worksman missed. Over the years we’d entered that market with our toe in the water and the timing was never right. It seemed that everywhere that rickshaws were tried, they failed or were legislated out of existence. We almost had too much history of knowing. It’s not one of the things we’re really happy about. We have gotten back into it by making what we call personal pedicabs, or chariots. Remember, the pedicabs you see on the street are really expensive, about $5,000. So we came up with what we call the Family Chariot—those things are well under $2,000, and that accomplishes some of the passenger capability on a bike.
BT: Most of your product line is eminently practical. Except for the Boneshaker highwheelers. That is a real anomaly.
WS: True. We distribute the Boneshakers for another company that’s out of California, and it’s just a fun product. I’ll tell you something fun about Boneshakers: we mostly sell them to use as restaurant decorations, but some people ride them. At the Five Borough Bike Tour in 2007, there’s a fellow there with a Boneshaker, and I say, “You’re not going to ride the whole ride on it,” and he says, “Why not?” At the end he didn’t look any more tired than any of the rest of us.
BT: What’s the maximum rid- er weight for the industrial bikes? WS: We can set ‘em up for up to 500lbs. America’s gotten very heavy, and a lot of obese people are looking for something they can ride. When we know it’s a rider who’s quite heavy, we might recommend that they put on the upgraded sealed crankset, Kevlar-reinforced tires, front drum brake. The stretch utility vehicle [recumbent trike] accommodates riders 5’6” to 6’10” and 600lbs. And it’s cool! It’s a chopper, not your grandma’s trike.
BT: Crain’s Magazine characterized Worksman as “the buggy whip manufacturer that survived.” Do you want to be a success story in buggy whip manufacturing?
WS: We’d like to be the survivors of our industry, and we’ve been that. We made a conscious decision to stay in the United States, and I know many of our peers shook their heads and wondered what we were doing. The whole world is going to China. There are a lot of reasons we didn’t go, and one reason is that we feel we have a lot more flexibility by making our own bikes. When you source things like this overseas and you’re not huge, you’re low in the pecking order and sometimes low in the quality control order too. We believe in American workers, we knew we had good structure here, so we made the decision to stay. And as the years go on, I feel better and better.
BT: What do you ride personally?
WS: I’ve got two bikes that I’m riding these days. I’ve got a Trek road bike for my longer rides, and I’ve got a tricked out Worksman cruiser, chrome-plated, drum brake in the front, 7-speed in the rear, that looks like a Harley. I definitely ride that bike more.
BT: In your photo galleries, I saw a guy with a kayak built into his recumbent. What is the deal with that?
WS: Over the years, our tricycles have been used for some pretty interesting uses, and our customers are really creative. We’ve done everything from making a tricycle with a piano on it for a Broadway show that was actually ridden on stage every night, [to] solar-operated ice cream carts. This particular one was as promotion for a resort, and they would go into cities across the country with these kayak tricycles, setting up on city blocks with what looked like a stream, to try to get people to go to their resort. I don’t remember the details but it was pretty cool.
In terms of iconic products that were launched on Worksman cycles, Snapple is a perfect example. Snapple in their early stages used a fleet of our tricycles to go to cities and do guerrilla marketing, do parades, do handouts; that was done on our bikes before Snapple was who they are today. Chipwich launched their entire product line, with zero marketing budget, on a fleet of our ice cream carts. We’ve had a little hand in some classic American products.
BT: Any last words for the recorder?
WS: I think people are taking a new look at us. It’s funny; we’ve become a great story by doing what we’ve been doing, and everyone else disappearing. When NPR did the story on us, the story was of survival, and of things made in the U.S. And it’s really sad that that’s a story.
BT: You and Steinway pianos, selling a unique product around the world, made in New York City.
WS: We’re going to promote Dutch-style bikes in the U.S., and Worksman cruisers overseas. A lot of people around the world like the U.S.A.-made products. We have to find new markets. If we sit back and wait for GM and Ford to buy our products, we’re done.Tweet Print