Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
'Twas a week before Christmas, 2014. The sun had set hours ago; temperatures hovered just below freezing. Yet the city of Buffalo, New York, had rarely seemed warmer, with strands of lights twinkling and modern takes on traditional carols ringing out from speakers. Bundled head to toe, thousands of Buffalonians flocked to the edge of the Buffalo River to celebrate the holidays. Many crowded around the new 33,000-square-foot ice rink, sipping hot chocolate, waiting their turn.
Lisa Florczak glided out onto the ice, with 11 people in tow. They were not on skates. They were on bikes.
An ice bike has the body of a bicycle--minus the front wheel--mounted on a 26-inch blade similar to the kind used in skates. The blade is duller than a skate blade to moderate speed, so the vehicle doesn't disrupt skaters. It operates like a regular bike: there are handlebars and pedals. Ice bikes are the invention of Florczak, who wanted a novel wintertime offering for Water Bikes of Buffalo, a business she started in 2013 with her husband, Peter.
With their non-terrestrial bike business, the Florczaks are helping to revitalize a city that, until recently, has not had much to celebrate. Buffalo is known chiefly for its chicken wings (hot), football team (cold), and winters (desolate). For 14 years this part of downtown lay abandoned except for the run-down Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, now demolished. In 2009, plans for a Bass Pro Shop on the waterfront evaporated and with them the prospect of badly needed jobs and tax revenue.
But by 2013 the neighborhood known as Canalside was finally on the upswing, with new development and attractions. Wanting to give both residents and tourists another reason to visit, the Buffalo-boosting Florczaks came up with the idea of a water bike business. (Water bikes are bike bodies without wheels, mounted on pontoons.) They introduced the ice bikes a year later, in tandem with the opening of the city's new rink. Buffalo's holiday celebration was the ice bikes' first appearance anywhere. Lisa Florczak had no idea how the public would react.
As she pedaled out across the ice, with her business's reputation and $20,000 of her own money on the line, Florczak at first heard nothing. "I was so concerned with paying attention to what I was supposed to be doing," she says, "that I temporarily went deaf and blind." It was only as she made her way off the ice that she heard the commotion: people cheering the ice bike riders. She found a quiet place under one of the new bridges near the rink and cried. "It's going to be OK," she told herself. "They liked the ice bikes. It all worked out."
"Why can't Buffalo pull it together?"
In the 1960s and '70s when Florczak was growing up there, the east side of Buffalo was predominantly Polish-Catholic. Sunday mornings were for church. The afternoons were for grocery shopping at the century-old Broadway Market: a vast ethnic marketplace and neighborhood meeting spot. Children played in the streets; doors went unlocked; and everyone knew everyone. "It was such a vibrant, middle-class area," says Florczak. "That neighborhood meant so much to me for so long. Now, when people find out I grew up on the east side they look at me like I'm a walking piece of history."
By the late '90s a shrinking economy and manufacturing base had forced many families out of the city in search of jobs. The Florczaks were part of that exodus, relocating in 1997 to Martha's Vineyard, where Peter, who worked in the hotel industry, took a job. Later, Lisa Florczak's parents left for Albany in search of post-recession financial stability. Her childhood home was abandoned, then demolished.
For seven years, Florczak worked office jobs as she moved around with her husband. Eventually they landed in Pittsburgh, a place with a history similar to Buffalo's but showing signs of revitalization. "Pittsburgh reminded me of what Buffalo used to be when I was a child," says Florczak. "The whole time we were gone we would cry, 'Why can't Buffalo pull it together?'"
The couple returned to Buffalo in 2004 when Peter was offered a general manager position at a hotel in a suburb. The city wasn't showing much promise yet. But with two adopted children on the way, they wanted to get back to their roots. "I never, ever thought that I was moving back to Buffalo at the birth of this new renaissance," Florczak says.
Over the next decade, with funding from local and state government, the city finally began work on the waterfront. In 2012, the Florczaks strolled the newly constructed boardwalk admiring the improvements. But it was obvious to them that no matter how beautiful the area became, people wouldn't come unless they had something to do. The Florczaks wanted to provide that something.
Fun on the water.
The Florczaks have always loved the outdoors. They first encountered water bikes on a family vacation and recalled how much their kids enjoyed the novelty of riding on water. So they approached the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) with a proposal for a business that would rent water bikes for the Buffalo River and Buffalo Harbor. Eight months later, the development agency responded with exciting news. It wanted to bring water bikes to Canalside.
Florczak, a stay-at-home-mom, had her doubts about starting a company when her children were so young. They needed the income from Peter's job at the hotel, so she would have to lead. In the summer of 2013, with a fleet of seven bikes purchased from manufacturers found online, Water Bikes of Buffalo opened for business, with three employees. For $15 an hour, riders could pedal up the river alongside the yet-to-be-renovated grain elevators and past the Naval & Military Park into Buffalo Harbor.
Canalside, at that point, was no one's idea of a fun magnet. Few people showed up. "At the beginning of the season we were praying every day just to make payroll," says Florczak. But she marketed heavily, posting herself at the entrances to events around the city, where she would hand out business cards and tell anyone who would listen about her company. The local media also did some stories. By the end of the summer, Water Bikes was making payroll and then some.
The second season went better than the first. Sales increased 50 percent as other small businesses and attractions started popping up, drawing larger crowds and more tourists than the waterfront had seen in years. It was enough to keep Water Bikes alive and open the window for a third season.
In the spring of 2014 the EDHDC announced the winter opening of an ice-skating rink--three years and $23 million in the making. Designed to replicate the former Erie Canal waterway, the rink would be the largest outdoor ice surface in New York State. The agency asked its summer vendors to suggest ideas--other than ice skating--to lure people outside in the frigid months.
Florczak thought, "If you can ride a bike on the water, why can't you ride a bike on ice?" She pitched the idea to the ECHDC board and received its seal of approval. At that point she had no idea whether ice biking was even possible.
The ice bike cometh.
Florczak's requirements for the ice bike were pretty simple. It had to coexist with others on the ice and be sturdy enough to stand on its own. She purchased a 26-inch coaster bicycle for less than $100 at Walmart and brought it to General Welding and Fabricating, a local small business. She handed them some sketches she had made. "This is what I want," she told them. "This is what I need it to do. And this is how I want it to look."
The sketches did not account for the effect of different blades on speed, so it took many prototypes to get the product right. Finally, with the help of one of General Welding's engineers, the ice bike was born. The final version sits atop a rectangular, stainless steel base. It looks like a standard bicycle on the undercarriage of a sleigh.
Florczak planned to debut the ice bike at the holiday celebration. As the day approached, she grew nervous. "I had no idea what the public's reaction would be," she says. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I am going to be the laughingstock of this community'."
She need not have worried. During the ice bike's first season, customers waited in line for up to six hours for a half-hour ride. Tourists from as far away as Hawaii told her the attraction was one reason they chose to visit the city. The bikes have proved so popular that the Florczaks collaborated with General Welding to create an ice bike kit, which sells for $1,800. Community centers and small businesses from countries including Russia, Dubai, and Canada have ordered them.
The ice bike has earned fans in an unexpected quarter. Because it balances on its own, the product is a hit among the Parkinson's community of Buffalo, where more than 9,000 people live with the disease. "When I came across ice bikes I realized that this could be a golden opportunity [for people with Parkinson's] to participate in something that, at one point, they really enjoyed and probably never thought they'd get the chance to do again," says Chris Jamele, president of the Buffalo chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation. Jamele now organizes ice biking parties for the local Parkinson's community. Seventy people attended the one held this year.
Biking for Buffalo.
Today, Water Bikes of Buffalo operates a fleet of 40 water bikes, pedal boards, and pedal and paddle boats in summer, and 18 ice bikes in winter. The company employs 25 people, including a nephew, niece, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and three cousins.
In May 2015, with sales rising and their fleet expanding, the Florczaks purchased an abandoned VFW post. They converted the downstairs into a storage facility and warehouse; they plan to move their family into the loft-style home upstairs this summer. "I never would have thought that renting out water bikes for $15 an hour would be enough to pay for a warehouse," says Florczak, who has yet to cut herself a paycheck.
But for Florczak, the dream was never about owning a business, being her own boss, or making money. Like most Buffalonians who knew and loved Buffalo in its prime, she wanted her city back. "I don't want my children to grow up and feel like they need to move away," she says. "I want to be part of the movement that is going to change things here. And I think we have been."