The sky can't decide if it wants to produce rain or wind or make way for sunshine, so it settles on an uncomfortable mix. No matter. It's Friday and a night out in NoDa is too enticing for Heather Fitch and her friends.
Before hitting the bars, the group of six meet at a nondescript warehouse on North Davidson Street catty-corner to CenterStage. The brick building is hollow save for some raw construction material, a foldout table and a woman, who doles out warm greetings. "Are you here to ride?" Tracy Sanchez asks the disoriented customers as they arrive through what looks like a former loading dock. Sanchez apologizes for not being easier to spot. "We'll get a sign eventually ... we moved in yesterday."
She collects driver's licenses and passes out insurance waivers for customers to sign. Once ink is dry, Sanchez guides everyone to a side of the building, where they come upon their ride to the bars.
Picture, if you can, an open-air San Francisco trolley that's been overhauled by oompa loompas. The traditional benches and standing room have been replaced with a wooden bar top and 10 bicycle seats that line the trolley. And they're not just there for show; underneath each seat is a set of pedals.
This is the Party Pedaler.
The bike trolley — and the other bike crawlers, cycle pubs and pedibuses that have popped up across the United States in the past year — are essentially leg-powered trolleys that transport riders to different bars. The Party Pedaler is different from others, though, in that it has a motor to allow riders to take breaks from peddling. But, similar to Chicago's party pedlars, Charlotte's is forbidden from allowing riders to booze on board (the notion didn't sit well with the city).
Two years ago Sanchez visited her longtime friend Michele Stogner, whom she met through a mutual friend in 1997, at her home in Austin, Texas. During dinner one night at an outdoor restaurant the two discussed their desire to leave their day jobs — Sanchez's in property management and Stogner's in painting and remodeling. Entrepreneurs at heart, Sanchez says they agreed to venture into something completely new. The idea came to them — literally — during that dinner.
As they ate, Austin's PubCrawler rode by.
Six weeks later they pooled the money they had each saved to start new businesses to purchase a custom-built, hand-crafted trolley from a company in Bend, Ore. Including shipping and handling, it cost them $50,000.
Once they had the pedlar they weren't sure where to dispatch it; Austin, Stogner's home, already had one. It took Sanchez returning to her home, Charlotte, to realize the Queen City's outdoorsy-inclined inhabitants would make for great clientele. The Party Pedaler set up shop in an Uptown building last year and began offering tours through Charlotte's sky-scraped neighborhood.
"We felt a sense of urgency because the concept is so unique; there's only 26 in the country right now," Sanchez says. "We wanted to capture Charlotte."
They've since moved into that warehouse on North Davidson Street to easily access their most requested routes, NoDa and Plaza Midwood, and are attracting more than just the expected clientele. Sanchez says she hosted a 55-and-over group in April. In coming months the warehouse headquarters will transform into a proper pregaming spot and event venue/meeting space complete with picnic benches and a buffed concrete floor. This will give riders the opportunity to bring their own food and alcohol — Party Pedaler can currently serve neither before they head out. Sanchez runs the day-to-day operations and Stogner, who still lives and owns her business in Austin, tries to come in once a quarter and is tasked with imagining the big-picture ideas (one was adding the engine to the trolley).
They set out with the goal of expanding to a new city every year after the first but, after spending 12 months as small-business owners, realized that perhaps they were overly ambitious. Earning enough profit to buy additional trolleys and secure space for new businesses and hire staff in a different city would take much more than a year. "Maybe in the next two," Stogner half-jokes. One day Pedaler will turn into a million-dollar business, Sanchez says, but it'll take time.
There's nothing quite like pedaling a pile of steel and wood up a hill to the tune of cheesy '90s pop Fitch's friends' selected for the evening. The drivers, shoppers, walkers, (regular) bikers, kids and parents you pass can't decide whether to laugh or stare in awe. Some ask to take your picture. It's no wonder, from beer-filled 5Ks to (regular) bike crawls, more and more people are combining strenuous activities and drinking. Your thighs might burn (nothing a few beers can't help) but you and your friends will be stars, at least on Facebook.
All Fitch's group can manage to discuss is how much fun they're having, mostly because they're too winded to carry on lengthy conversations, as they pedal up the gradual hill from the warehouse to NoDa's bustling heart. They'll stop at different bars for Baby Guinness shots and Michelob Ultras as curious onlookers outside whip out camera phones.
Try hard as they might, the riders will never go any faster than 10 miles an hour. Cars behind them gently honk, because what else can you do when you're driving at a snail's pace behind a party trolley? It's too funny to be mad at but too blatant an inconvenience to ignore.
This story incorrectly identified how many seats come with pedals (ten). Additionally, Party Pedaler's headquarters will eventually double as a pre-gaming spot that will allow riders to bring alcohol and food.