Starling and Hero Bicycle Cafe in Cape Town

Custom-made bikes and coffee in Woodstock

“Bicycles are mischievous things,” Emile Kotze tells me as he thrusts a grease-covered hand in my direction. 

Having put down the particularly badly behaved wheel that he was tinkering with, the co-owner of the recently opened (August 2012) Starling & Hero Bicycle Café, a custom-made cycle shop dressed as a coffee house at the renovated Woodstock Exchange, gives me his full attention. 

“Riding a bicycle is good for you,” he sums up. “It’s exercise, it’s fun, it’s cheap and it’s green.”

“And we just thought that Cape Town should have a place where cyclists can go to sit and eat, and also browse to buy bicycles, accessories, gear and services,” interjects his business partner and childhood friend, Arno van der Westhuizen, above the whir of a juicer.

He pours the freshly-squeezed, granny smith-green liquid he’s finished blending into a Consul jar, garnishes it with a thick white straw and hands it over for approval – a perfect wheel and spoke.

Although Cape Town’s burgeoning bike culture has yet to lose its training wheels – it’s still in infant stages, so to speak – with the 2011 launch of the city’s first segregated bike way (designated lanes  run parallel to the R27 stretch between Big Bay and the CBD), the cross-section of commuters pedalling from point A to B rather than plodding along in stand-still traffic is slowly growing. Not to mention, with the advent of a handful of cycling activism initiatives – Moonlight Mass, the Sunday Shootouts and the Naked Bicycle Race, to name a few – the ‘two wheels good, four wheels bad’ mantra has hit home with Cape Town’s ‘cooler than thou’ population, a group of people likely to go mad for Emile and Arno’s little venture. 

The café, a product of the boys’ self-professed bicycle fanaticism and shared childhood – both hail from the same small town that rests on the heels of an ever-expanding Johannesburg – is the first of its kind in the Mother City and a clear amalgamation of its owners’ individual whims.  

Arno’s predominately in charge of the on-the-go culinary creations: simple, healthy, delicious – but unridable. Emile champions the showroom and bicycle workshop, having learned at a young age from his father – who learned from his grandfather – how to restore, service and repair urban and commuter cycles. 

“When I was a kid, my dad didn’t want to pay for me to take my bike to a mechanic, so he said, ‘you must learn yourself’.  I never dreamed it would end up helping me start a business.” 

A series of restored vintage single speeds, the products of tough parental discipline, rest easy in one corner of the café; Emile’s fitted many with reverse handlebars, coloured grips, leather saddles, stainless steel spokes, rims, and in some cases, baskets and bells. To match, Arno’s dreamed up the love child of a muffin and cupcake, a savoury concoction he calls an ‘upcake’, a play on another trend that’s taken Cape Town by storm – upcycling.   

The upcakes are baked fresh daily, and range in flavour from polenta topped with roast vegetables to aubergine, mint and lemon topped with hummus. Alongside the cyclist-friendly snacks, Arno also whips up smoothies and single origin cappuccinos, a drink that’s dished up with an off-the-cuff kind of ceremony normally left to Japanese tea houses. 

The coffee is sourced from the duo’s Woodstock Exchange neighbours, Rosetta Roastery, and served atop a slab of asymmetrical wood in a hot rod-red Italian Moka pot. Alongside the personal espresso machine, a lime-green spoon and a milk foam-filled tumbler dusted with a bicycle spoke of cocoa stand in impeccable alignment.

It’s nearly too perfect to drink, but then again, Emile’s ‘pimped out’ restorations feel too perfect to ride. 

Aside from Lazarus-like paint jobs, many of his bikes feature a number of stylized accessories, which are also available for purchase in the shop: Brooks England leather saddles, Knog locks, lights and tools, Godspede bespoke leather goods, hand-woven Murara baskets and even vintage trouser clips.

It’s not necessary to buy piecemeal though; Starlings sources and sells a variety of whole bicycles: rust-buckets perfect for those looking to undertake their own restoration, artfully-revived vintage bikes, fresh-out-of-the-box fixed gears (think spanking new Camissa single speeds), and even contortionist-like Tern fold-ups.

Not to mention, it’s also perfectly plausible to commission the boys to build your own customised, two-wheeled horse and chariot, or to simply bring your cheeky cycle in for a repair (Emile’s happy to be of service). 

Though, even if you haven’t fallen victim to the city’s spiking biking fever, the café, with its full-length window, high ceilings, fresh flowers and steady stream of solid tunes (think Belinda Carlisle, the Beatles and more), is still an ideal place to have a casual coffee in Woodstock and a friendly chat. 

So, if you’re pedalling from point A to point B, consider a stop along the way, and even if you’re not, if bicycles are as devilish as Emile suggests, who knows, perhaps you’ll end up at Starlings after all. 

Tip: Starling & Hero Bicycle Café gives 10% off all food and drink items to those who arrive by bike.

Opening Hours: Monday to Friday: 9:30am to 5pm; Saturday: call ahead to see if open  

The Woodstock Exchange | 66 Albert Road | Woodstock | Cape Town | +27 (0) 082 799 6906

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