Bikers bond over coffee in the wild West Bottoms

Talia Garland (left) and Camber York rolled into Blip Coffee Roasters for coffee and community on a recent Sunday.
Talia Garland (left) and Camber York rolled into Blip Coffee Roasters for coffee and community on a recent Sunday. Special to Ink

It’s 9 a.m. on the first Sunday in October, and motorcycles line both sides of an otherwise empty street in the West Bottoms, their sharp, polished bodies still in shadow as the sun makes its ascent in the east. Harleys, Hondas, Triumphs — it’s a smorgasbord of bikes. All are welcome.

Their owners, clad mostly in denim, leather and mesh riding jackets, are as varied as their bikes. Women and men of all ages mill about on a raised platform in front of Blip Coffee Roasters, 1101 Mulberry, greeting new arrivals, examining bikes and talking about upcoming trips. Some look like the type of person one would expect to see at a biker meetup — lots of leather, longer hair on men — but this isn’t “Sons of Anarchy.”

These are Kansas City’s motorcycle enthusiasts, and for them, this is church.

And if this constitutes church, then Ian Davis is the reverend. He stands inside behind his bar, taking orders and making coffee and greeting his customers as friends — because they are. Alt-J plays in the background, an indie rock soundtrack that pairs nicely with the signature industrial feel of the West Bottoms architecture and the motorcycle merchandise for sale around the coffee shop.

Davis, who started Blip in 2014, has created something Kansas City probably didn’t even know it needed: a place where good coffee and biker culture combine.

Davis, a 26-year-old Kansas City native, was working in coffee and craft beer in Charleston, S.C., when he bought his first motorcycle: a 1976 Honda CB550 Four. When he moved back to Kansas City to start Blip, he had a nice Toyota truck as well, but he sold it to buy his first coffee roaster. The bike became his only method of transportation.

“From the beginning, it naturally worked itself into the business,” Davis says. “I’m showing up to meetings on the bike; I’m picking up coffee samples on the bike.”

Sunday church started with about four or five guys before Blip was even open to the public, and Davis says it grew naturally into what it is now.

“We’re only open for about four hours on Sunday, and so people will start showing up at about 8 or 9 in the morning,” Davis says. “Weather dependent, you might get 50, 60 bikes outside.”

“The community part of it, the circle’s getting bigger as more people hang out and more people build motorcycles,” says Ricky Reyes, who describes the West Bottoms as the Wild West for the majority of the month, excluding, of course, First Fridays.

Reyes owns Anchor Moto, a West Bottoms shop specializing in bike repairs and custom builds. He met Davis after seeing bikes outside the coffee shop one day and going in, and the two have since become friends.

“It’s just a place to go and drink coffee, and people talk about their bikes and ooh and ahh about everyone else’s,” Reyes says.

Blip’s biker culture didn’t evolve solely from Davis’ personal interests, nor was it born completely of necessity. In an era of specialty coffee shops that can be intimidating for newcomers, Davis wanted his coffee to be approachable.

“In Kansas City especially, we’ve got a ton of really, really good coffee,” Davis says. “There’s a lot of good roasters, there’s lots of good cafes. … I’ve kind of noticed a similar trend of who they market to. It’s a specialty coffee consumer, and that tends to be the same consumer base. So like, you could go to a lot of shops and kind of see the same people — maybe the same clothes, same hats, same jeans — which isn’t bad.

“But for me, I enjoy communities that are diverse. We had the opportunity to open up in the West Bottoms, and the West Bottoms is this very industrial, kind of dirty neighborhood. So to make Blip approachable, you need a little bit of a — I don’t know, you need that little catalyst.”

That catalyst came with both the location and the motorcycles, blending specialty coffee with something a little grittier.

The grittiness doesn’t mean that Blip’s coffee suffers; Davis still spends time on selecting the right beans, equipment and water filtration. It just means he gets a wider variety of customers.

“We get welders, woodworkers, there’s a lot of railroad hubs down here, there’s trucking hubs,” Davis says. “We’ll get semi trucks that pull up outside. You get car guys, motorcycle girl gangs that show up. You name it, we get all sorts of different consumers that I think are pretty unique that might not otherwise be able to go to a different specialty shop.”

In the beginning, Blip was just a wholesaler. Davis sold his coffee to restaurants, cafes and offices. In 2015, he added a walk-up cafe at 1101 Mulberry, a funky, small bar that he modeled after a coffee shop in St. Louis, next to the roasting facility.

But it didn’t last long. The cafe had been open for only four or five months when the building caught fire in January.

“The fire wasn’t in our space, but all the smoke and water shut us down with a passion,” Davis says. “It was a pretty surreal morning. So it was pretty calm, and again, the West Bottoms is kind of this dusty, dirty place, and a lot of times, there will be dust blowing around.”

Davis felt like he was seeing more dust than usual that morning, so he poked his head outside to make sure the building wasn’t on fire. It was.

“There were flames shooting out of the second story window above our entrance,” he recalls. “I’m sure that it was only a matter of minutes, but it felt like a long time.”

Everyone sprang into action quickly. Those who were inside Blip grabbed fire extinguishers and dashed upstairs, shouting for everyone to get out of the building. They located the fire by feeling doors, but the smoke was too heavy to get through. They left the building.

“I was standing in the middle of the street just kind of looking dumbstruck,” Davis says. “And Ricky pulls up, and his first question is, ‘Ian, did you get the fucking bikes out of the back?’ 

He hadn’t. Davis and Reyes, along with a few others, rushed into the roasting space to start pulling motorcycles, including Davis’ (which Reyes had just worked on), out of the back. Davis and Reyes tried to cover up the roasting machine and throw as much merchandise as possible out the window, but there was only so much they could do.

“It took about eight minutes, and then we couldn’t go back in the building,” Reyes says. “I had never been in a fire. I had no idea. Now I understand why people can die — oh yeah, you can’t breathe. At all.”

Reyes, who is originally from California and moved to Kansas City 12 years ago, points out that the community Davis has built around himself stepped in to help him after the fire.

“They’re supporting something that’s true DIY; he did it himself,” says Reyes. “Kansas City has a very ‘take care of its own’ mentality. … When this happened to Blip, everyone stepped up and got him back on his feet.”

It has been a long process. When Blip closed, some of the only salvageable items were the boxes Davis sold his coffee in — and that’s only because they were at the printer’s at the time of the fire. Davis’ friends at Broadway Roasting Co. sold their own coffee in his boxes and donated the profits to Blip’s revival.

In April, Davis opened his doors again, in a new spot in the same city block as the previous location. He resumed roasting in September and expanded his hours this week. The shop is now open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it’s open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This gives Sunday churchgoers an extra two hours; the shop previously closed at noon. That’s more time to plan road trips, dream up plans for custom rebuilds and to relax in the company of like-minded people.

“It really just gives people an opportunity to come down and not only drink good coffee, but kind of give them a break from their work or from their house or from whatever they have going on,” Reyes says. “They can come down, hang out, see what projects people are working on, hang out for the morning.”