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SANTA CRUZ — Rick Graves and the other riders at Clutch Couriers, which recently announced an expansion into Monterey County, have nimbly maneuvered the economic downturn as if they were swerving around a suddenly stopped delivery van on Ocean Street.
“I really didn’t expect the market to be as open and diverse as it is,” Graves said this week amid the clutter of his one-room River Street office where a handful of riders carefully step over stacks of promotional posters covering the floor. Bicycles lean against wall of the foyer and the outside wall.
“The only thing to take a dip was entertainment and that’s come back full force.”
In late morning on a weekday, the phone rings every few minutes.
The nearly 4-year-old company, which includes Graves, 40, and four other riders, managed to grow 35 percent in 2009. In the first quarter of 2010 business picked up and Graves expects to grow at the same rate this year.
“I didn’t expect us to be where we were in terms of revenues,” Graves said. “There are new markets emerging all the time.”
The company provides courier services such as court filing, mobile notary services and service of processes as well as rush and same-day court filing in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. A print and promotion division posts fliers and posters throughout the Santa Cruz area.
Another local company, Pedalers Express, provides the same services but Graves said the biggest competition is from companies that use motorized vehicles, in part because the community doesn’t always “get” that bike messengers are the most reliable way to get through congested streets.
In big cities, business relies on bicycle couriers to wind their way through rush hour traffic jams. But, in a small community like Santa Cruz, bike messengers are often pegged as a green alternative rather than the norm. It is an image Graves strives to change by focusing on professional service rather than conservation.
“The point is not about being green,” he said. “It’s about selling a service. Honestly, for most of these markets, that’s the quickest way to get there.”
He counts on expansion into Watsonville and Monterey County. Clutch Couriers, he says, is going to be well-positioned to take on more business.
“It’s just a matter of people realizing that we’re here,” he said. “We’re on the road every day, anywhere.”
Just outside the Clutch Couriers office, riders check over their street bicycles before heading out on runs that would take them to the courthouses in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, between clinics and to businesses and government offices throughout the county.
On an average day, they travel 40-50 miles per day, rain or shine, with big black Chrome messenger bags slung across their backs. There are longer days, however, including regular runs to and from Watsonville. Graves has a Honda Civic hybrid for small freight and out-of-county service.
To save on fuel, cost and staff time, Santa Cruz Metro switched last year to Clutch Couriers for the distribution of interoffice mail and board agendas.
“It has been cost-effective,” said Tony Tapiz, acting administrative services coordinator for the bus agency.
Every morning, a courier runs a mail circuit between various offices in Santa Cruz to Soquel and back. A rider also carries board agendas between Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Capitola and Watsonville.
Tapiz admitted that initially he was surprised they could make the haul, especially in inclement weather but, now, “I just respect they get the job done.”
Graves, who grew up in New Zealand and moved back to Santa Cruz for middle school, spent most of his 20s in New York City, working as a bike messenger. By the time he moved back to Santa Cruz in 2000, the roads were more congested and bicycle travel “was a no-brainer.” He worked in retail and at Pedalers Express, a Santa Cruz-based worker-owned and operated messenger service that operates throughout the county on non-motorized transportation exclusively. Graves launched his own company at the end of 2006.
“They are awesome,” said Michelle Harper, a paralegal for the Law Office of Heidi Simonson, which specializes in family law. The firm has been relying on the bike service for about a year and a half. “They’re always here right on time. He rides his bike, even when it’s raining.”
Other customers include the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, Bosso Williams, UC Santa Cruz, Non-Profits Insurance Alliance of California, Santa Cruz Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and Niemann Capital Management.
Rain storms and requests to meet tight deadlines while navigating busy rush hour traffic — those are the best days, said Graves, who claims to have carried a restraining order about 20 miles from Watsonville to the top of Mission Hill in Santa Cruz — obeying all traffic laws — in just 52 minutes. The winter rains were actually fun, he said.
“I take the long runs to Watsonville. That’s what my love is, riding,” said Graves.
The funkiest delivery? That would be getting a call to deliver organic catnip to Sneakers, a cat who had been left alone on Christmas Eve.
“I thought it was the neatest thing,” said Graves, a cat lover, who added that he was tipped well. “And, the cat was nice too, of course.”
Graves envisions a bicycle messenger office every 40 miles across the state but is focusing on growing “at a rate that’s sustainable.
“Now we need to expand into new markets like Monterey and pick up on plans to increase rides to South County,” he said. “There’s a lot more economic activity this year. I think we’re well-positioned for growth as long as we ride that wave.”
COMPANY INFORMATION BOX
WHAT: A privately owned full service courier company providing rush and same day delivery via bicycle throughout Santa Cruz County and parts of Monterey County.
HEADQUARTERS: 325 River St., Unit B, Santa Cruz
BACKGROUND: Founded in 2006.
LEADERSHIP: Richard Graves, owner & founder.
EMPLOYEES: Five employees.
AVERAGE MILES PER DAY: The couriers average 40-50 miles of riding each day.
This article was first published here.