In a world of $6,000 carbon fiber bikes and $150 bike shorts, it’s hard to imagine finding useful bike gear for less than $10, but local bike bag company Banjo Brothers rings the bell with its $5.99 phone wallet. Built to hold a smartphone, credit cards and cash, the wallet comes with a plastic window that allows full use of a touch screen in the rain. A purveyor of tough and affordable bike gear, the Brothers design bags that attach to bicycle frames, seats or racks, along with messenger bags and backpacks. Much of their gear ranges from $12 to $80 and comes in ballistic fabric construction. A separate line of leather and canvas bags appeals to purists. Their support of many local bicycling causes keeps the Banjo Brothers team of Mike Vanderscheuren and Eric Leugers rooted near home. And no, they’re not brothers. They don’t even play the banjo, but fortunately neither of those things preclude them from dreaming up fantastic bike gear.
If you were unfamiliar with the Banjo Brothers before, this synopsis shares important information. First, we learn that Banjo Brothers makes quality bicycle bags without a ridiculously high sticker price. (We at Higher Gear, of course, knew that before Banjo Brothers were voted “Best of” in March 2014.) Also evident is the quirkiness of the pair behind the brand, which was reinforced when we met them in person at Interbike:
After Interbike this year, we got to catch up with Mike Vanderscheuren whose partnership with Eric Leugers led to the creation of “a better bag.” We learned that behind Banjo Brothers’ “better bags” are two even better guys.
A natural storyteller, Vanderscheuren delves in: “Going back to the beginning…” He tells us how he and Leugers met in 1995 while working for Fiskars, a large manufacturer where he was head of sales and marketing and Leugers was head of product development. He shares with us a story about how Leugers got him back into cycling when he built up a Schwinn Worldsport as a single speed, which they broke in at the National Hardware Show when it was in Chicago at McCormick Place.
After a number of years and a series of mergers, the two men learned that their jobs were at risk. It was at that point when the two decided to go into business together. “We had that moment. We always thought about doing something – you dream about it, think that you can do it better – but you get comfortable with that paycheck. Finding that courage usually takes a push.”
In the corporate world, Vanderscheuren and Leugers were involved with manufacturing of tool belts. Through their experience, they got to know the “cut and sew” industry pretty well. The line was aimed at big box stores, which turns out to be ultra competitive, with companies “earning” the space on shelves by paying upfront for it and by being increasingly cutthroat on pricing. As their website says: “We did spend nearly a decade making and designing tool bags. The skills we learned trying to build tough stuff for 250 lb guys named Gus comes in handy when designing bike bags.”
Vanderscheuren expands on this: “When somebody goes in to buy a tool belt, it’s part of their uniform. It has to work! Regardless of price pressure, you can’t put crap on the shelves.” For this reason, “We had to be very crafty.” He adds: “We had to be knowledgeable about fabrics, materials and construction. We had to make products that were affordable, but that really worked.” It was with that know-how that Vanderscheuren and Leugers created Banjo Brothers.
Leugers had grown up riding and racing bikes. He had previously worked in the bike industry and, because his basement was filled with cycling gear, he rarely visited bike shops. One day, one fortuitous day, he wandered into a local bike shop only 700 feet from his house. He happened to pick up a seat bag and declared, “This is a rip-off!” This aha moment was the impetus for the direction of Banjo Brothers. As Vanderscheuren points out: “We didn’t invent something new. Instead, it was about value.”
In creating their company, it was important to the two men to stay within their community. They wanted to build a business in Minneapolis. At the time, Minneapolis had a well-established network of bike trails, but commuting by bike wasn’t exactly mainstream. Over the next decade, the Banjo Brothers’ business grew as more cycling infrastructure got built and Minneapolis became almost as well-known for its cycling as it is for its lakes.
Vanderscheuren points out that when he grew up in the iron range of Minnesota, “You’d get looked at funny for riding; only lunatics would ride bikes!” For him, as it is for a lot of kids (and adults), bikes represented freedom. Fortunately, cycling did catch on in Minneapolis, as it did elsewhere. This made it possible for Banjo Brothers, which was created before there was any good bike infrastructure in the area, to grow. “It wasn’t the bikes that kept us here. The biking thing just kind of happened,” Vanderscheuren says.
With their knowledge of the cut and sew industry, the Banjo Brothers had a strong advantage. “It was in our DNA.” Vanderscheuren says: “We weren’t just copying products. Most of the time, we were making things better.” He expands: “Most product designs are picked up off a factory floor in China. You pick something value priced and you make it work.” Rather than take that approach, the two used Leugers’ experience as a quality process engineer at Toyota – where process and quality were highly valued – to help differentiate their products.
After their experience with big box stores, the not-really-Brothers decided to focus on small businesses. Vanderscheuren explains, “If they win, I win.” But, they had to have a solid business proposition. “There was not a lot of room for error. We had one chance to prove ourselves.” And prove themselves they did. They kept things very simple, developing a range of about eight products, which would be the backbone of their business model. And those products would offer high quality construction at a reasonable price point. “It’s not a sexy story, but there’s cash flow.”
In essence, Banjo Brothers is a small company serving small shops. “There are two of us. We’re not some huge monolithic corporation. We keep things pretty simple.” Vanderscheuren and Leugers look for ways to give back to those small businesses and to their Minneapolis community in general. They constantly ask themselves, “What can we do to build relationships with shops, to build community?” With that goal in mind, their Tiny BikeShop Concert Series was born.
“The concerts are a way to build community,” according to Vanderscheuren. “There are three distinct forces working together. They offer shops a chance to reward customers a fun, free event. They give the musicians a chance to get in front of a new audience. And we at Banjo Brothers bring whatever sway we can bring to the party.” He adds that the concerts attract such a diverse audience. Hipsters, shop rats and families all enjoying the music and dancing. “There’s something about it. It’s not just something going on in the background. It’s a club quality show. People walk out of there just floating. It such a personal experience.”
The concert series is mostly local, but it has been known to hit the road. They’ve had concerts in Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, California, Texas and Washington, DC. (We put in a motion for Banjo Brothers to consider Wilmette, Illinois for their next Tiny BikeShop Concert tour!)
Locally, both Vanderscheuren and Leugers teach cross country skiing in the Minnesota Youth Ski League. They also support other local events, like the Almonzo 100, a local grass roots gravel road race in Spring Valley, MN. Twice now, the Banjo Brothers have set up a tent along the route. “The fast guys who are racing just blew right by us.” For those out there suffering through the gnarly roads and over 8,000 feet of climbing over a ten or eleven hour day, the tent is “an oasis in the middle of the desert,” according to Vanderscheuren. “We offer a ton of beer and snacks.
The second year they set up their tent, they didn’t tell anyone they would be there. In addition to the refreshments, they also hired an atypical Elvis impersonator. (Vanderscheuren tells us this is an Elvis impersonator who also covers Devo, performs rambling monologues and has a three-foot Barbi.) “By the time the riders get eighty miles into that course, they are hurting.” The Banjo Brothers are there to offer that little pick-me-up to get people through the day and the 100 miles. “We do it for the community. It’s a way to give back to the people who give back to you.”
The Banjo Brothers’ goal of giving back gets even more local and even more personal. About ten years ago, Vanderscheuren and Leuger’s brother coordinated a bike camping trip for the two of them and their daughters who were about four years old at the time. The girls were on trail-a-bikes for the trip that involved about 30 miles of riding each way and camping for two nights.
Since that initial trek, the now annual “dad’s” bike camping trip has grown to about 30-some people riding. Vanderscheuren tells us that the kids – mostly, but not exclusively, girls – who started by tagging along on trail-a-bikes now range in age from seven to 15 and are all riding on their own. “It’s special: the way that it’s grown and the impact. You teach these young kids that you can do this, that you can do stuff with your bike, that your bike can give you so much joy. It also teaches so much about self-reliance.”
Vanderscheuren also shares with us the bike trip he took this summer with his wife and fourteen year old daughter. They rode from Minneapolis to Duluth in four days. They averaged eighty miles a day. He points out that for someone his daughter’s age, riding that distance “rips open the world.” It really gives you a sense that “we can do anything.”
He sees this in the kids who participate in the annual bike camping trip. “When you’re seven or eight and you rip off sixty miles, it does change you.” Vanderscheuren adds, “It also changes what you can do as a family. Once the kids are on board, getting out and about is not a problem. It becomes integrated in your lifestyle and you don’t think twice about it.”
Since Vanderscheuren makes quality bike bags perfectly designed for road trips like these, we asked him what gear is essential for a bike trip. He surprised us with his answer: “My philosophy is ride what you have.” He expands on this. “People get caught up in a ‘I can’t do this because I don’t have the gear.’” He says that articles in Outside Magazine, COG and other magazines can be intimidating. “You see ‘Ultimate Commuter Setup’ at six or seven thousand dollars worth of gear. Half the people see that and quit before they start.”
Vanderscheuren calls all that fancy stuff “aspirational gear” and admits that it serves the purpose of driving innovation, but assures us it isn’t necessary. “You might aspire to that, but you don’t necessarily need it. There may be a time when you do want to trade up to something that is made for bicycle touring, but don’t let the gear be a limiting factor.” He tells us about a trip their graphic designer made, riding from St Louis to Philadelphia. “They took mountain bikes with no racks and had stuff duck taped to the bike. They looked like hillbillies; he still talks about it being the greatest trip.”
In essence, this manufacturer of cycling gear tells us that the gear isn’t important. In fact, his advice is to “Ride what you have.” Fortunately for Higher Gear customers, we have high quality bike bags at affordable prices – because we carry Banjo Brothers.
Come in to Higher Gear and check out our selection of Banjo Brothers gear. Check out that $5.99 phone wallet, which comes in handy for all sorts of adventures! Click here to shop Banjo Brothers items at Higher Gear online.
For more on the Banjo Brothers:
- Meet the dynamic duo behind the brand.
- Catch up on their adventures in their blog.
- Check out the link to their “Best of” win in the Star Tribune.
- Banjo Brothers were in the spotlight for “thinking locally, growing globally.”
- Read more on “Building a Better Bike Bag.”