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Changing lanes

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  • | 12:23 a.m. January 15, 2016
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Walk into the Bike Bistro in Fort Myers and you may not know the man behind the counter was instrumental in helping one of the biggest brands in the fashion business.

Steve Martin was a young advertising executive in 1989 when Marvin Gralnick sought his advice on how to generate publicity for his small chain of women's clothing stores. “They had six stores and they wanted to get bigger,” Martin says.

That small chain was Chico's FAS, which today has 1,550 stores in North America. Gralnick and Chico's helped launch Martin's career as a successful creative director at Southwest Florida advertising firms, including his own.

But as with any creative career, the burnout factor in advertising can be high. “I knew I'd come to the point where I wasn't doing the company any good,” says Martin, 54.

So in August 2012, he quit the advertising business and leased space in a Publix-anchored shopping plaza on Summerlin Road near the bridge to Sanibel Island. Martin borrowed $100,000 from a family trust and opened the Bike Bistro in November 2012. “I have a little bit of that left,” he says of the seed money.

The location was good and the tourism season in early 2013 proved to be busy. “It's along the bike path and surrounded by hotels,” Martin notes. “We opened going into season.”

But Martin didn't open Bike Bistro on a whim. Before launching, he formed a board of advisers, people in banking, marketing and other industries whom he trusted to help him make decisions. He also wrote a detailed business plan, giving himself 1,000 days to put it together. “My family did a lot of gut checks,” he says.

Martin's wife, Angie, was supportive because the couple knew they'd be living on her income alone as a closing officer at a title company on Sanibel. “I didn't pay myself for two-and-a-half years,” Martin says. “I knew I had to dump everything into the company.”

Still, the cycling community is benevolent. Four people with a passion for the sport volunteer to work at the Bike Bistro for nothing, including a retired attorney. “He doesn't want a job,” Martin chuckles.

Of course, Martin now has hired two full-time employees and one part-time employee as business continues to grow, including a skilled mechanic. “I don't look at it as an expense,” he says when he's hiring. “It's an investment.”

As you might expect from a former creative director, Martin's marketing is polished. For example, the company's website,, is as sophisticated as any corporate customer and includes visually pleasing video.

Besides word of mouth, Martin says the most effective form of advertising are stake signs along the bike path. They're the kind you might see advertising Realtor open houses or stay-at-home jobs. “We tried postcards, we tried ads and that wasn't working,” he says.

The coffee's good, too. Martin purchased a $1,500 machine that makes cappuccinos and other coffees at the push of a button. Stan's Coffee, a Fort Myers-based coffee wholesaler, makes a custom roast for the shop. “It's an entree to sales,” Martin says.

Another way to attract customers has been to promote group rides. On Thursday evenings, eight to 20 people show up to ride together to Sanibel.

One of the group riders, Justin Ruzicka, a Fort Myers Realtor, says Martin is helping promote his four-man team on a race across the country this year. “I was trying to get a group ride and Steve was the only one fired up about it,” Ruzicka says.

Ruzicka's team goal is to raise $100,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project by cycling 3,000 miles in the Race Across America. Of course, Martin and friend Thomas Calabrese at marketing agency Pearl created a professional website for the endeavor, “It's a big commitment,” Ruzicka says.


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