What has three wheels, a hot water heater, a coffee grinder, and a collection of orange and maroon mugs?
It’s the Virginia Tech Recovery Community’s new free coffee bike, a pour-over coffee shop on wheels. But this java is free and served with an important message.
The electric tricycle, outfitted with wooden cabinets holding coffee supplies on its back, was built to travel campus and create opportunities for conversations about substance use and recovery.
Heading up the bike project is the Recovery Community, a group that supports students, faculty, and staff who are in recovery.
The e-trike launched officially last week. Starting this fall, bicycling baristas will ride it around campus and to events, hand grind the coffee beans provided by Red Rooster Coffee in Floyd, and talk about recovery and related campus programs. All donations for the coffee will support the Recovery Community.
The e-trike is one of several initiatives to grow Virginia Tech’s Recovery Community. Read more about the group in this recent Virginia Tech Magazine story.
The idea for the e-trike rolled out in the spring of 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. After learning about a similar bike that promotes students in recovery at Virginia Commonwealth University, Joshua Redding, a counselor and assistant director at Hokie Wellness who coordinates the Recovery Community, proposed the idea for Virginia Tech’s own version to Martha Sullivan. Sullivan is an associate professor of practice and chair of the university’s industrial design program.
Redding visited Sullivan’s classes to talk about the idea and its purpose. Also, Michael Whalen, a 2020 Virginia Tech graduate and a member of the Recovery Community, spoke to the students about how the community helped him during his journey with alcohol use.
It was the perfect project for industrial design students, because it blends physical, emotional, and social elements, Sullivan said.
“It’s really important to bring Ut Prosim into our classroom,” she said. “They [students] need to feel like what they do can really help people. It’s a soft skill that often gets overlooked in the classroom.”
The students went to work, initially creating 11 prototypes for the trike. Then, the pandemic closed much of the campus labs and delayed the project.
Still, in the summer of 2020, three of Sullivan’s students took on the project themselves. Using one of the prototypes, they built a wooden cabinet to fit on the back of the tricycle for storing coffee supplies and hot water heaters. They also worked on other features, such as stabilizing the heaters and ensuring that coffee could be served from both sides of the cabinet.
Oriana Nordt, one of the design students, said completing the project was important.
“It’s a change that we could potentially make in people’s lives,” she said. “That’s why people are drawn into industrial design, because we see an opportunity for our products to make a difference. This was one of the first opportunities where that difference was right here, and we were able to see it firsthand.”
The bike project is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through an Inclusive Excellence grant to Virginia Tech. The Inclusive Excellence program aims to foster the success of all students in science, especially those from diverse pathways.
With this grant, Sullivan said she hopes to create coffee bike kits, complete with materials and a design plan, for other universities to use who want to build similar java-serving bikes. This is one of many projects that represent industrial design’s commitment to improving healthcare in the region.
Meanwhile, the next step in rolling out the trike is training students and other operators to ride it and serve pour-over coffee. The Recovery Community welcomes those who have been involved with the community, called recovery allies, to get involved with the coffee trike project. The trike will appear for the first Recovery Community event this fall, a sober tailgate planned for the Sept. 3 Virginia Tech home football game.
On July 15, in front of Burruss Hall, Grace McCutchan, who is head of education and quality control with Red Rooster, demonstrated the pour-over coffee process to a group of people gathered to see the new trike. The trike serves 30 cups of coffee at a time.
Largely, Redding envisions the trike popping up randomly at events and on campus. It will be stored on the first floor of Payne Hall, the new location for the Recovery Community and the Roost, the group’s gathering space.
“It’s like surprise coffee,” Redding said. “It gets the conversation going about substance abuse and education about recovery from a different perspective. Usually the community is seen through the lens of those still suffering in active use or addiction. This gives people a chance to hear stories of hope and recovery.”
By Jenny Kincaid Boone