While in the Pacific Northwest last week for the 2014 Washougal MX, we made sure to indulge in the areas countless coffee shops. Trips to Stumpton Coffee Roasters at the Ace Hotel and VooDoo Doughnut are staples any for the Portland, Oregon, area but there is one cafe that embodies two of our favorite things: caffeine and motorcycles. Located on the east side of the city and over the Willamette River is See See Motor Coffee Co., a shop that we originally learned about through Drake McElroy and have followed extensively on Instagram. Run by a group of passionate riders, the space houses a motorcycle shop, retail space, and dining area that has a steady stream of clientele. After finishing our cup, we began chatting with Sean Smith in the motorcycle shop and then Thor Drake, the owner of the business. Both were incredibly hospitable through our hours in the building and granted us full access to the work area in back. Before we departed, we spoke with Drake for nearly a half hour about the history of See See and what he, a fan turned influencer, thinks about motorcycling riding’s current state.
For more on the Portland shop, visit seeseemotorcycles.com…
See See Motorcycles is a coffee shop and motorcycle shop, which are the business side of things. We also put on events, put on races, and sponsor racers ourselves. It was designed to be a little more like a skate shop in some senses, where we tried to grow the community of people that are in to what we are.
We live the exact way that we want the people to come in want to live. We love building and riding bikes, hanging out around the whole scene, and racing of course. Basically it is me fulfilling my dream job, when it comes down to it. I get to do cool shit all of the time because of motorcycling.
I was born in Norway and moved to northern Arizona, where I was really into snowboarding and skateboarding for most of my young life. Through that the progression was to get into dirt bikes, and my parents forbade me from riding any sort of motorcycle, so there was a serious fixation developed because I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted to do. I really liked the aspects of speed and jumping, so I saved up my money from winning snowboarding contests and bought a 1990 RM 125. Before that I bought a Z50 for fifty-bucks, which I still have, but I saved my pennies to buy the RM. I was really terrible at it; I’d follow people who were really good off of jumps and complete fk myself up. I think I knocked myself out six times in the first and second year of having a bike. It wasn’t a smooth path, because I was really terrible at riding.
I moved up to the Northwest in the late 90s to work at snowboarding camps, and by that point I had bought a new bike off of the showroom floor, a 1999 RM 125. Which is weird, because I hate yellow bikes, but I always changed them to white so that was the saving grace to those terribly handling bikes [laughs]. We actually built a track behind the employee housing after renting a backhoe, when the owner of the snowboard camp with all this land agreed to let us do it, probably not knowing what we were up to. So we rode out there almost every day, and I still sucked, but being in the Pacific Northwest in the summertime is really sunny and in one given day we would snowboard all day, come home to skateboard, and in the evening ride motocross. It was pretty fun for a fifteen-year old kid for a while there. After that, I moved here permanently to work for Nike and lived in Portland. I didn’t know anyone that rode, so we had a huge warehouse for this division of Nike called Savier that was a big skatepark. So the only time I rode was afterhours in a twenty-thousand square foot skatepark that was pretty vacant. I would set up ramps on Friday night and ride, until they shut me down for it being too loud and smelling too much for the people next door. Basically, you just can’t ride a motorcycle at your work.
I stopped doing that, but was permanent in Portland so I sold my dirt bike to go to school and didn’t ride for a number of years. I didn’t have any bikes, but then it just happened again. I went on this trip where we rode a thousand miles on motorcycles and I was hooked again in 2002. I got back into it pretty hard and started racing a little desert and cross-country stuff, which I was never into when I was younger and wanted to jump. Something clicked in that four years where I quit motorcycling, because I was better when I came back [laughs]. Shit, fast-forward five years where that job dissolved and I started doing creative builds for different companies at tradeshows. I learned about building places creatively and efficiently, so that contributed to See See and the design of the whole space, with recycled stuff and crap that I had laying around that was repurposed to be affordable and stylized.
So I had worked for Nike and then started to do stuff on my own in a workshop. I had all kinds of shit, rode here and there, but the economy took a tank and I was at my wits-end. I wasn’t getting paid for what I was doing, so I went back to school for advertising for a year. I did an intense program at Wieden+Kennedy, which is a big global advertising agency. It was a good experience, but after it they couldn’t get me out the door fast enough. There is a lot of sitting at a desk with advertising, and I’m just not that guy, which strangely enough I do a lot of now [laughs]. Eight hours a day is spent in my office, dreaming about being in the workshop. I had an idea of how to put things together, and out of that I put together the 1 Show out of that school program because I was sick of working on really crappy campaigns that no one cared about. I figured I’d make a good experience out of the program and made it look really pro, and that first year was a magical year. It set the tone and everything took off from there. In that process, I dreamed up the idea of owning a shop and told enough people, so I couldn’t be the flake that told a lot of people but fell through. So we kept See See running with our first store, a really small space in the industrial area of Portland that was mostly a workshop with a tiny retail space. We opened the doors with about as small of an amount of money that you can get away with; I think I even started it with a three hundred dollar sticker order. It was whatever we could do to stay out of advertising and not have a “real job,” loosely termed.
It was in a weird area of Portland where there was not a lot of walkthrough, so for See See to grow we had to add some more legs to it. My business partner at the time took a job in Boston and sold out of the company, but another friend, George Kassapakis, who has a lot of restaurant experience, dreamed up this thing with a café and motorcycle shop, with the third leg being the shows that we put on or the builds, the extra stuff that we’ve added into it. Every since we got in this space, it has been really good with a steady influx of people and business is getting better. I think motorcycling is also getting more popular, which helps as well. But our cliental aren’t necessarily motorcyclists. Some people come in because they are interested by the place and some of our regulars had never considered getting a bike until they came here. Now I see a lot of them riding, which is pretty cool. I’m stoked to say every person that works here rides, which I think is rare for any motorcycle shop to have. It’s been cool and we get to do whatever we want, because we don’t have to “obey the law” or whatever [laughs]. We just have fun.
Drake McElroy is one of my personal heroes and its funny because we were born on the exact same day, and growing up learning to jump and sucking at it, I look at him as a man of style. Which is really interesting for motorcycling, because it has in some ways lost some of its style over sponsors. Drake was just a cool guy that was insanely talented at riding motorcycles and I was introduced to him by his brother, Cody, who was into skateboarding. When Drake and I first got together, we tried to think of a thing we both enjoyed, which was adding a little style into motorcycles that we were into, which were dirt bikes. That bred the Smoking Seagulls, which were the first two builds that we made. Mine was an XR400, which was street legal but the bike that your grandpa has, basically. He used an old SuperMoto YZF for his, and because he was hanging out with Roland Sands a lot, we looped Roland in the mix. That was seven years ago, when we built our first custom bikes and because it went over well and we got a lot of press we didn’t expect, we kind of saw an area to capture. That is where we started the whole idea of Smoking Seagulls and See See; Drake was more of the Smoking Seagulls guy while I was just trying to make the See See model of a shop. Smoking Seagulls is the attitude of what we’d like to bring and See See is the shop. Both help each other out and do things on our terms, which felt honest. With everything that I have done at See See, I value Drake’s creative sense and ability to ride. In a perfect world he wouldn’t have to travel the world, he would be in one location doing See See stuff, but everyone has to get paid. I’ve opened this location with nothing really; So to ask him quit his day job to do this would be a big favor. But I hope that sooner or later everything will converge in someway, because it’s fun when we work together.
My personal bike collection is too big [laughs]. If you have to move a bike to work on a bike, I think your collection is too big. There are probably ten bikes in the shop now, a few bikes nearby, another site where there are a bunch of bikes, and then my entire basement is full. I just took a bike over to the Poler store. I have about twenty, but there all pieces of shit that don’t work [laughs]. Well, some of them work but not very well. I have a hard time parting with any bike and once I have it, I feel like it is mine for the rest of my life. I have everything from European bikes to Japanese, had some Russian bikes for second that I got rid of, the Rokon sitting here is American made, and I have a Harley that I ride around which is basically my daily rider. It is a big FLH shovelhead with all of the bags and shit on it [laughs]. You can never have enough bikes, but there comes a point where you can.
I wish there were more free things to do that are fun, so when I came up with the 1 Show I wanted it to be free. That was the top priority and it was as true as I wanted it to be as possible: Just hanging out in the garage with friends and talking about bikes. It was free to get in, there were dollar beers, you could stay as long as you wanted, and there was no one telling you what or whatnot to do. You could come, have a good time, and leave without spending a ton of money. The way to make that happen with a big show, with the cost involved, is to go to companies that are looking for people to buy their products. The one really cool thing about our shows are that we select our sponsors, if that makes sense; I don’t put an open call out to everyone and hope we get something, because the sponsor has to be aligned with the same vision otherwise it is a pointless sponsorship. I really made it a point to find brands that would want to be involved, not just paying some money and asking how it was. I want all of our sponsors to add something to the community and the people interested in motorcycling. We have to get sponsors to pay for the shows, but we try to get the best that we can find. Every single sponsor we have had, like BMW coming on for the 1 Show last year, have been really cool, humble, and interested in the show. We work with a lot of local companies, because growing up in the skateboarding and snowboarding worlds, I like to work with my friends.
What I see happening in motorcycling is that a lot of people get into it because it looks cool, but there has to be something more than that. When it comes down to it, you can’t fake it on the racetrack, can’t be Steve McQueen without racing. You have to do it because you can’t just look like it. With a lot of people just getting into bikes, a certain amount just want to look like it and I don’t think that is going to live forever. The one thing that has always been constant since the age of man is racing, and I wanted to put some focus on it because it is what I like to do. We have a ton of really good racing series going on in the Northwest and one that I had been to before was the Salem Indoor flat track. It is a family that runs it and I think they have since the late 1970s, with a good track and good facility that is very accessible to everyone. We kind of showed up interested in doing it and focusing our efforts into something during the wintertime, when it’s wet in the Northwest, and we stunk up the pits a little bit [laughs]. It wasn’t a smooth transition with us coming there racing, but we kept coming back and by the end of the series started to win some of our classes. That got us a little respect from the guys that have been doing it a long time. The one really cool thing about flat track racing is that anyone can do it, with any kind of bike. It is a good gateway into racing, because it’s not too terribly hard to ride a motorcycle in circles, but it is to go fast and do it well. I wanted to help them promote it and get more people racing, because it’s what I enjoy. And that is where we started our See See Racing from this past year.
We sponsor a couple of riders like Andy DiBrino who is a nineteen-year-old road racer that is super talented and Kevin Rookstool, who I met through Drake. Kevin is really good and we knew about him through that, but we found out he is racing the whole outdoor series as a privateer. He’s just out there doing it and having a lot of fun, while enjoying the lifestyle. He’s not on one of the big factory teams with the support and regimented schedule, but just because he likes it. He has the spirit of getting out there and getting it done because he likes it, not because it’s a job. Anyone that has added anything to motorcycle has done it because they liked it, not because it was a job. I’m sure it becomes that at some point and there are some cloudy areas, but life is too short to do things you don’t enjoy. Especially if that’s what you do all of the time.
My requirement for anyone on this team is that you possess this spirit that I believe in, which is that this is supposed to fun and enjoyable, not a chore or a job. You can treat it that way, but you should first and foremost have fun. That is the spirit that I want to promote. Those kinds of guys are nice to talk to and inviting, and they want to help people learn to race better and safer. I’m fixated on the racing thing, because all of my heroes were racers. I want to support that because that is the thing that will persevere.
We just finished Dirt Quake at Castle Rock. The preliminary talks of having it were with Mount Saint Helens Motorcycle Club, which has been around since the 1950s and they put on the first Castle Rock TT. We had to go in front of the old timers and explain that there would be choppers, scooters, and snowmobiles, which they brought in strangely enough [laughs]. The first talks had some strange looks thrown my way, but that race was incredibly successful and something I can credit Sideburn Mag for bringing to us and the world is that you can race anything and that it will be fun. That race was intended to demystify and have fun with flat track racing, and boy it was a crazy event. Six times the amount of people I expected showed up to watch and even a few old pros came down to watch. Despite what everyone thought, there were only two ambulance rides for some cracked ribs and maybe an arm, which isn’t bad for that amount of people [laughs]. There were eighty racers, so two crashes like that are less than I think they would have normally had. Everyone left there glowing after a good time and we are looking to promote more races.
See See Motor Coffee Co. is located at 1642 NE Sandy Blvd. Portland, OR 97232.