New business owner hopes park-goers will scurry to surreys
Julian Bass looks affectionately at White Lightning, the glossy-white, four-person, limousine-style surrey that is part of his collection. Thirty-year-old Bass started his business, Chico Surrey, on July 1 and is sure he’s struck upon Chico’s next big thing.
Surreys? Like from the play Oklahoma!? Yes, indeed, though these days they’re pedal powered, not horse powered.
Surreys are typically four-wheeled cycles that two people pedal side by side; a limo surrey is extended to hold four riders. Surreys often have canopies, but the ones Bass owns are not the kind with “the fringe on top,” as the musical goes. Bass believes that the canopies block the riders from having a view above them, so his surreys are equipped with an open “skylight” in the top of the vehicle from which riders can look out.
Bass operates his business at the Super Shopper at 1885 East Eighth St. in Chico, almost opposite Bidwell Park’s deer pens. He currently owns six surreys, all of which have nicknames: White Lightning, Tux, Purple Haze, Big Red, Green Monster (the surrey children usually prefer) and Mellow Yellow.
I got to learn about riding in a surrey first-hand as I joined Bass for a ride in White Lightning. We set off down South Park Drive in Lower Bidwell Park pedaling side by side. Because the park is shaded, we were comfortable, and we chatted as we pedaled along. Bass is affable and friendly and seems genuinely excited about his business.
“People are loving it,” he said. “I had a great Fourth of July. Everyone was totally staring and ogling.”
And stare they did on this day. At one point, as we appeared over a bridge, a man walking his dog stopped and stared at us and White Lightning. He looked baffled, and I can understand why. It’s not often that you see a big white surrey suddenly appear on the horizon.
Bass bought the surreys from Kurt Stough, a welder/designer friend of his who had a surrey business in Lake Havasu, Ariz. Their common interest in building and creating helped create a bond. Bass pointed out that Chico is a lot better environment for surreys than Arizona, where temperatures can reach 114 degrees and sand blows everywhere.
“Chico’s got the park,” Bass added.
The surreys are safe and don’t require a person to have balance while riding them. The only person who actually needs to pedal is the driver. Others in the surrey also can pedal, however, if they want to pick up speed or help the driver out. Bass said the surreys could possibly go as fast as 20 miles per hour—the speed limit in the park.
“The one safety concern is not to turn the surrey too fast,” Bass said. “They are built to be ultimately compact and are very stable and lightweight on top.”
Dennis Beardsley, the city of Chico’s parks director, has no concerns over safety with the surreys and sees them as a welcome addition to the park.
“Based on what I’ve seen, no problems have been created,” Beardsley said. “I saw families riding together on July Fourth.
“Everyone has to be careful, but people were courteous and there were no complaints or problems.” Beardsley added.
The surreys are able to fit through narrow bridge rails or posts anywhere in the park. At one point, as we prepared to go over a bridge, I felt a bit apprehensive about fitting the surrey between the post and the bridge, but Bass reassured me, and sure enough, we fit comfortably and were soon climbing over the small bridge.
Bass was born in Berkeley and went to high school in Ohio, where he graduated in 1988. He went on to college at Sacramento State University, graduating with a degree in art in 1993. He worked summers during college doing odd jobs like delivering pizza, painting houses and working as a stagehand.
After college, Bass traveled around Northern California. He met Stough through a girlfriend, and the two clicked. They built some pedicabs together.
Bass believes it was fate that led him to adopt the surrey business from Stough. While visiting Stough in Arizona his car blew up in a desert and, another time, he and Stough ran over a wheel on the road that had come loose from a trailer. It was a sign that he should try another form of transportation.
“Kurt was like, ‘What’s next?'” Bass said.
Bass believes that he was being tested at that point to see if he had the endurance to handle this new business. He had lost 30 pounds during the three weeks in Arizona because he was too tired to eat and had one meal a day after working hard in the extreme heat. He and Stough would fall asleep on the couch, wake up in a pool of sweat and go back to work in the hot garage.
“We became very close, bonded like brothers,” Bass said.
Bass attached a huge trailer carrying the surreys to his truck and traveled with them from Arizona to California.
Bass said, “I just thought it was the perfect recreational thing for Chico, and I thought it would be perfectly suited for Bidwell Park.”
Bass ended up in Chico after falling in love the city while visiting a friend in 1995. “I was enchanted with Chico,” Bass said. “I’ve never been able to leave.”
Bass had $10,000 in startup costs for his business. He put it all on his credit card.
During the school year, Bass teaches at a Montessori school in Chico. He owns a pedicab business as well and is a guitar player and a singer/songwriter. He is doing music gigs in Chico and Paradise and is looking to start a band.
“Chico has a cool music scene," Bass said. "I love going to backyard parties."