Building A Roaring Business
Kris Krome's custom-made choppers easily make the cut with cycle buffs, and now he's entering one of his rides in the prestigious S&S Cycle Biker Build-Off
Then you bang on the metal door of a tall brick garage until a slim fellow in black jeans, a T-shirt, and black straw hat steps from behind a rusting cargo container.
“Watch your step; we’re going to get this fixed one day,” he says, as he leads the way along a path of rickety boards laid over mud. Once inside, you see a surprisingly small workspace crammed with oxygen cylinders, drill presses, lathes, cycle posters, motorcycles in various states of construction, and an older man welding amid a galaxy of sparks who turns out to be the owner’s father.
“I’m Kris Krome,” the owner says, looking younger than his 33 years. Krome isn’t his real name, of course, but a moniker that works for him as his reputation grows as one of the most innovative builders of one-of-a-kind choppers in America, although he prefers to call them custom-built motorcycles. “The goal,” he says, “is to do something nobody else has invented.”
For a growing number of cycle buffs, choppers — highly customized bikes that can cost as much as a Rolls-Royce — are a growing segment of the booming motorcycle market. Don’t confuse his bikes with the old Easy Rider street bikes, with their high “ape hanger” handle bars. Krome designs and builds high-performance dream machines that he calls a “fusion” of various styles.
He points to his latest project, which right now is just a dull metal frame on a workbench. In late June, Krome will take the finished bike to Wisconsin for the S&S Cycle 50th Anniversary Biker Build-Off — sort of a World Series of choppers. Only 50 designers have been invited to compete for the $50,000 grand prize, and Krome is the only Michigan designer going. He’ll be competing against lots of deep-pocket bike builders, such as Orange County Choppers, run by the Teutul family from the TV show American Chopper. Further, it’s rumored that Tonight Show host Jay Leno, a well-known car and bike collector, will buy the winning cycle, which might be worth $200,000 or more, Krome says.
That’s a pretty exciting prospect for the owners of the bike: Ken Steil, a 37-year-old Detroit cop and his 24-year-old wife, Susan. The St. Clair Shores couple have sunk nearly all their money, including retirement investments, into the bike.
Ken has been riding for a while, but Susan just started in street bikes and wanted to upgrade. Ken met Kris Krome, who made some sketches. “Why buy something off the rack when she can have one-of-a-kind?” Ken says.
The Steils, who like to take road trips, are part of a growing motorcycle subculture in southeast Michigan, one that Larry Katkowsky calls the “largest concentration of bikers in the country.” Katkowsky should know. He’s a lawyer who represents motorcycle users in the state Legislature, and all his clients are bikers. He also owns and rides three Harleys and is a cycle instructor. “I ride my bikes to work and to court in suits,” he says. “I ride everywhere I can. And my wife rides behind me.”
Katkowsky, who is 65, says several types of bikers take to the roads as the weather warms. There are road trippers and sports-bike riders who might ride alone or with a couple of friends, various clubs whose members like to ride en masse, and what he calls the “one percenters” — outlaw biker gangs.
“The ma-and-pa clubs, like the Gull Wing road riders, are couples who go from restaurant to restaurant, while the Harley clubs go from bar to bar,” he says. There are also all-women clubs, like Leather & Lace.
The place to see bike clubs gather is along Main Street in Royal Oak, where there is a sort of informal schedule that varies by bike type.
The chopper crowd is the meat and potatoes of Dave Kaye, who operates Detroit Bros. in Ferndale and speaks well of Krome. “We sell to guys 20, 30, 40 years old — professionals like engineers and mortgage brokers,” he says. “They’re not looking for traditional choppers.” You can get a chopper from Kaye for roughly $20,000-$120,000, depending on whether you want to customize your old bike or get a new one built from scratch.
Dominic Pulis, a 29-year-old Chrysler engineer, had been riding a Harley Sportser street bike when he “got the itch to try something new.” He talked to Detroit Bros., and now has a “one-of-a-kind” custom chopper. “Riding my bike is pure,” he says. “There’s a real sense of energy and freedom with the wind in your face.”
Although his bike “looks awesome,” it’s not comfortable for long distances, he says, because there’s no real suspension, which is common for choppers.
Back in Waterford, bits of ash float through the garage as Krome’s father, John Luberdo, welds and grinds a fender. Krome, who says he’s just a normal guy with two kids (a third is on the way) and a wife who works, came to the cycle business late.
His family raced cars and fabricated parts, and he was always “chopping things up” as a kid, he says. He tried being a stockbroker, then an ironworker. But he always liked cycles and going fast. When people started asking him to help customize their bikes, he says, “I realized I could make a living at it.”
Right now he’s the CEO and sole employee of Kris Krome Cycles. But he’s been getting great publicity for his designs, including spreads in cycle magazines. He looks back at the cycle frame on the bench, his ticket to the prestigious S&S Build-Off.
“Winning this,” he says, “could be a real Cinderella story for us.”