A boardwalk empire: The family-owned Cuistax business in De Panne

To most Belgians, a weekend at the seaside means mussels, mini-golf and cuistax. Indeed, the brightly-coloured pedal karts that come in all shapes and forms occupy a special place in the collective conscience of most Belgians and no coastal holiday is complete without a little boardwalk ride. Keen to find out more about the intricacies of running a cuistax rental business, we spoke with Filip Dequeecker, the second-generation owner of Arizona, De Panne’s main cuistax purveyor, and discussed origins, cultural heritage and the things people do to steal the iconic pedal bikes.

If you had to describe a cuistax to someone not familiar with the concept, how would you do so?

It’s mainly about having fun, it’s very popular. It is a part of our cultural heritage, and when they come to the coast, they don’t question it, they just do it. They are just here to have fun… it is very Belgian.

There are other countries and cities where it exists though?

Yes, but it is very Belgian and won’t work that well in places where it gets very hot. Cuistax work best under typical Belgian weather. For us in the summer time, when it is too hot, daytime rentals are rather slow but tend to pick up in the evening. The key is the weather. Here on the coast, it doesn’t rain as much as it does in Brussels. We probably have 10 days of rain a year, and even that is a lot. And of course other countries have cuistax. I’ve seen them in Rome. I was quite impressed that in the Villa Borghese they’re still running with four people and single ones, not as well as with us but they had a good business. I was amazed to see how universal it could be. Even in Rome the kids had to do it. They were battery assisted, because the Villa Borghese is not flat. I have also seen them in Tenerife, but not on the same scale as here in Belgium. Only in Belgium are cuistax allowed such freedom and can pretty much ride wherever they want.

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Who are the people behind the business?

It’s a family business. We have four employees and during the summer time we expand the team to about 30 students. During Easter time too. In the summer we open at 8.30 am and close at 10.30 pm. But if it gets really hot, we stay open later. Once we stayed open until 1 am. It was crazy, temperatures got so hot and people just kept on wanting to ride.

I noticed your son was quite passionate about the handling of the business?

His name is Emil (12) and he is as passionate as my father-in-law. You can find him welding in our workshop in Veurne. He welds or bends metal and makes something new. He creates. He has the passion of his grandfather, my father-in-law. So I think he’ll keep it going. But I really don’t know, he does not have to do it for me, but if he likes it, that’s great. What we have here is quite unique if we compare ourselves to Knokke, for example, where there are 17 cuistax rental businesses. Here we are all alone, and every single go- kart belongs to us. And he loves it.

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Can you tell us a bit about your background?

In the past, I used to own an ice cream shop as I am an ice cream maker by training. But it was too much to have the ice cream shop as well as the cuistax rental business. It was just too much, I had to be up at 3 am and be ready at 9 am and then quickly make it over to the karts. That lasted for five years. The ice cream shop is still there, but it is not what it used to be.

How many cuistax do you own?

600. All types of cuistax. Small ones, single ones, double ones, large ones, six pedal ones and many other types. Once, 40 people pedaled all at one, with one person driving, one person steering and the rest pedaling. Like a big snake, they all just attach them to each other. And that adds to the appeal, that you can make a snake. One time, I had 48 people, a group that had booked a train but I had none available. Since they were quite young, and the weather was nice, I made a train for them thanks to the hooking system. They were driving for about two hours and they were delighted. But the hooking system did not exist ten years ago.

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Where do most of your clients come from?

Most of our clients here are French- speaking. Other cities like Blankenberge and Middelkerke focus more on German and Flemish markets but De Panne is near the French border, and so people from Lille have historically had their second homes here. It was the French- speaking people who were buying the nicest spots and due to that it became more French-speaking. I’d say 80% of our clients are French-speaking, either from France or Wallonia.

I like to say that people ride a cuistax three times in their lives. First as a kid, then as a young parent with their own kids, then the next time with the grandchildren.

And if I understood correctly, you also own another rental shop?

It’s called Roger and is on the other side of the esplanade, further down the beach. We also have a playground with a small train that goes in the city. Roger was established around 1936, and its boss at the time was called Roger. About 10 years ago, I bought the business
from the previous owners but the name remains the same. So if people are not happy with us they go over there. Truth is, even if it is a small city, there is a big difference between clients who come here and the ones who go to Rogers’, where it is more popular.

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What is the age range of customers?

I like to say that people ride a cuistax three times in their lives. First as a kid, then as a young parent with their own kids, then the next time with the grandchildren, at which point it is enough because it is quite heavy. You would be astonished to see all the different ages doing it. People come in on a Sunday, nicely dressed, and working up a sweat. Sweating down their nice clothes. If it’s raining, as soon as it clears, they rush out.

And the people can ride on the street?

Yes, that is part of our success. It was copied in many cities in France and even in Holland but there, regulations are killing the business. For us the regulations are quite free. But if tomorrow they tell us we can’t go into the city centre then the fun is over.

Has there ever been talks about tightening regulations?

From time to time it can become quite crowded in the centre. So the trams cannot go through when you have the slowly moving cuistax in the way. And since trams have to stick to a tight schedule, that causes a few issues. So then there are reports and we have to be careful because on a given month they count the number of delays there are. But from De Panne to Knokke, they know that they have to attract kids, and that the karts are part of their vacation. It’s something typically Belgian: small drivers on the street, with no driving license.

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How do people describe the experience?

It is nothing less than driving around in a Fred Flinstone-like car. That is what I say.

During the year are there waves of people? How does it work?

The season starts in March with the opening of the playground. Then it is Easter season, which is a good vacation. But because France is right on the border, ad their holiday starts a bit later, it gives us an extra week of business, which is an advantage. Then the season goes on until the end of September. But even during the winter holidays we remain open…

People still come when it’s cold?

Yes. As you can imagine it’s freezing, or even snowing, but they’re still happy to come. We’re open for a week during the Christmas holidays but closed for the rest of the month. We open again during St Valentine’s and only on weekends throughout the month of February. Then we take care of maintenance during the week.

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Coming back to the early years of the business, when exactly was it founded?

It started in 1936. Not at this location but a Brussels family was the one who started it. It was something very seasonal. The family name was De Smet. They were based in Brussels and had a house here. The husband started a small bicycle business with nothing more than two bikes welded together. And that is how it started. Then the man died.

Why did they take the name Arizona?

Because for him at that time America was the new frontier… he had never been to Arizona, but for him it was exotic. The man died quite young. The place used to be not too far from here, and it is now occupied by a tearoom called Arizona. When the man died, the wife sold the rental bike business but kept the house. She started up a coffee house which is why it is still called Arizona. But it has nothing to do with us. It’s a pity it is called Arizona because they have gone bankrupt a couple of times, and they always call us about paying the bills. But I have nothing to do with it. Then my father-in-law ran the business for a long time before letting us take over.

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Have you always only rented pedal karts?

Yes. In fact at the beginning cuistax were poor people’s cars. They welded two bikes together, added a wooden bench with some plywood and voila – it was like a cheap car. It really is firmly embedded in our cultural heritage as you can see how many generations have been doing this. It’s pretty much part of our DNA.

Where did the idea for cuistax originate?

It originated from a bicycle supplier near Bruges, in Zedelgem, Flanders. It was a bicycle manufacturer who welded two bikes together. That was the very beginning of cuistax, back in 1936 with De Smets.

You are the only one here in De Panne?

Yes, but I do not inflate my prices because of it: half an hour is four euros and for one hour it is five. Keeping prices low was a promise that I made to my father-in-law. He really was passionate about cuistax, a true inventor, which I am not. His name was Freddy Bruynoghe. You know the pedal bikes where the user is practically lying down? That was his idea. Now it is made in China but the very first models were his idea, years ago. He had the prototypes, did the welding, made them, then someone from Brugges bought the models from him. Every year he had to be the first with something new, that’s why people would come to his rental shop and that’s how the business grew.

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How do you explain the fact that you’re the only cuistax rental shop in De Panne?

There is somewhat of a negative point in De Panne, which is that cuistax tend to get stolen. So I think that explains why other businesses aren’t too keen on coming to town. But this goes back to the years of our grandparents and I think it’s due to us being so close to the French border. Financially, it’s hard to deal with thefts as one pedal kart, a single-person one, costs upwards of 1,000 euros. So you can imagine why the barriers to entry are so high for others to enter the market. But we’ve countered the problem, to a certain extent, by asking for people’s ID cards when they rent a cuistax. Which forces them to return the kart in order to get their card back. It’s sad really, as beyond the financial impact, we also put our heart and soul into these karts and take it personally if and when they get stolen. For instance, one day I decided to make small karts for kids from two to four years old. I made six karts themed after the film Cars, and after the summer time I had only two left. They stole four. So imagine you put effort into something you are proud of and they take it away. So it’s not funny anymore. We are here to make kids happy, and in the meantime there are clients who make me unhappy. And this is something that today I can cope with but there are moments when I just want to get rid of my business.

When you started implementing this card system, did things get better?

It’s getting better, but still if you have something very trendy like the small hoverboards or Segways, which are extremely popular amongst kids nowadays, they have to come with the proper identity card. I will not accept any other identification. Those who are here to steal will give everything except their own identity cards. They might have 20 identity cards, but they have to come with their own, and even with that it is hard to cope with, and you have to follow the trends a bit. You have to be there for the young kids, even if they often do things they’re not supposed to do. If you go on YouTube and search for “cuistax De Panne,” you’ll see what I mean. They go down staircases and stuff. Crazy!

And they survive?

Yes, but only because our karts are so well made. They’re very basic, but very sturdy and solid too.

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