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When Fiddleheads Coffee Roasters opened in 1996, it was one of the first coffeehouses in Ozaukee County. Starbucks, then a 1,000-store company still in the early stages of its nationwide expansion, and other big-name coffee chains hadn’t yet entered that market.
So, for Fiddleheads founder Lynn Wroblewski, educating customers about premium coffee – and why they should spend money on it – was a central part of the job.
“People didn’t know what a mocha was, what a latte was; it was a foreign language to them,” said owner Mike Wroblewski, Lynn’s brother, who joined the business about six months after Fiddleheads’ flagship location opened its doors along Thiensville’s Main Street.
Twenty-five years later, Fiddleheads has grown to seven Milwaukee-area cafés, a wholesale bakery and a small-batch roastery that distributes coffee to local grocery stores, and has built a national following through its online store, having filled orders from nearly all 50 states.
All the while, retail coffee has evolved into a larger and more competitive market, as consumers became more sophisticated and discerning.
“We had to be nimble over the last 25 years to adjust to the marketplace, to our customers and to our competitors,” said owner Ray Marcy. “Twenty-five years ago, we were pretty much a conceptual sell. Today we’re a competitive sell.”
Fiddleheads is locked into growth mode during a time when many businesses, including some of its local competitors, are scaling back. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and government-imposed restrictions have changed the way people work, gather and spend money. The food and beverage and retail industries have suffered.
But for the family-owned Thiensville-based coffeehouse, the pandemic has catalyzed the openings of two new cafés within the first three months of this year: a corner storefront on North Oakland Avenue in Shorewood and a marquee space on the ground floor of the new BMO Tower in downtown Milwaukee. Next year, the company plans to build its eighth location, on West North Avenue in Wauwatosa.
Launching her own coffeehouse was a dream Lynn Wroblewski brought home from Colorado, after developing a passion for coffee during her brief post-college stint as a barista. After returning to the Milwaukee area, Wroblewski spent a year working tirelessly on a business plan – down to every last detail.
“She was the architect, she was the baker, she was the menu selector, she was the coffee beans procurer,” said Ray Marcy, who is Wroblewski’s stepfather.
She didn’t just want to serve coffee, Marcy recalls; she wanted to serve the highest quality coffee, even if it was slightly more expensive than other alternatives.
“She insisted on that – that we do nothing but the very best,” said Loreen Marcy, Wroblewski’s mother.
That’s how Wroblewski led the business for the next 14 years, overseeing the openings of two more café locations, in Cedarburg and Mequon, and the launch of an in-house roastery in 2008, which gave the business ultimate control over production of its mainstay product.
Wroblewski died in 2011 after battling breast cancer. But her vision for Fiddleheads Coffee has been kept alive through her six family members who now own and operate the growing business: her brother, Mike Wroblewski; husband and master roaster, Steve Klimczak; stepfather, Ray Marcy; mother, Loreen Marcy; and cousin R.J. Marcy and his wife, Mahnaz. At 11 years old, Lynn’s daughter, Clara, doesn’t have a hand in the business yet but shares many of her mother’s qualities, family members said.
“We often say with a decision that we make, ‘Do you think Lynn would like it?’” said Ray Marcy. “It’s kind of a litmus test for us.”
The question often comes up on Friday afternoons. That’s when the family has met weekly for the past 25 years to brainstorm ideas and discuss important issues, from how the kids are doing to how the business is doing. In-person or over Zoom, the meeting are “always spirited,” said Ray Marcy.
“We adopted an attitude a long time ago that great products, great service, great ideas almost always come out of good honest debate, discord, discussion, and sometimes drama,” said Marcy. “All kidding aside, they’ve always been done with love and mutual respect.”
Beyond her taste for quality, Lynn took pride in her people. She believed good employees gave the company an edge, especially as more coffeehouses entered the market. That philosophy continues to inform Fiddleheads’ hiring practices today.
“There were lots of times where we’d work short-handed if we couldn’t find good employees because we knew that was one of the things that set us apart from competition: the people,” said Steve Klimczak.
He said it’s simple things – like noticing when a regular customer arrives and starting to make their drink before they walk in the door – that make a big difference.
Today, Fiddleheads has 100 employees, including 93 café staff and seven executive staff. An additional 20 people will be hired at its Wauwatosa location.
Lynn also had a vision for what the atmosphere of a Fiddleheads café should feel like.
She wanted customers to see the coffeehouse as a gathering place, a destination, somewhere you’d want to take out-of-town relatives when they visit, said Mike Wroblewski. Some of its large-footprint suburban storefronts include multiple stories, private meeting spaces and community rooms.
Inspired by the surrounding environment and broader community, the design of each Fiddleheads is a little different from the next. An outdoor patio was a must-have for its Shorewood café along a busy thoroughfare. Thiensville’s all-season garden offers a scenic view of the Milwaukee River. And the renovation of the historic Frank Koehler House in Menomonee Falls was complete with a rooftop seating area.
Downtown Milwaukee is a brand-new environment for Fiddleheads, at least from a geographic standpoint, but what customers want from the in-café experience is unchanged, said Mike Wroblewski.
“They just want a place … where they can just come in for a couple minutes and exhale,” he said. “Even if it’s in a lobby of an office tower downtown, the people who work in that tower can view us as an extension of their home.”
The 2,175-square-foot café space is situated in the corridor that connects the 25-story BMO Tower with the former BMO Harris Bank and M&I Bank office building. It includes high-end furnishings and workspace areas and is attached to the tower’s common area.
It’s the type of building amenity developer Irgens Partners LLC had promised occupants. With direct street access and outdoor patio seating in warmer months, the café will serve as a “neighborhood hub” for surrounding office buildings, said Kevin Schmoldt, managing director at Newmark Knight Frank, who brokered the lease.
Schmoldt reached out to Fiddleheads in early summer after negotiations with another user for the tower’s retail space fell through as a result of the pandemic. The companies met, and the deal was finalized within five weeks. It was the only downtown retail lease between March 2020 and July 2020, according to the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin.
“We did a lot of research on their operation and their brand and I think it’s the best brand in the market,” said Mark Irgens, chief executive officer and manager at Irgens Partners.
With 60% of the BMO Tower leased, Irgens sees Fiddleheads as an asset to attract additional tenants, especially for the retail space along North Broadway and planned along North Water Street, as part of the redevelopment of the former BMO Harris building.
“It was an exciting deal given the time that we put it together, and I think it’s even more relevant and exciting now, given what’s transpired in the past several months downtown,” said Schmoldt.
Fiddleheads’ growth strategy has always been “organic,” said Mike Wroblewski. There was never a grand plan or timeline to open a certain number of cafés. In retrospect, his sister was content with the one location in Thiensville, while he leaned toward the idea of multiple locations.
“When we saw an opportunity come along that would fit nicely into the Fiddleheads portfolio, we would pursue it,” he said.
The pandemic didn’t change that approach. As Fiddleheads shut down its cafés and furloughed most of its employees, the question was whether to stay put or seize any opportunity that came along.
Fiddleheads decided to “go big,” Marcy said.
Actively growing during a crisis may have been out of the question if Fiddleheads’ financial footing wasn’t as stable. Thanks to a history of “prudent reserves” and good fiscal health, the business entered the shutdown believing it could make it to the other side, he said.
The BMO Tower lease wasn’t the only door the pandemic opened.
In late August, Fiddleheads acquired the site of its future Wauwatosa café, at 8807 W. North Ave. While the original plan was to lease the property from an owner who had been unwilling to sell, circumstances later shifted with the pandemic and both parties benefitted.
“So, a location that we really wanted to acquire, all of a sudden because of COVID, was available to us, and we had to say, ‘Can we make this investment? Do we want to make this investment?’ And we did,” said Marcy.
The owners had a similar conversation about the Shorewood location. They had already signed the lease, and when the pandemic hit, they could have decided to delay the project by a year. They instead moved forward, knowing the business could survive for at least the first year in a COVID economy.
Fiddleheads’ recent growth spurt stands in contrast to a general trend of contraction among Milwaukee-area coffee companies.
In recent months, Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee Roasters Inc. has scaled back its local operation from 13 stores to nine currently open. One of its three Madison locations is temporarily closed, and the company backed out of plans to construct a production site for its wholesale baking business, Troubadour Bakery, in Chicago. Milwaukee-based Stone Creek Coffee permanently closed its Walker’s Point café last year.
After the state’s “Safer at Home” order lifted in May, Fiddleheads reopened its cafés for indoor seating not knowing if limited capacity and restricted operations would work out financially. Its leadership had spent weeks improving internal processes, revamping the menu and planning for a safe return, running financial models for business at 40% and 60%.
The initial response from customers exceeded expectations, said Marcy. In September, Fiddleheads rolled out its new mobile app, which had been a project long in the making, allowing users to order coffee and food items contact-free for in-store or curbside pickup. Since its launch, sales have “significantly improved” and it continues to attract new customers.
“At all of our cafés combined, we’re doing as much business as we were pre-COVID and that’s really a tribute to our customers and baristas in each of the communities we’re in,” said Marcy.
Its Thiensville location has been busier than before the pandemic.
For every pandemic-related shift in consumer behavior, Wroblewski said, there was a counter balance. Downtown commuters weren’t stopping for coffee on their way to work every morning, but came in to get work done or to get out of the house. Similarly, parents weren’t driving kids to and from school anymore, but sought a family-friendly outing as a break from virtual learning.
In the early days of the pandemic, Fiddleheads saw a huge spike in online sales as people brewed their own coffee from home.
“There were days where we’d have 100 online orders in one day, which just shattered previous records,” said Klimczak, who heads the roasting side of the business with Wroblewski.
Grocery store sales were also strong as panic buying ensued.
Fiddleheads’ whole bean and ground coffee is sold at most Sendik’s Food Market stores, Piggly Wiggly in Mequon and Cedarburg, and Outpost in Mequon, with a few additional vendors in the works.
Rooted in roasting
Roundy’s had once been a name on that list. Fiddleheads struck a deal in 2012 to sell its wholesale coffee at Pick ‘n Save stores across the Midwest. The relationship ended three years later when Roundy’s was acquired by Kroger, prompting some changes that the roaster felt could compromise its product.
Every day at its 4,400-square-foot roasting facility in Thiensville, small batches of coffee beans are roasted as orders come in. The recommended shelf life of a bag of Fiddleheads coffee is only about three to four weeks.
“If it’s not fresh enough, we’ll take it off the shelves,” said Marcy.
He explained Roundy’s wanted product distributed to its warehouse rather than directly to stores, which could have stretched the timeline between roasting and drinking the coffee a bit too far by the roaster’s standard.
“We have been approached on many occasions with franchise opportunities or other ways to expand more aggressively,” said Marcy. “Anything that lets go of what Lynn would have wanted, of our standard, we just can’t do. It’s just not in our DNA.”
If the business were to ever reach a point where it couldn’t grow anymore, he said, it wouldn’t be a result of its physical footprint as much as its roasting capacity.
“We’ve never talked about it, but I think it would be very hard for us as a family to give up that pride we have in roasting the finest coffee beans that we can roast,” he said.
The move to expand into roasting 12 years ago was huge, and so was the financial investment in the equipment and the facility. The decision came as the market grew and the quality of Fiddleheads coffee sources plateaued. They took matters into their own hands, and today, all of its roasts are processed by Klimczak or Wroblewski.
“No one can really look at the business or the quality through the owner’s eyes except the owner,” said Klimczak. “It’s just our commitment to quality, I guess, that I wouldn’t expect another employee to have.”
Building for the future
At least in the immediate future, Fiddleheads is homed in on expanding locally; those plans don’t include franchising or moving into other markets like Chicago and Madison. And in the midst of what’s already been a busy year, the company still has a few infancy-stage opportunities in the works.
Fiddleheads’ long-term aspirations span generations. About five years ago, the business did some soul searching, said Marcy, and ultimately came up with a multigenerational succession plan. One of the first moves was bringing on Mahnaz and R.J. Marcy as part of the next generation of leadership.
For Mahnaz, who now serves as head of marketing, going into business with family felt personal. Her relatives had spent two decades turning a dream into a reality.
“The passing of Lynn sent shockwaves through Fiddleheads and all the communities we serve, and having the opportunity presented to R.J. and I to be a part of this legacy was no longer a business decision,” she said. “It was now an honor to carry on the torch through its next chapters.”
For the members of Fiddleheads’ first generation, who range a couple decades in age, it was a relief to know the company will be shepherded “for not only the next 10 years but for over the next 30, 40, 50, 60 years,” said Ray Marcy.