When they opened their first Alterra Coffee Roasters café 15 years ago, brothers Ward and Lincoln Fowler and their business partner, Paul Miller, knew what they were looking for – good coffee and a location that delivered a unique experience to customers. And they knew what customers didn’t want – a fabricated, uniform and watered-down coffee shop.
“We were fully aware that people are looking for an authentic experience,” Miller said. “We wanted to impress people with our world – coffee has so much that goes into it. And we talked a lot about Milwaukee. Some of the themes (of the city) have been interwoven into our cafes and brand, like respect for work and following the coffee from the plantation to serving.”
Alterra’s first café opened in Bayshore Mall in 1994. The Fowlers and Miller were roasting coffee in a facility in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward.
By 1997, the company needed a bigger roasting facility, and it opened its Prospect Avenue roasting facility and café. Alterra devoted just 10 percent of the Prospect Avenue space to its café and retail store. The remaining 90 percent is devoted to roasting, cooling and packaging.
Although the café takes up a small amount of the space, its open design lets customers watch, smell and hear the roasting and packaging operations.
“We tried to open it up and educate people about our world,” Miller said. “As we got closer to finishing up the store, we were fortunate that things really came together. It’s a really special store. There’s a great connection of front to back.”
Alterra recently opened a new, 24,000-square-foot roasting facility, headquarters, bakery and café on Humboldt Boulevard in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Although it is a new building, the facility has been designed to reflect many of the same features of Alterra’s Prospect Avenue location, including exposed wooden beams and steel girders and an open layout with an easy view of roasting and packaging operations.
Having its production facilities connected to cafes is part of Alterra’s operational model and part of the company’s connection to Milwaukee’s industrial heritage, said Lincoln Fowler.
“We like work, and showing people how things work,” he said. “We don’t like the attitude of (glossing) things over to make them look good.”
All of Alterra’s cafés and facilities have common design elements such as exposed wooden beams and steel girders, furniture that looks worn and an open layout that allows customers to watch roasting, brewing and other operations. Two of Alterra’s cafes have been built in historic buildings – the Milwaukee River Flushing Station on Lincoln Memorial Drive along Milwaukee’s lakefront and the Alterra Foundry inside the former Kramer International building at 170 S. First St.
“If (a café or location) has a patina, it would be criminal to get rid of it,” Ward Fowler said. “People look for that. They respond to places that have history and have been lived in.”
Miller agreed and said Alterra’s cafés are designed to help create a connection between customers, the coffee they’re drinking and the café they’re drinking it in.
“It is an aesthetic that we work towards,” Miller said. “Every store is a little different. The lakefront (café) tells a different story than (the Riverwest cafe) and the Foundry is a little different.”
When the Riverwest building’s roasting operations are functional, Alterra will shift wholesale roasting there, Lincoln Fowler said. The company will continue roasting for its own stores at the Prospect Avenue location to preserve its character and make sure that the company can continue operations if one location has an emergency such as a fire.
“The only intelligent way to do it is that the Prospect (site) becomes the facility that supports and roasts for all of our corporate stores,” Lincoln Fowler said. “All hard goods (like T-shirts) will still come out of Prospect. Everything else will come out of here (Humboldt). The bakery, everything else, will be done here.”
Over its 14 years of operating, part of Alterra’s appeal to customers has been the authenticity of its employees. While national chains such as Starbucks issue workers uniforms, Alterra’s workers are subject to a less stringent dress code. And Alterra’s baristas, roasters and other employees are much more likely to sport visible tattoos, piercings and “alternative” hairstyles.
“Bringing your personality to work helps create a really special place,” Miller said. “What we’re trying to do is create an exceptional experience (for customers). And that requires people to bring their personalities to bear on the job. And that’s where you can empower people.”
The company also invests time and energy in educating its employees about coffee and the best brewing and espresso drink-making techniques.
“We want our servers, brewers and roasters to know what we’ve got,” Miller said.
Alterra’s baristas Justin Teisl and Scott Lucey recently placed second and third, respectively, at the Great Lakes Regional Barista Competition, held in Milwaukee a few weeks ago.
Individuality and lack of uniformity is a double-edged sword, Miller and the Folwer brothers said. The company recently developed a vision statement and corporate goals for the first time in its 15-year history and is working to develop systems that will give its cafes some uniformity.
“That’s been highly deliberated and a difficult thing to manage,” Lincoln Folwer said. “It’s something that is alive. As we go to eight or nine stores, that’s when the danger starts to creep in. We’re forced to establish goals and find what is appropriate. We don’t want to tie down our people too tightly. It’s a struggle to balance.”
Alterra now has nine cafes. The company’s goals call for it to have 10 to 15 cafes by 2010.
The company has opened four new cafes in the last 15 months. Alterra is now considering one or more locations inside General Mitchell International Airport, Ward Fowler said.
“Retail is only half of our company,” Lincoln Fowler said. “The rest is wholesale and the bakery. We’ve had a real commitment to expand retail. It’s wholesale’s turn next. It’s been growing without a lot of attention, and we want to push that.”
For example, Alterra recently signed an agreement to supply a Madison software company with coffee, Lincoln Fowler said.
“That’s just one of hundreds or thousands (of companies) in our region,” he said. “We could double or triple our business in our backyard.”
Since Alterra’s early stages, the Fowler brothers and Miller have created relationships with coffee growers in South and Central America who grow the product they serve to customers in Milwaukee.
Much of Alterra’s coffee carries the Fair Trade label – a certification process that some coffee producers, suppliers and roasters go through to ensure that growers in South and Central America are being paid living wages for their products.
Ultimately, Alterra’s connection with its customers comes down to its coffee.
“We’ve entertained the slogan ‘Coffee For The People’ because we love delivering coffee to our customers,” Lincoln Fowler said. “It’s fun to put it out there.”
Alterra Coffee Roasters
• Alterra has relationships with coffee growers in South and Central America, and in many cases pays Fair Trade or higher prices for high-quality coffees.
• Alterra’s two roasting facilities, which also have cafés inside them, allow customers to watch and smell the coffee roasting process. The cafés feature authentic Milwaukee locations and materials.
• The company, with its nine cafés, spends considerable time teaching its servers and baristas about its coffees, so they can pass their knowledge on to customers.