Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Alterra’s Colectivo Rebrand Highlights Changes to the Local Coffee Landscape

Colectivo pledges to stay local, but what does that mean?

By Ashley Sprangers
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The Milwaukee coffee scene was aflutter in 2010 when local Alterra Coffee Roasters struck up a deal with Mars Drinks, selling the brand for worldwide production in their Flavia line. The arrangement, while publicized to an extent, stayed relatively under the radar, although the Mars logo featured prominently on the front page of the company’s revamped, corporately controlled website. 

It came as a surprise to many, then, when this Milwaukee sweetheart announced on Sunday night that they would sever ties with Mars, and therefore the ALTERRA® brand, in favor of new nomenclature: Colectivo Coffee. According to a press release that followed reports from OnMilwaukee.com and The Business Journal, “The ALTERRA® brand is going global thanks to Mars Drinks, while we chose to stay local.” The split is reported to be motivated by the restrictions placed on cafe operations by the larger conglomerate, and statements have enthusiastically emphasized the return to a more local identity.

What is interesting is that while this announcement sent shockwaves through the Milwaukee social media sphere, taking customers and employees by surprise, the change in brand was agreed upon at the signing of the deal back in 2010. “At the start of our relationship with Mars Drinks, we decided to change our name in exchange for the long-term investment opportunity this transaction provided,” part-owner Lincoln Fowler states in the press release. The news that came as such a bombshell to the Milwaukee community had actually been in the works for over three years, while the ALTERRA® brand also benefitted financially from the Mars deal. 

Reaction to the name change has been mixed. Certainly Alterra has immortalized itself in the minds of many Milwaukeeans, and has gained even more cred since the brand’s global expansion. The name Colectivo, while derived from an interesting and relevant origin (Guatemalan buses, to be precise), simply does not roll off the tongue in the same way. But will the rebranding really be so shocking as to deter Alterra fans from returning?

It’s important to note that the essential elements of Alterra's operations have not really changed. The hubbub that followed the news break will likely die out just as quickly as it began. Even if the marquee spells out a new name in a new font above the door, each store will still breathe that familiar Alterra vibe. 

Meanwhile, as ALTERRA®—err, Colectivo—rides the wave that they themselves created, local competitors are making some potentially bold moves that have received far less attention.

Anodyne, Bay View’s (not so) little coffee shop that could, is set to open a second location in Walker’s Point which will feature manual brewing and a change of scenery for its roasting facilities, including a brand new, larger roaster to accommodate higher demand for wholesale and retail sales alike (224 W. Bruce St.). 

Stone Creek Coffee, the girl-next-door company that opened in ’93 at the same time as Alterra, opened its new flagship factory location last December (422 N. 5th St.), and is set to open another café in the new 88Nine Radio Milwaukee facility this upcoming September (158 S. Barclay St.). The latter endeavor will be Milwaukee’s first “concept café,” with bar-style seating, ticket ordering system, pour-over coffee service, and a Modbar espresso machine.

And let’s not forget relative newcomer Valentine Coffee’s new Tasting Room, their first retail location which features pour-over service as well as standard drip coffee, along with espresso and bakery in its intimate Washington Heights space (5918 W. Vliet St.). 

Among all the controversy stirred up by the Alterra news, it’s been easy to overlook some of the ventures put forth by less-hyped competitors. Likewise, you might have missed the opening of the newest Colectivo location in Wauwatosa (6745 W. Wells St.), or perhaps even the installation of the first Madison-based café, formerly known as Alterra on the Square (25 S. Pinckney St.). Both of these cafes, as well as the upcoming Third Ward location set to open in the fall, feature an exclusive line of craft beer in addition to traditional offerings.

While Colectivo’s return to a more locally focused business model may be music to the ears of those who resisted the Mars partnership from the start, the question that has to be asked is whether the rapidly growing company is truly going to stick to those principles they say motivated the split. With an expressed desire to continue development in the state’s capital as well as in the Chicago area, the company is poised to become potentially less “local” on a retail level than it was while the partnership with the candy conglomerate was active.

For now, it seems all we can do is trust the assurance of Fowler when he promises “continued commitment to our customers, our employees and our community.” While our definitions of local business may differ, there is nothing to argue about if the company as a whole remains relatively the same. It’s nice to remember, though, that if Colectivo somehow misses the mark in its transition, there are still plenty of other local businesses to turn to.

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