Independent Coffee Shop Edges Out Starbucks

Sheri and I just got back from a trip today to Wisconsin, visiting the folks at Wigwam to discuss the new marketing materials we’re developing for them.

Having been to the Milwaukee airport more than a few times, I’ve grown accustomed to a few routines: the best airline (Midwest), the best time to fly (avoid late outbound flights in winter), the best place to rent a car (Avis), and the best morning coffee after the plane ride. Sadly, this had always been Starbucks, as I hate Starbucks coffee — too bitter, too expensive, and too ubiquitous. (Sorry, Sheri).

Yet the choices at the Milwaukee airport were always much worse, and the caffeine junkie in me is not always rational… a fix is a fix.

That’s why in my post-flight fog, as I approached the familiar kiosk area in the terminal,  I did a double-take: had Starbucks been replaced by some funky indie coffee shop named Alterra?

It turns out to be absolutely true. I was beaming with excitement, asking two of the baristas if this was really the case, which they confirmed, if completely nonplussed by my stunned reaction.

Not only was the coffee great, but the graphics on the signs and cups were wonderfully hand-crafted looking. Even better was the fact that everything screamed “proudly roasted right here in Milwaukee” — a huge change from the Starbucks approach of “yeah, you could be just about anywhere and not know it.”

Mostly I am still completely floored by the fact that the little guy could actually take the place of the corporate conglomerate. It gave me a renewed sense that the work we are doing with Wigwam is equally relevant: changing consumer’s conception that quality performance products (in this case, socks) only come from the big guys like Nike, Smartwool (owned by Timberland) and the like.

A little research has shed even more light on how a little shop like Alterra could have taken over Starbucks:

Mitchell International Airport has long had a taste of Milwaukee in its concourse, with a Renaissance Bookshop and a Usinger’s sausage eatery in the food court. But thanks to [food and beverage operator] SSP’s partnerships with the Bartolotta Restaurant Group and Alterra Coffee, the airport is more “Milwaukee” than ever. Three former Starbucks kiosk locations are now Alterra Coffee locations and a former gate in Concourse D is now home to Nonna Bartolotta’s, a hybrid restaurant based on a couple different Bartolotta’s restaurant concepts.”

In any event, it’s great to see the little guy with a better product get a shot to play in the big leagues. It was a good day for coffee, and America.