When Colectivo team members say they do everything by hand, they mean everything. Beans are roasted in-house on a pair of vintage Probat roasters, pastries and breads are baked from scratch at the brand’s Troubadour Bakery and delivered to cafes by truck before the shops open, and tables, chairs, and light fixtures are built by a local family business.
“We do things that wouldn’t make sense for other brands. We have always believed in the power of creativity, and so we build for the long-term,” says Scott Schwebel, Colectivo’s vice president of brand, marketing, and retail.
When the brand got its start in 1993, coffee culture was still undeveloped in the U.S., and the coffeehouse movement was just getting its legs. Founders Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler, and Paul Miller were running different businesses in industries outside foodservice when the Colectivo idea began brewing, inspired by the trio’s passion for coffee-based community. They quickly set the goal of making a local cup of joe that “people would talk about,” Schwebel says, and from the start the team pursued that goal with a slow-growth, made-from-scratch approach.
The first step was opening a roastery and thus establishing a channel that allows the brand to have as much control over its product as possible, from importing to roasting to distribution and selling wholesale. A trip that Miller took to Mexico during the early stages of the brand’s development gave the team both supplier connections and a name; while south of the border, Miller established a relationship with a coffee farm and also rode on Colectivos, or Mexican public transportation buses. After the roastery opened under the Colectivo name, wholesale business grew quickly, and it wasn’t long before the team began looking to build out the next step of their concept by opening a cafe.
Lincoln Fowler, Ward Fowler, Paul Miller
Year Started: 1993
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 21
Franchised Units: 0
“We realized that we had a chance to tell more of a story about who we were as a brand, so we moved into the cafe space because we wanted that storytelling environment for our coffee,” Schwebel says.
The earliest Colectivo coffeehouses share the same handmade furniture, local coffee, and attention to detail as today’s network of 21 cafes. The first cafe opened in Milwaukee, followed by a dozen more in the brand’s home city, and then three cafes in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1999, its in-house capabilities widened with the addition of the Troubadour Bakery in Milwaukee, a full bakeshop that generates a wide range of pastries and other goodies for each store as well as for wholesale customers. Eventually, after nearly two decades of eyeing the Chicago market, the brand moved into the city and now has a total of five cafes around the metro area.
Colectivo’s strategy for adding new stores, upping revenues, and entering new markets isn’t unlike its made-from-scratch brand culture. To underpin a growing web of cafes, Colectivo has stayed true to its wholesale roots, with roughly 80 percent of coffee business coming in through orders from coffee shops around the U.S., and 20 percent of bakery orders falling into the catering sector. When presented with new potential cafe sites, the team evaluates them on a case-by-case basis, employing a measured growth strategy that Schwebel says is best described as opportunistic. At the center of the brand’s growth is a desire to preserve its made-from-scratch identity; new cafes have to be constructed within a 90-mile radius of Troubadour to allow for nightly deliveries, and stores can only open when the handmade furniture and other design elements are ready. All of the stores are independently owned by Colectivo’s founders, and the brand does not have a franchising model in place. “I don’t like to say that we’re control freaks, but when you look at the fact that we do everything by hand, it might point to us being control freaks,” Schwebel says.
In addition to the house-roasted coffees that the brand was built on, Colectivo cafes offer a full range of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options, including bowls, salads, and sandwiches, a menu of locally brewed beers, and dining options that are safe for gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, and vegan customers. “It’s been interesting to watch the big seismic shift over the last 25 years in the way people eat,” Schwebel says. “Diets used to be fads, and they weren’t very sustainable. Now, there are a host of different dietary lifestyles that are sticking around. The beauty of having our entire process in-house is that we can make changes to our menu very quickly to accommodate our mix of customers.”
There are four Colectivo cafes and one Troubadour Bakery in the works. The focus is on the Chicago market, with plans to build at least 13 stores in the Chicago area. Additional Madison cafes are also on the docket, and Schwebel says the Colectivo team also wants to make sure it retains focus on Wisconsin customers. Will Colectivo ever move beyond the Midwest? Right now, the team isn’t worried about that. “I think coffee has lost its way—many coffee brands are a bit elitist and trendy,” Schwebel says. “Our cafes have a very broad spectrum of customers, and that’s intentional. We have original customers’ children who work for us now. That is how we build our culture and we still have work to do here in our home markets.”
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