Alterra, Inc. founders (from left) Ward Fowler, Paul Miller and Lincoln Fowler.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
The bullet hurtled through Art Bar owner Don
Krause’s liver, intestines and gall bladder, and lodged somewhere beside his
The next day, it blew hole after hole into
his clientele as local TV news played security camera footage of the
sidewalk-patio shooting again and again. And again.
“I survived,” he says, “but my business didn’t.”
In Art Bar’s dark hour, a still-recuperating
Krause started selling coffee brewed using Alterra beans. The specter of the
2005 shooting – of the kind, bearlike tavern owner getting gunned down outside
his own establishment by a teenage boy – kept many customers away after dark.
But they came at 6 a.m., he found, for 16 ounces of joe.
“It was our saving grace,” he says.
All the while, he knew Alterra was coming. He
was already deferring to the city’s preeminent coffee company. “I wanted to
compete alongside them with the same product,” he says. But he turned into a
mouse under the feet of an elephant. When the company’s new headquarters and
cafe, more like a warehouse than a mom-and-pop, opened down the street in 2007,
his lucrative clientele of early-risers collapsed.
“Less than a month after it opened,” he says,
“we decided to get out.” Art Bar beat a quick retreat, reinstituting its old
weekday hours and bowing out of the hard-fought a.m. coffee market.
Alterra’s entry into the coffee biz was no less shaky, but a
lot more successful. In 1993, two young men from Shorewood – Ward and Lincoln
Fowler – went in with a friend, Paul Miller, on a venture to sell independently
roasted coffee at a kiosk in the old Bayshore Mall. Securing a lease took
longer than expected, and Miller had to sit the anxious Fowlers down to say:
“Guys, we’re not doing this with the anticipation that we’re going to fail.
We’re doing this with the anticipation that we’re going to be very successful.”
But that was almost 20 years ago. Since then,
the trio’s collective vision has grown grander and grander. The busy Bayshore
kiosk led to another at Mayfair Mall. A hit cafe on Prospect Avenue led to
other stores in the Fifth Ward, Shorewood, Wauwatosa and Grafton. Alterra at
the Lake became a city icon. The impressive headquarters-cum-cafe in Riverwest,
styled after a midcentury factory, opened in 2007, and a new 15,000-square-foot
bakery, commissary and cafe was set to open in August astride Bay View,
Milwaukee’s latest “it” neighborhood, at perhaps the city’s only intersection
with 11 crosswalks.
Meanwhile, Alterra’s two vintage roasters,
hulking old Probats dating to the 1960s and 1930s, are cranking out 25,000
pounds of roasted coffee a week. Wholesale orders go out to customers around
the country. New locations in Madison and maybe even Chicago are on the
horizon. The future is big and bright for Alterra, as it always seems to have
Like Art Bar, Milwaukee’s other coffee companies
labor in Alterra’s shadow, measuring its advances and searching for corners of
the “locavore” market it has yet to seep into. Manual brewing programs. Light,
citrusy roasts. Vietnamese beans or coffee roasted with the assistance of a
wine connoisseur’s nose. Although no one seems prepared to knock Alterra off
its perch, it’s intriguing to watch companies try. There’s brainy,
philosophical Stone Creek Coffee Roasters; mild-mannered Anodyne, the
Switzerland of the coffee wars; and a couple of young upstarts, the two guys
who launched Valentine Coffee Roasters in a back room at the Bartolotta
Restaurant Group headquarters.
The output of these companies, in both coffee and new
development, has a surprisingly large bearing on public space in this city.
Eric Resch, Stone Creek’s founder, says coffee shops “are the glue of our
neighborhoods. They are the anchors. The core of what it means to be human is
to be connected to somebody, and that connection – while Facebook and our
digital life are valuable in certain ways – is a smile. It’s a touch. It’s a
hug. And coffee gives us opportunities to create those connections.”
Starbucks has 50-plus locations in the Milwaukee
area, but they’re low-profile. “Alterra has the lion’s share of the highly
visible coffee shop landscape,” says Scott Johnson, whose Fuel Cafe, located in
Riverwest, was one of Alterra’s first wholesale customers. “There are a lot of
independent operators out there, but it’s hard to get out of the shadow of
Alterra. You really have to cultivate a clientele and do what you do really
True enough, but in this lopsided battle for the
soul of a city, local roasters may have found a chink in Alterra’s armor. In
2010, candy king Mars, the third-largest private company in the U.S., announced
a head-turning deal to use Alterra-brand coffee in packets that plug into its
Flavia-brand machines, space-age coffee makers used in offices around the
world. To wed Mars, Alterra signed over its “global distribution rights,” which
seemed harmless enough. But the partnership, in practice, has had deep
ramifications for the Milwaukee company.
First is a PR lather that could force Alterra,
which has long traded on a local-guy image, to reverse course. Competitors are
alleging that Alterra is the “Microsoft of coffee in Milwaukee,” an
intimidating competitor and something less than a local company. At the same
time, these antagonists claim to be friends with Alterra’s leaders and with
each other. Customers, for their part, either don’t know the Mars deal
happened, don’t care or feel jilted. Others aren’t sure what to make of it. “It
was sort of strange to me,” Johnson says, “but if they can do a deal like that
and make money on it, why not?”
Krause, these days, is at peace with Alterra.
Art Bar still opens early on the weekends and pulls shots of the company’s
espresso for caffeine-crazed bar customers, right into the wee hours of the
“Their product is everywhere,” he says. “Who
wouldn’t want to emulate that success?”
* * *
In 1993, “Full House” was airing new on ABC,
Bill Clinton had just taken office and Kurt Cobain was very much alive.
Starbucks had fewer than 300 stores in the world, only a handful in Chicago and
none in New York. Alterra was incorporated, officially, right before
Thanksgiving, and a space probe headed for Mars went rogue and stopped
responding to signals from NASA.
The Fowlers were understandably nervous. To
boot, their last venture, a high-end speaker company called “Fowler Audio,” had
not gone well. They never supplanted Sony or Bose but had to dedicate 50 and 60
hours a week to the business anyway, cutting pieces of PVC pipe to exacting
specifications and tuning each “box” so it resonated like an organ pipe.
Lincoln cut off his left thumb (and sold a pair of speakers to the surgeon) in
the process. To make ends meet, he tended bar, and Ward waited tables at Elsa’s
on the Park.
Worries aside, the Bayshore kiosk was a hit, and so was
Alterra’s first bricks-and-mortar store, which debuted in 1997 on Prospect
Avenue. But the company came of age with the opening of its Alterra at the Lake
cafe, a rare case of a private business allowed to operate on the northern end
of the Milwaukee lakefront. The cafe was one of three projects pitched to the
Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District in 2000, in response to the district's
request for proposals to renovate the 1888 Milwaukee River Flushing Station. In
years past, it had been used to pump water into the river and wash sewage
downstream, but by the 1990s, “It was basically a storage shed on the
lakefront,” says Kevin Shafer, MMSD’s executive director.
Alterra’s competition was a similar proposal
from Starbucks and a third for a roller skate rental shop. Alterra, the easy
winner, went way over budget on the building, its first coffee shop on an epic
scale, spending thrice the project's original allotment. “The lakefront kind of
represented the first time that we raised our sights and tried to engage more
holistically,” says Lincoln Fowler, who has a deliberate and resonating manner
of speaking. “What was this building? What are we building? What is the larger
context in which we sit, which is park land? What does this building mean? How
can we use that to inform our larger construction process?”
Lincoln’s short hair and stubble-short beard are
silver and dark brown. His shorts, short-sleeved shirts and sneakers are often
muted green and an earthy brown, and he holds his chin at a subtly proud angle.
He cracks self-deprecating jokes but seems slightly withdrawn, like he’s
thinking about tomorrow, next month or last year. He heads up project
management at Alterra, having emerged in the company’s early days as its
“tactician,” he says. Paul Miller, who used to sell Milwaukee-themed T-shirts
in malls, knew retail, and Ward Fowler was great with people.
In the months before Alterra at the Lake opened,
Lincoln fretted mostly over the future. “This project was going over budget
in a dramatic way,” he says. Then, the company’s headquarters was in the back
of the Prospect cafe, where East Sider and restaurateur Karl Kopp, of Kopp’s
Frozen Custard and Elsa’s, stopped in for many double cappuccinos, very dry. “I
buttonholed him one day near the front door, and I told him I was getting a
little bit nervous at the lakefront,” Lincoln says, “and he said he understood.
He summed it up by saying, ‘That place could be great, or it could be a
complete albatross around your neck. Who knows?!’ and he turned on his heel and
went out the door.”
Again, the founders’ worries were unwarranted,
and the new lakefront cafe was a sensation. Business in the winter months
didn’t dip as far as they’d feared, and during peak times, the rambling cafe
attracted something like 2,000 visitors a day. Competitors griped that MMSD had
blessed the coffee company with an unfair advantage: Rent for the facility was
just $21,000 a year until MMSD raised it to $144,000 in 2008.
“We told them we wanted more money,” says
Shafer, otherwise the agency could have sent out another RFP. And that,
officials knew, “would have gotten much more interest.”
“[Alterra] got a pretty sweet deal down there,”
says Sheila Pufahl-Bettin, owner of Brady Street’s Brewed Cafe. “They fell into
a very good opportunity, and who wouldn’t take advantage of that?”
Alterra changed up its game in the early 2000s,
Johnson says, around the time Alterra at the Lake opened. “Initially, they were
going to be a wholesaler,” he says. “Their whole thing wasn’t to open up a
million cafes. That didn’t really start until after 2000. They were in these
really out-of-the-way locations, and they really tried hard not to infringe on
any of their wholesale customers’ territory. But I think after a while, they
were just like, ‘Fuck it. There’s no way that we’re not going to be able to do
Alterra doesn’t just put up cafes, it builds cathedrals of coffee folded into dense neighborhoods. Lincoln says
the company came upon the Bay View spot while “basically looking for warehouse
space but in a really good retail neighborhood.” The Foundry cafe opened in
2006 in a tall brick box that once housed an actual foundry. Here, broad-leafed
plants hang from a high ceiling, and seating spills onto a patio of greater
dimensions than those of many competing cafes. This is not how coffee shops are
normally built. According to Eric Resch, the Stone Creek owner, you can turn a
storefront into a mom-and-pop for a slim $20,000.
As Alterra’s footprint enlarged, the founders
refused to shy away from difficult projects. At the Humboldt Boulevard site in
Riverwest, they first tried to save the pre-existing structure, but it proved
untenable. After workers peeled off the old building, the company had to
dispose of some 16 million pounds of soil contaminated by fuel oil, gasoline
and dry cleaning chemicals, all left by past occupants. The cleanup, and
hitting rewind on Alterra's lengthy design process, put the company about two
years behind in moving into its new headquarters.
“People think we’re extraordinarily bright
business people,” Lincoln jokes, “but if you look at what we did here, you
might start to question that.”
In Bay View, the founders ran into a similar
morass. The stately Maritime Bank building, originally targeted for renovation,
became another burden due to damage from past fires and lingering asbestos. The
location, however – at the confluence of Lincoln, Howell and Kinnickinnic
avenues in the resurgent Bay View neighborhood – could hardly have been better.
(This is where the crosswalks total 11.) So Alterra tore down the bank, saved a
variety of its beams and other bones, and used them in a shining new
Quite dramatically, the Bay View Alterra sits
kitty-corner from Stone Creek’s Bay View cafe. The former’s outdoor patio is
but a Frisbee-toss away from the latter’s, which is dotted with canary-yellow
parasols. This close encounter of the coffee kind was “purely happenstance,”
Lincoln says, and Resch is equally diplomatic, saying he expects Stone Creek’s
sales to go up, not down, as the surrounding neighborhood grows.
The crossing is a new nexus of
coffee in Milwaukee. Cafe Lulu, to the northwest, serves Stone Creek, and Stone
Creek, positioned on the northeast corner, serves its own brand, of course.
Cafe Centraal to the southeast and the new Alterra to the southwest serve the
big “A” in large volumes. A line is drawn.