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Things Won't Be Great
Why Downtown is an anathema to coffee shops.

The East Side and Bay View are hot for coffee, but not all areas of the city enjoy the same easy access to Alterra, Stone Creek, Anodyne, et al. Take Downtown, a veritable Bermuda Triangle of coffee joints. Many a retailer has ventured into the high-rise district's swarming streets, only to vanish in a year or five's time. Witness Nervosa Coffee Bar, Jido Cafe, Quasi Cafe, Wildgrove Roastery and Coffee, Mocha, Javino and a Moondance Coffee location, all of which opened up shop in Downtown or in its southern adjunct, the Third Ward, only to close in a few years' time.

Why? Although Downtown boasts the densest workforce, during daytime hours, at least, its coffee clientele is notoriously fickle. Coffee is relaxing and a summertime treat – a hot commodity on July Saturday mornings, but a real drag at 7 a.m. on a gray February Thursday. Office workers run on caffeine, but their employers supply it, too. Savvy operators such as Alterra and Stone Creek cater to these captive audiences; Alterra's kiosk on the mezzanine level of the U.S. Bank Center has soldiered on for more than a decade, and Stone Creek followed a similar strategy in 2002 by opening a mini-store in a Shops of Grand Avenue skywalk.

Stone Creek opened its own doomed Downtown outlet in the Iron Block building in 1997. "We ran it for five years, never made much money. Poor parking. The weekends tended to be pretty slow," says Stone Creek owner Eric Resch. "We ran it for the full term of our lease and closed it."

Thiensville roaster Fiddleheads did the same thing from 2000 to 2004, when it ran a cafe near the Pfister Hotel. (It later sold the store to Mountain Mud, which later closed.) "It's kind of like the ocean and salt water," says Fiddleheads owner Mike Wroblewski. "You have a lot of water around you but nothing to drink. There's a ton of people down there, but getting someone to come out of their office building is a challenge, especially if it's ten degrees outside in January."

Steve Goretzko, the no-nonsense owner of Sven's Cafe in Bay View, hopes to succeed where other coffee enterprises have flopped: He converted the old Steamer's store at 624 N. Water St. into a second Sven's earlier this year. Why expand, you might ask? "Why not?" he says. "We're comfortable doing it." Goretzko also says that section of Downtown, including the Iron Block building itself, is on the upswing.

Scott Schwebel
Another new operator Downtown is Arin Bert, 222 W. Wells St., named for a famed Armenian fortress that was never conquered by Turks, despite a lot of trying. The shop is half restaurant and half Alterra coffee served Armenian-style, which is a slower method of brewing that's similar to Turkish coffee. It's run by a husband-and-wife team: Manushak and Joseph Seifert. The latter is an attorney with an office upstairs in the building, where the owner told him one day he should open a coffee shop because there were none around.

He agreed, but business for the cafe was tepid at first. "Once we got the coffee side open, and I saw what was happening," he says, "I knew we had to get the restaurant open."

Since, the business has grown, however, "We have kind of plateau'd with the amount of people coming in for coffee," he says. "With all of those buildings, we should have a line out the door every day."

As is the case in many areas of the city's coffee market, the customers may be flocking to Alterra's own stores. The U.S. Bank kiosk "has done very well, but it has a wonderful captive audience. People walk across from Northwestern Mutual Life," says Alterra Marketing Director Scott Schwebel. "People know where it is. We get people from the [art] museum who walk up the hill. That cafe serves a good portion of Downtown."

And the Prospect and Foundry Alterra's draw their own streams, up north and down to the south. "For lunch," he says, "a lot of people like to leave Downtown."

(Schwebel photo by Adam Ryan Morris)

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