Kickapoo Coffee's Third Ward Cafe Brings Quality to the Front and Center
Co-owner Scott Lucey talks about his company’s sleek new location in the Third Ward
The recent opening of Kickapoo Coffee’s first cafe in Milwaukee’s Third Ward marks a big step for the acclaimed but relatively unknown company, which was founded in 2005 in Viroqua, Wis. Over the last 10 plus years, the company has accumulated numerous awards and honors, while earning the respect of the national coffee community.
Kickapoo’s café runner and co-owner Scott Lucey’s reputation is similar to that of his company’s brand. Before joining Kickapoo, he worked for over 12 years with Colectivo Coffee Roasters (formerly Alterra Coffee Roasters), where he served in a multitude of roles including head of training, and won the Great Lakes Regional Barista Championship in 2009.
We sat down with Lucey in Kickapoo’s sleek and modern new café to talk about Milwaukee’s coffee culture, the characteristics that differentiate Kickapoo Coffee from other coffee shops, and the excitement surrounding the company’s emergence in the Milwaukee market.
How did you first get involved with Kickapoo Coffee?
I got to a breaking point where I realized the next step in my career had to be to quit my job at Colectivo because I was just too comfortable. I’d taken business classes before, I’d written a business plan, I was very close to being able to do my own thing, but just never did it because I was 95% sure and I wanted to be 100%.
I realized that teaming up with an existing company was the realistic way to go in starting an independent project. Thinking more about it, I realized that there was this small business in Viroqua, who’d been roasting for over 10 years and had won awards for the quality of their coffee, and had a great brand but no café. I knew someone who worked with them and got in touch with him, and he said ‘Yeah, they want to do a café, it’s on their radar.’
How did that initial meeting go?
I approached T.J. Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes, the two owners of the roasting company. I started working with them in 2014. I did sales and training for about six months. In that time, I also worked with the company internally and reorganized some things, got some conversations going about training systems and standards.
Why hadn’t Kickapoo started a café at that point?
They just didn’t know the right person. It’s a small business, and when I started working with them, there were only about 12 employees, and as you can imagine, those 12 employees are very busy doing everything it takes to run the business. A larger business like Colectivo has 300 or more employees. Everyone at Kickapoo was so busy that there was no free time; everyone was busy doing basic tasks.
How did Kickapoo receive your initial pitch?
I pitched my idea to them, because it was something they were thinking about, and they were open to it right away. Demographic research supports the reality that this city is not getting smaller. More people are moving into the city, going to college and the Historic Third Ward was one of these neighborhoods that smelled of a little growth.
T.J. and Caleb started making trips to Milwaukee to check out the area, and another aspect of the pitch was that Milwaukee is the largest coffee market in the state of Wisconsin, and there has been very limited change in the market in the last five years, save for Hawthorne Coffee, Valentine Coffee and Alderaan Coffee. Other than those, the companies that exist just keep multiplying locations, like parents that keep having kids.
Even though Kickapoo is not a brand-new business, for our cafe to now exist in Milwaukee is a great new thing.
Was your experience at Colectivo helpful in opening this cafe?
Yeah, I have a very deep breadth of experience, I worked there for 12 and a half years and I think I did as much as I could do within that organization. The idea there was that every café should have a trainer, that trainer should always be receiving information about coffee from headquarters, and that that person should be initiating quality control checks and balances every day, and that they would measure them and document them and report them back to headquarters so that headquarters knew that quality control was happening all the time. Which is insane, in a positive way of course.
I’m relieved, because I came from this world where I thought the only way to succeed was to have these constant checks and balances at all times. I picked three really great baristas, hung out with them and told them, “You know what you’re doing, keep it up.”
Is this what you were thinking of when you first envisioned the cafe?
In the design of the space, we specifically wanted a bright and fresh aesthetic. I specifically wanted a really clean café; a lot of bright white, sunlight and minimal design helps force our crew to always be cleaning.
Our chairs and the frames for the tables are super-basic but homemade. Chris Dunn is the metal guy on our team, he helped create and welded everything from the sign to our shelf brackets. All the wood in this space is from Viroqua, either from Amish craftsmen or from people in the neighborhood. We meant to accomplish some coziness with the walnut, which is a wood that brings some warmth to the space, while keeping it clean, sleek and fresh.
How much work went into the space itself?
A lot. When we signed the lease here, this space was just a skeleton. I’d say 100% of what you see is stuff we did. So we poured the concrete, polished it, put up the walls, literally everything. I think we signed a lease in February of 2015; construction started in March and wrapped up in November. It took about nine months. That year went by strangely quick, looking back at it.
What’s the key differentiator between Kickapoo and other coffee companies in the Milwaukee market?
I think that we do the best job with sustainability initiatives. The roasting company recently became 100% solar powered, and that’s something they have a lot of pride in. T.J and Caleb, who own the roasting company, feel like (becoming 100% solar powered) was easier than we thought, and more businesses are probably not solar powered because they think it’s more complicated than it is. T.J. and Caleb are very passionate about getting people to consider making that change.
There’s also social sustainability, which every roaster claims to be interested in. The objective piece of our puzzle that is unique is that we are part of a roasting cooperative, which is called Co-Op Coffees, which is also a really unique thing. This Co-Op is owned by 23 roasting companies, and within that cooperative, we buy and sell our coffee while keeping mutually beneficial relationships in the forefront.
There are also some other companies out there, like Intelligentsia Coffee, Counter Culture Coffee, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, who have coined the phrase “direct trade.” It’s a literal term, it means “I know the farmer I bought this coffee from, and I wrote the check and handed it to them myself.” The Co-op Coffees model is similar, we are owners of this property and we bought this coffee directly with no middleman. Which isn’t that revolutionary of an idea anymore, but as it relates to social sustainability, it is. And like I said, no one else in this area is a member of that co-op.
What are the benefits of being a member of a cooperative business model?
The cooperative business model best supports other cooperative business models. From farming cooperatives to a roasting coop to natural food coops, our coffee sells quite well in areas that attract socially conscious consumers
What is unique about Kickapoo’s roasting style?
The roasting style is specifically related to our roasters. Caleb is very strongly involved in quality control and coffee buying. He does almost all the sample roasting and cupping. He comes from the wine world, he wasn’t quite a sommelier, but he was on his way to becoming one. He’s a super-taster for sure, very specific about taste. His flavor preferences are unique enough that our coffee is noticeably different.
I love hearing people’s reactions to trying our coffee. It fascinates me to know that people do perceive a difference and they appreciate it. I haven’t yet done any cuppings or comparative tastings here, but I’d love to do that, to maintain friendly relations with my friends at Anodyne, and Stone Creek, and Colectivo, where everyone brings a particular roast from their company and customers can taste them all next to each other.
Is education a big element of the company culture?
I’m kind of sensitive to the notion that people need to be educated; I always cringe a little because I don’t want it to be assumed that I think you know less than me. That’s one of the things that I love about coffee, is that you can learn a lot on your own, but you just have to experience things.
A lot of people step up to the counter and say, “What should I get?” And you can ask them what they like and it becomes a conversation.
Do you offer food as well?
Yes, the core of our food program revolves around a scratch-made biscuit. In the morning they’re great on their own with either honey butter, maple butter, lemon curd or just some butter and jam. We currently do three sandwiches that use the biscuit- roast beef, smoked trout or avocado. We also serve other sweets like cookies and coffee cake that are made from scratch as well.
Kickapoo Café is located on 232 E. Erie St in the Third Ward, and is open 7a.m.-7p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 8a.m.-6p.m. Sundays.