It’s already December, and the New Year is approaching at an alarming rate. While most of us scramble to acquire our last-minute holiday gifts, one local company is counting the days until January. Alterra Coffee Roasters turns twenty years old in 2013, and they have a lot to celebrate. I sat down with George, their Director of Coffee, to talk about this impressive milestone, Alterra’s newest locations, and one subject that’s been on everyone’s mind.


Why do you think Alterra has done so well in Wisconsin?

If I had to pick one reason, I’d say that our attention to detail throughout all aspects of the business really resonates with people. When customers talk to me about Alterra, they almost always comment on the small details, whether it’s the design of the lamp shades or a specific flavor in a coffee we serve. I think people really appreciate the hard work that goes into our cafes. It’s nice to be able to support a company not just because it’s local, but also because it’s executed well and is something to be proud of.


Speaking of local, does Alterra use any local products?

Yes, in fact I think a lot of people don’t fully realize how many local products we use in our food! Some examples include Sassy Cow Milk, Yuppie Hill Eggs, Wilson Farm Meats, and Usinger’s Bacon. Working with local farms and using local products is very important to the folks in our bakery, and it’s one of their primary goals when developing new products.


How do you feel about the specialty coffee community in Wisconsin?

I think the specialty coffee community in Wisconsin is getting better by the day. Our local roasters and the coffees they offer continue to improve. This is great to see, because in order for local roasters to be able to buy and sell the best coffees, the consumer needs to understand why they are different and special. It takes a lot of time, effort, and money for a coffee farmer to produce something that is higher quality, and when everyone is doing their part to promote specialty coffee, it helps our community grow. Specialty coffee is very similar to craft beer in that respect. The community works together to raise awareness and turn the consumer on these craft products because they know there’s a lot of room for everyone’s business to grow. It’s better to work as a team than to compete with one another. There was recently an article in Milwaukee Magazine titled “Coffee Wars,” and I have to say I was really surprised to see it framed in such a manner. There’s plenty of room for everyone to evolve and expand here in Milwaukee, and beyond.


What’s next for Alterra?

Next year is a big year for us. 2013 marks our 20th anniversary! In March we are opening our first store outside of Milwaukee in Madison’s Capitol Square at Tenney Plaza. We will also be introducing a new cafe in East Wauwatosa in late spring.


I’m sure a lot of people will be excited to hear about the new Madison location.

Yeah, for me it’s exciting on many levels. First and foremost, it’s exciting because we are going to serve beer for the first time ever! We’ll be contracting One Barrel Brewing Company to brew our recipes, which were developed in-house (Ed. Note: the recipes were developed by George and roaster Sean Bigelow). If all goes well, we plan on introducing this in our Milwaukee locations. Honestly, opening the Madison location makes me feel like I’m going to the cool kid’s house to play video games, and I really just hope that he likes me. I’m nervous but excited. We just love Madison, and hope that Madison will love us back.


Alterra’s involvement with Mars has been controversial. Can you talk a bit about that?

The deal we made with Mars is not easy to understand. I’m often reminded of this when people try to explain it back to me. “So what’s it like working for a company that’s been bought by Kraft?” is one of the funnier misconceptions I’ve heard. The truth is, not only was it not Kraft, but we didn’t sell our company. What we sold, in the simplest way of explaining it, was the name “Alterra.” Mars contacted us because they were looking for a legitimate brand to replace “Flavia,” the existing branding they were using for their single-serve coffee platform. Most people aren’t familiar with Flavia because unlike Keurig, this single-serve machine is sold to offices, not into the home. I think it’s a bummer that people think that we “sold out,” or that we are no longer a local company, because that’s just not true.


So we can still expect Alterra to operate as it normally has?

You can definitely expect Alterra to operate as normally has. But as you know, “normal” for us means ever-evolving and sometimes unpredictable! The transaction we made with Mars has, for the most part, been a benefit to the operation of our business here in Milwaukee. Yes, there have been a few hiccups – for example, we’re slowly figuring out how to co-exist with Mars through social media channels to communicate with our customers. But overall it’s been a very positive decision for us. Many times, business owners sell their company because they are tired of it or want to cash out. Alterra did the opposite. We sold our brand name as a strategic move to strengthen our business and support opportunities to get better – to buy better coffee, to provide a better customer experience, and to start a new chapter. I think it’s safe that say that we aren’t done. We’re closing the door on our first 20 years, and ready for 20 more.


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