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Inside Kickapoo’s Bright, Inviting First Bar in Milwaukee

Kickapoo Coffee in Milwaukee. Photo by Dave Kreisman for Daily Coffee News.

Kickapoo Coffee in Milwaukee. Photo by Dave Kreisman for Daily Coffee News.

After roasting for more than 10 years — and in the process developing a solid reputation based on quality and a commitment to sustainable and equitable sourcing practices — Kickapoo Coffee Roasters late last year opened its first retail café, in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

It’s the latest big, methodical step for the company, a Roast magazine 2010 Roaster of the Year, which moved into a new roastery in its hometown of Viroqua, in Wisconsin’s Driftless region in October 2013. Kickapoo also unveiled an electricity-offsetting solar array last summer.

For the café project, Kickapoo co-founders T.J. Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes partnered with Wisconsin native Scott Lucey, who over the years has worn many hats in the coffee industry through work with Colectivo Coffee as well as professional organizations such as the Barista Guild of America. After concocting an agreed-upon vision with the Kickapoo team, Lucey officially came on board in September 2014, just months before a lease was signed for the Third Ward café space.

“I have always described having a café as my inevitable end,” Lucey said of the venture. “But I’m so happy to be here because it is something like a new beginning.”

Lucey, Semanchin and Nicholes scoped out spaces throughout several Milwaukee neighborhoods before settling on the Third Ward spot, which they had the opportunity to design from the ground up in the densely populated neighborhood, one of Milwaukee’s most vibrant in terms of food and drink culture. Amish neighbors of Kickapoo’s in Viroqua supplied the wood and crafted the counters, while Minneapolis-based Chris Dunn of Creative Ironwerks did the welding work for the chairs, shelving and signage.

Photo by Dave Kreisman for Daily Coffee News.

Photo by Dave Kreisman for Daily Coffee News.

Natural light pours through the floor-to-ceiling system of windows in the Southwest facade into a large, open rectangular seating area, while the clean bar shaped somewhat like a tuning fork occupies the angular rear of the space.

“Our original design was just for the bar to be an oval in the center of the space and we realized quickly that wasn’t going to work, but we really wanted it to be obvious when you walk through the door exactly where you order,” said Lucey. “And we’re really happy with the seating at the back of the bar. A lot of people don’t know see it at first, and once they realize you can hang out there, they really like it. A lot of cafe employees, people in the neighborhood when they’re done working, will sit here and look at the bar and geek out and say things like ‘woah, you’re rinsing your Fetco filters? No way.”

A blue and white tile pattern fronts the bar, visually recalling the recently redesigned blue and white packaging along a sidewall retail display. “There weren’t super long extensive brainstorming sessions where we collectively talked about blue,” said Lucey, “but yeah, it’s blue.”

Atop the bar are is three-group La Marzocco Linea PB, for the café’s two available espresso offerings. Lucey has been a fan of the company and its machines since even before he appeared sipping espresso in a bathtub with a La Marzocco machine on a 2007 Barista Magazine cover. A Kalita pourover bar with built in Acaia scales sits just off the order area, and at least two coffees each day are available as Fetco filter brews.

Photo by Dave Kreisman for Daily Coffee News.

Photo by Dave Kreisman for Daily Coffee News.

A small kitchen out of public view includes a convection oven where the Kickapoo team is cranking out daily baked goods and granola. Lucey is particularly proud of the biscuits, which can be paired simply with flavored butters or jams, or used in an assortment of available sandwiches.

There are more than a dozen cafés within approximately a square mile of Kickapoo’s first retail space — including multiple Stone Creek Coffee and Colectivo spots — a fact that proved dissuasive to banking institutions in financing, but which Lucey suggests is good for all involved. “Yeah, there might be six other cafés, but that is an opportunity to say, ‘look at this area, you know you’re going to have options when you come here.’ And that’s going to help draw more people in.”

While Kickapoo maintains some wholesale presence in Milwaukee, including at Whole Foods, the café itself has frequently represented an introduction of the brand to locals. “I think we’re doing great as far as introductions,” Lucey said. “I’m here and I have great conversations all the time with people who are just happy to taste new coffee that they might like better than anything else.”

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