Brewer honored by SBA for launching coffee boom in Alaska

  • Lori Brewer drew national attention after she opened one of the first coffee drive-thrus in the country in Seattle in 1992. Since moving to Alaska in 1993 and opening Cafe D'arte her business has grown to multiple locations and has helped grow dozens of other coffee businesses around the state. She was named the Small Business Administration Small Business Person of the Year for 2018 by the Alaska Division. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

Ever wonder how an Alaska coffee shop or hut gets set up from scratch, moving through the business plan to finding locations, purchasing machines and training staff?

Chances are, Caffe D’arte owners Lori and Bob Brewer lent a helping hand in preparing literally hundreds of new business owners throughout the state during the past 25 years they’ve been in business.

The company is a unique A to Z wholesale and training provider that responds quickly to market changes. Lori Brewer — yes, she gets a lot of comments on her name — was recognized by the Small Business Administration Alaska Division as the 2018 Alaska Small Business Person of the Year Award.

She and her husband, Bob Brewer, have operated their business since 1993. The full operation, called Caffe D’arte Alaska, Alaska Coffee and Restaurant Equipment, is composed of six coffee shops in Anchorage. Another 400 accounts across Alaska supply wholesale coffee-to-coffee houses and coffee carts.

How the Brewers built a business that became so diversified that it even markets its own coffee labels in Keurig cups probably rests on the constantly-moving dynamism of its founder.

“She always has her feelers out for the latest thing,” said Lynn Vaughn, her operations director. “She looks at the ideas she wants, grabs ahold and runs with them. I think that’s something she does well.”

Brewer studied marketing in college, then went to work for Seattle television station KTVZ in the late 1980s. But marketing didn’t hold her attention like the first drive-thru coffee stand she opened in 1992 by revamping an old gas station on a busy Bellevue corner.

At the time, she became news for opening what was considered one of the first coffee drive-thrus in the country and was written up in the Seattle newspapers.

In 1993, Brewer moved to Alaska and met her husband, Bob. The first year in Alaska, they launched Caffe D’arte.

The coffee business changed over time, she said, and her life did as well. She developed cancer in 2008 and underwent months of treatment. Then, recovering, she went right back to work.

“Being around people is healing,” she said. “Especially in the coffee business, there’s a lot of joy in helping people leave your store feeling good.”

When the hours get too long, the Brewers try to stick to a schedule of three-day weekends.

“The secret is really in the hard work, focus and passion,” Brewer said. “I tell our partners, you take what you love and focus on growing that. Trust the people you work with and help them grow. As I help them, they multiply my ability. We become a better team.”

Caffe D’arte employs 54 people, about two-thirds of them are baristas. The rest are marketing, accounts people and maintenance-repair people.

The company began in 1993 on Homer Drive and 64th Avenue in south Anchorage as a wholesale company to provide coffee beans, training and equipment to retailers. The spacious quarters include an upfront shop where people can stop in for their morning coffee or to buy wholesale supplies from stocked shelves.

A training-conference room off to the side provides the equipment — espresso machines, cold coffee brewer and other machines — for hands-on barista training. A separate part of the business focuses on maintenance of espresso machines, special brands ordered out of Chicago, and sold to businesses.

“In the coffee business, you have to stay constantly changing and flexible. You have to remember the core is coffee, but you also pay attention to the industry and how your company can change,” Brewer said.

In January 2019, the changes evolving for Brewer’s operation will extend several thousand miles south to the Sea-Tac Airport. A new 1,300-square foot Caffe D’arte is going in the new N Concourse, beating out bids from Starbucks and Stumptown Coffee, Brewer said.

The business also caters to several Alaska hotels, supplying each room with both single-cup espresso machines and the Keurig cups of D’arte’s signature blend from a Seattle roasting company it’s used for many years now.

But fads are ever changing in the coffee business, and staying on top of trends is vital, she says.

Brewer moved the company into the cold brew business, marketing its own label to coffee carts and businesses along with the other supplies. Her roaster worked on the right blend until he found the sweet spot. Brewer also spotted the Tie-Dye Smoothie fix drawing in fans, and moved in on that market.

The Caffe D’arte brand is also on grocery shelves at Safeway and sold in 150 rural Alaska locations. Due to the training center contact, Brewer is often the first real networking new shop owners get to do, she said.

“A lot of these are young women opening their first business and we mentor them,” she said. “We teach them everything they need to know from their business plan to the inventory list of supplies they will need, right down to the doggy bones.”

Brewer returned May 1 from Washington, D.C., after receiving her Alaska SBA award directly from the Administrator Linda McMahan. On May 3, she will be honored locally by the Alaska SBA in a morning breakfast.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

05/11/2018 - 8:59am