Leelanau Coffee signs with Spartan: Agreement will nearly double wholesale business

GLEN ARBOR – After eight years in business, Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co. is giving those large coffee chains–we won’t mention names; you know who they are–a run for their latte.

This past June, 12 varieties of the company’s coffee began appearing on the shelves of corporate-owned Spartan Stores throughout Michigan, northern Indiana and northern Ohio, the result of an agreement signed in December 2000.

“It was essentially timing,” Steve Arens, Leelanau Coffee founder, said modestly.

Steve and his brother John, who joined the company a year and a half after Steve began the specialty coffee roasting operation in 1993, had already been supplying area Glen’s and some Tom’s stores. Then Glen’s was bought by Spartan Stores about two years ago.

“At that point, they were looking for some sort of continuity among stores chainwide; higher-end product to upgrade their branding,” explains Steve. “We said, ‘We can do this for you with coffee,’ and that got us talking.”

Thanks to John’s negotiating, product development and branding skills, says Steve, Leelanau Roasting Co. will supply 12 varieties of whole bean coffee to some 400 area Spartan Stores as part of the exclusive Great Lakes Mornings coffee program.

Coffee is sold in 12-ounce, Great Lakes Mornings-themed packages, sporting Leelanau Roasting’s logo.

John, who had served as art director for a Lansing-based advertising company before joining Steve in the business, designed the packaging (and the company’s original logo).

“Leelanau County conjures images of sunsets and summer,” said Steve. “Most people in Michigan know Leelanau County and associate it with good times.” The brand leverages the “romantic” notion of “drinking coffee roasted up in the beautiful Great Lakes region.”

Great Lakes Mornings is currently on the shelves in some 200 corporate-owned Spartan stores, with another 200 or so independently-owned member stores coming on line soon.

The Arens brothers expect to roast and package 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of coffee each month when the arrangement is fully instituted, almost doubling their existing wholesale business. The company didn’t need to expand its facilities to accommodate the increased roasting and packaging; it had upgraded its operations last year in response to growth, and with potential business from Spartan in mind.

The agreement bodes well for Leelanau Coffee Roasting.

“We’re not just selling packaging. The coffee is discernably better, and this is a spring board for greater market penetration in the specialty coffee business in Michigan and regionally, too. It will certainly raise our visibility,”said Steve.

Currently about 55 percent of Leelanau Roasting’s business is wholesale; 35 to 40 percent is retail, through locations in Glen Arbor, Petoskey, Leland and Traverse City; and 5 to 10 percent is mail order.

The brothers have processed many a bean since Steve first began roasting the highest grade Arabica beans at night and delivering them to area restaurants and stores by day. Slowly their wholesale business grew. According to Steve, the company has a “very faithful and loyal local clientele,” and “a good portion” of its first wholesale customer base has remained.

While growing its wholesale clientele, the brothers also began handing out samples and whipping up lattes and cappuccinos from a small storefront in Glen Arbor for locals. They grossed a mere $64 over Memorial Day weekend their first year, but from the word-of-mouth of locals and summer residents, that figure grew 40 times by 2001.Though originally from Michigan, Steve got his start in the coffee business in Whitefish, Montana, “as an itinerant bar musician–a drummer–you always need extra funds.”

He glimpsed a coffee roasting business while driving one day and thought driving around Montana delivering coffee wouldn’t be too bad a gig. But the business didn’t need a driver; it needed a roaster.

Working by himself at night, Steve would roast–and taste. “I’d always drank coffee, but it wasn’t until I started roasting that I realized there was something other than institutionally roasted and ground coffee.”He spent a year and a half there, then decided to head back toward home. When he got here, he learned no one in Michigan was specialty roasting, and the business–living in northern Michigan its biggest perk–was born.

Reach the brothers at 800-424-JAVA (5282) or check out their website at www.coffeeguys.com. BN