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WisBiz In-Depth: Berres brewing some changes

By Gregg Hoffmann

WATERTOWN - It takes a whole company to brew a great cup of coffee. The employees of Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters have collaborated to do just that for years.

Now, the company also is brewing a few changes, while vowing to maintain the quality that has allowed Berres to grow and in the process trying to "make someone's day."

As this is being read, Berres is moving to a new, modern facility at 202 Air Park Drive in Watertown. The new facility will include expanded space for production, warehousing and other functions of coffee-making. It also will include expanded retail space and a restaurant.

In part because of the extra room, Berres also is repositioning itself in the marketplace of convenience stores, grocery stores and corporate accounts. Berres' new brand positioning centers around the trademark, "Astonishlingly Smooth Flavor."

It also includes a new identity that actually began rolling out in 2003, and incorporates graphics, packaging and even the décor of the new facility that reflects an upscale look which is "sophisticated, fun and inviting."

The company also is expanding its collaboration with coffee estates in Costa Rica, Brazil and Kenya.

"Our timing has been pretty good," Peter Berres said in a recent phone interview. "Since we started roasting our own coffee, and got our product out on the street, we have had steady growth. We are working to make sure that continues."

Cherie Grandt, marketing manager, says the roughly 50 employees of Berres are invited to participate fully in many company endeavors and to have fun while doing so. For example, many employees came in voluntarily on a Sunday to paint funky decorations on the brightly-colored walls of the new building.

"This company goes against the grain of the typical, snooty coffee rosters and cafes," Berres said. "Our approach is to bring great coffee to the masses, and to challenge ourselves to make someone's day…every day."

On Jan. 15, Berres held, "Your 15 Minutes of Fame," which was designed as a job fair, audition of potential employees and a house party. More than 200 people showed up on a cold, snowy day to participate. Berres plans to hire up to 30 people in the next few months.

"Everyone got a nickname when they came in the door, and we ran them through various ‘scenes' as a group," said Sonja Svatos, who along with Alice Salli, coordinated the event. "They took a survey, had a Q&A session, worked through a Pictionary scene and got to meet Pete to learn more about the culture we're building. I'm not sure who had more fun, the candidates or us."

Salli said the event is just one example of the importance Berres puts on team-building. "It really gave us a chance to see what people are like, not in a work setting or an interview setting, but when they're just being themselves," she said. "We got a glimpse on how they could help build the team."

Berres said the employees seem to have bought into the company culture. He said it presents a challenge to him.

"I have to make sure it starts with me," he said. "I have a military background (Army Reserve) and teach leadership training at Whitewater. I measure how good of a leader I am by what I see among our people."

From Vending to Roasting

These new approaches, identity and building are based on a foundation that started in 1970, when Marvin Berres founded Coffee Host Inc., a coffee, soda and snack vending service to offices and companies within a 50-60 mile radius of Watertown.

Coffee Host evolved into Berres Brothers in March 1992, when Peter and Jeff, Marvin's sons, took over the business and formed their own brand. They expanded their product offerings and started roasting their own coffee.

"To move from a vending service to retail sales required some interesting changes," Berres said. "Some of the things my father did, or could not do, were not the same as what we faced."

The vending service was sold in 1997. That same year, Berres Brothers coffee first became available in Wisconsin grocery and convenience stores. Peter took over complete ownership of the company in 2000.

Production volume has grown steadily every year since 1992. In 2003, Berres roasted more than 500,000 pounds beans for bulk and pre-ground packets. That translates to about 40 million cups of coffee. The volume has grown since that time.

As of April 2003, Berres coffee could be found in more than 350 grocery stories and 110 convenience stores in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, eastern Iowa and eastern Minnesota. Those numbers have grown.

Berres said the company is now looking for distributors, after relying on route drivers for years.

Keys to the steady growth have been the beans and the roasting techniques. "We go to great lengths to buy the best beans we can find," Salli said. Fifteen different coffee-growing regions around the world supply coffee beans to Berres.

Berres uses Arabica beans from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Hawaii, Kenya, Nicaragua, Peru and Sumatra. Arabica beans are grown at elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 feet. The highest quality Arabica beans are classified as "Arabica Specialty." Only about 10% of Arabica beans get this grade. All Berres coffees are made from such beans.

Salli said most of the 74 different roasts and flavors of coffee produced by Berres are not burned or made into dark roast. When the beans are not burned, the coffee does not come out with a bitter taste.

Berres does offer eight dark roasts, 19 medium roasts, five organics and 42 specialty flavors. Highlander Grogg, which combines caramel, butterscotch and hazelnut flavors, is the most popular Berres flavor. Other popular flavors are Butternut Rum, French Caramel Cream, Hazelnut Cream, Streusel Cake, White Russian and others.

Berres also roasts Packer Perc and Bears Brew for regional football fans and a variety of seasonal and holidays brews.

New Facility

Berres Brothers has operated and experienced its growth at an aging facility at 101 Western Avenue, on the south side of downtown Watertown. The quarters, which include an outlet store as well as the corporate headquarters and roasting operations, have become very cramped.

The new facility will be located near the Watertown airport, just off Hy. 26 and north of I-94. Access from the freeway will be much easier, and Berres Brothers will make sure to let motorists know where the facility is.

"That old 10 by 12 store in the old operation has led to the new building," Berres said. "I would not have built a new building if it was not for the store. We will have much more room to sell our products and other coffee-related products.

"The food business out there is a whole new ballgame. I've watched coffee houses from Minnesota and elsewhere come down here and establish similar businesses, so I believe it will have legs. I feel confident in what we are doing out there."

Close attention has been paid to the décor in the new facility to make sure it will help "make someone's day."

"We have bright, fun colors throughout the retail and other areas of the building," Grandt said. "We want to carry that brand of fun, while also maintaining the quality of the coffee."

People who eat at the Berres Brothers restaurant will be able to watch planes land and take off from the airport. They also can look through a large glass window into the production area where the coffee is being roasted. The look resembles some micro-breweries in which guests can watch the beer being brewed.

Grandt said the move should be completed in the next few weeks and a grand opening will likely be held in May.

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