As the smells of Ibis Bakery and roasting beans waft together at Messenger Coffee in the Crossroads, rising between floors of the spacious and vibrant corner cafe, the flavors haven’t changed since COVID-19 began — nor since the popular Kansas City roasterie joined a freshly launched coffee collective, said Isaac Hodges.
It’s still steeped in a message; the connection points between coffee and consumer that define the brand even as it evolves, said Hodges, president of Messenger Coffee Company.
“Have you tried the Ethiopian washed?” asked Dan Trott, punctuating the point with a sip before extolling the clean flavor of a classic straight from the “cradle of coffee” in Africa.
Cities across the Midwest deserve corner coffee shops that know their craft from roast to brew, Trott and Hodges explained, pouring the context behind a new partnership between Messenger Coffee and The Roasterie that’s set to blend and package both Kansas City success stories into a nationwide roadmap for growing coffee culture.
“What’s happening here in Kansas City, we think can be replicated around the country,” said Trott, CEO of FairWave Holdings — the just-announced holding company that’s brought the two well-known brands together as the foundation of a growing collective of speciality coffee shops.
Click here to read about the Roasterie’s humble beginnings from founder Danny O’Neill.
The effort is specifically designed to enhance success for brands brewed in the Midwest, he added. And the idea isn’t to take such coffee shops national — but to maximize their in-market potential.
“The collective was formed to support local coffee brands around the country and enable them to remain strong and be a viable business in each of the markets that they operate,” Trott clarified, explaining FairWave isn’t an association — but rather, a root system for locally owned coffee shops.
The FairWave model hopes to provide mainstreet brands access to best practices in operations and world-class backend support that’s made brands like Messenger one of Kansas City’s most recognizable coffee shops in less than four years. Trott emphasized collective members would need a retail or cafe presence — not a standalone wholesale operation — to fit within the FairWave family.
Click here to learn more about Messenger’s artisan coffee roasting operation.
“We studied the market pretty carefully. In most markets, the maximum number of cafes you might find — from a brand — would be somewhere between four and eight and they sort of hit this ceiling of not having the bandwidth or the talent or the systems to support being a bigger organization,” Trott explained.
“A lot of times they don’t have the capital to do it, so they can’t afford to buy or build another operation. They get capped out at that scale and that’s as big as that local brand can be.”
Such circumstances are what FairWave hopes to grind into a thing of the past, Trott said, noting members of the collective — currently made up of The Roasterie and Messenger — become part of a single entity, but maintain local branding, marketing, and individual operations structures.
“This is not about taking [away] a brand. This is about continuing to support the vertical integration of that brand in that market with more cafes, with more marketing,” he said. “We know we have some of the special sauces to have cafe performance be really strong. So we share those special sauces with them.”
Click here to read about the 10 finalists for the “Mr. K” Small Business of the Year award — including Messenger Coffee. The winner is set to be announced by Oct. 15 by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
Recipes for success are already benefiting Messenger, which expects to expand its cold beverage and bottled offerings as a result of expertise brought to FairWave by The Roasterie, Trott noted.
For its part, Messenger looks to remain grounded in Kansas City — despite the appearance of widespread, large-scale success, added Hodges.
“It’s not just about us. It’s about providing a platform where people can come access great minds, a good quality product, and an effective supply chain,” Hodges said, highlighting the company’s mission to serve as a messenger for coffee growers around the world, delivering their product to local consumers in a way that is as educational as it is enjoyable.
Such a mission starts with an unwavering commitment to local collaboration, he added, citing recent work with Cafe Cà Phê — a newly launched, mobile cafe specializing in Vietnamese coffee.
“It’s all about listening to what kind of impact they’re hoping to make in the community and then supporting them along the way.”
Collaborative and education efforts are only expected to flourish with the addition of The Roasterie and its commitment to customer transparency through such offerings as tours of its Southwest Boulevard roasting facility, Hodges said.
With the collective officially off the ground, folding the company’s into FairWave wasn’t without its share of challenges.
“We were about ready to push the button and do the transaction pre-COVID and then obviously March 14th, 15th, 16th — whatever day you want to use — happened and we had to push the pause button and understand what happens to the business,” Trott said.
The process of absorbing the pandemic-poured effects saw local cafes shuttered, partners in office buildings close their doors for good, and Messenger lay off a majority of its staff — which it has since almost completely rehired, Hodges said.
“It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of people doing everything possible to make sure the business stays alive. There’s been a lot of creative ideation around how we serve our customers — that went from one way to interact with our cafe to five ways,” he said, detailing ways the pandemic experience has changed the company for the better as it reaches its next stage in the business cycle.
“Offices are closed. People are missing that connection piece. And so we just made sure that we stayed open by working really hard and maintaining safe protocols and procedures and still offering an incredible product — we’ve never sacrificed on product in any way, at any step along the way,” Hodges said.
“I think it just shows that we’re really needing an outlet like this. We’re fortunate to be where we’re at.”