A new, slow-roasted Johnson County location for Messenger Coffee Co. is expected to anchor the Kansas City brand south of I-435 with sprawling windows, copious light, leafy plants, open baking and the familiar wafting scents of coffee and pastries.
But for those whose thirst for the roaster’s expansion can’t wait until the new store’s spring 2022 anticipated opening, twin Messenger cafes are set to debut next month on the Country Club Plaza, the company announced this week.
The shops will replace the last two remaining Kaldi’s Coffee locations in the metro, which are expected to close March 31. Messenger takes over the lease April 1, but won’t reopen for a few weeks, said Isaac Hodges.
“New cafes were always part of our plan,” said Hodges, president of Messenger. “We’ve targeted geographical areas we think would be great spots — really looking at where customers or potential customers are underserved in the market.”
The Plaza opportunity, however, came as a surprise amid Messenger’s methodical efforts to advance an up-to-6,200-square-foot store — modeled after its popular Crossroads flagship — within Phase 2 of the mixed-use Prairiefire development at 135th Street and Nall Avenue in Overland Park. (The project faces city approval.)
Click here to read more about the planned development, which is set to include a Chicken N Pickle location, as well as an Andy’s Frozen Custard shop.
St. Louis-based Kaldi’s, which arrived on the local coffee scene in 2014 with the acquisition of Lattéland, approached Messenger to learn more about its efforts to expand the reach of specialty coffee in Kansas City. Having already closed four of its Kansas City locations — most recently a downtown shop in summer 2019 — the company revealed to Messenger it would soon be leaving the market entirely.
“The conversations with Kaldi’s moved pretty quick after that,” said Hodges. “That opened up the opportunity for us to take Messenger to the Plaza. It wasn’t part of our original game plan, but it’s obviously an iconic place within Kansas City.”
Rising to the occasion
Along with the unexpected opportunity, tripling the number of new stores is an unforeseen expense, he acknowledged, noting the 900-square-foot Plaza locations will be brought in line with Messenger branding without the luxury of as much time, space or capital as dedicated to the south Johnson County project.
“It’s going to be a quick flip,” Hodges said Friday morning from the lab at the coffee company’s Crossroads flagship store. “They’ll match the Messenger brand from a color scheme perspective, but it’s a little tricky. These stores weren’t in our original plans this year, so we’re being creative in how we manage the process.”
Elevator pitch: Production of great coffee starts long before it gets to the hands of local roasters. It’s about quality sourcing with farm-direct relationships, ethical practices and treatment; elevating the art and science of coffee harvesting and roasting; creating experiential cafés that offer educational opportunities; and acting as good corporate citizens.
As the first “Messenger” locations outside the well-trafficked space at 17th Street and Grand Boulevard, it’s still important that the cafes “look and feel correct,” he said.
Click here to explore Messenger Coffee Co.
“We tie ourselves to a certain kind of espresso machine, a certain menu of drinks, and a certain level of customer service and quality of product,” Hodges said. “Those things are repeatable, so it’s a big focus as we expand the brand.”
The two Plaza shops are expected to serve three distinct groups of customers, he said: tourists; residents who live in the communities immediately surrounding the premier retail district; and people from across the metro who come for a day of shopping or events.
“We believe we can help create a special day as a local company who can say, ‘Our breads and pastries are sourced by products here in the Midwest and curated from farmers just surrounding the metro,’” Hodges said.
Because of the Plaza shops’ small size, baked goods will originate off-site — coinciding with separate plans for Messenger to launch an internal kitchen program to support its network of cafes with items like breakfast burritos and sandwiches, fruit bowls and salads.
In addition to its flagship coffee shop, which launched in October 2017, Messenger operates three Filling Station locations, as well as Black Dog in Lenexa.
A stronger blend
COVID-19 had a significant impact on Messenger’s operations, Hodges said, but it also reinforced areas of focus for the brand.
Wholesale — about 40 percent of its business — largely stopped during the pandemic, he said.
“Some channels are certainly coming back, but a lot of the industry — restaurants, hotels, universities, hospitals — are still trending 70 percent, 80 percent down,” Hodges detailed.
Direct-to-consumer sales and cafe operations, however, remained strong, he said.
“Our cafes continued to operate for the entire pandemic — in all the different safety iterations — and we realized that our cafes are really important to the customer base,” Hodges continued, noting Messenger’s network of cafes now account for 50 percent of the business. “It’s a community area; a place for them to keep their routines alive to some degree, and to have some sense of social normalcy.”
Elevator pitch: The FairWave Coffee Collective is a Kansas-City based collaborative of leading local coffee brands working together to support local purveyors that provide world-class coffee, bakery and culinary experiences for consumers. The collective brings years of fair trade, farm-direct sourcing, roasting and coffee expertise to the communities it serves. The hands of many are involved in making products, and every hand along the journey is respected as they elevate the art and science of coffee harvesting and roasting.
That made projects like Prairiefire all the more important, as Messenger and its parent organization, FairWave Coffee Collective, work to fill gaps in access to quality specialty coffee across the metro, he said. Hodges also serves as vice president of sales for FairWave.
Click here to read more about Messenger and the collective’s plans for Kansas City. FairWave also includes the Kansas City-brewed The Roasterie brand.
“We did our market research,” Hodges said of trends identified in south Johnson County. “When you look at 135th Street, that corridor sees a lot of spend on coffee — and none of it is to local companies — all national brands like Starbucks or Scooters. We believe a local coffee provider can do something special if it’s done well.”
“Of course, you can’t just put a Messenger out there — take over a spot at the end of a strip mall — and hope just the name will carry it,” he continued. “That means building from the ground up.”
In addition to capturing the south Johnson County market, Hodges hopes the Prairiefire location will feed new fans of the brand up to the Crossroads coffee shop — as well as to online ordering options that became even more popular during the pandemic.
“We want to make a great experience that will drive people — especially those who don’t live in this immediate area — to come experience the Messenger flagship, come learn more transparently about our product process,” he said.
“It helps us reinforce our story, as well as our business growth trajectory,” Hodges added.