Scrolling through their Instagram feeds, young urban dwellers across the South have undoubtedly seen pictures heralding a new coffee chainlet, one with an aesthetic so sparse and clean it is nearly unremarkable. Yet, when a company sets up shop with state of the art equipment in prime real estate in six major markets within the space of a year, it’s bound to turn some heads. As quality coffee trickles into the nation’s next craft frontier, the hyper fresh Revelator Coffee Company hopes to create a new brand synonymous with the region, fostering aspirations to be to the South what Stumptown was to the Pacific Northwest, or what Intelligentsia was to Chicago and then Los Angeles.
"There is good quality [coffee] in the South. There are no regional brands that identify with all the cities that are seeing so much revitalization right now," says Emma Chevalier, Revelator Coffee’s Creative Director. Chevalier has lived and worked in many of the South’s urban centers, and held numerous scattered coffee-related jobs before meeting Elizabeth Pogue and Josh Owen, now the company's Director of Operations and President, respectively.
... Revelator Coffee Company hopes to create a new brand synonymous with the region, fostering aspirations to be to the South what Stumptown was to the Pacific Northwest...
Though Pogue and Owen are new to the coffee world, together the three co-founded Revelator Coffee with backing from Berkeley-based venture capital firm, Roble Partners. They fixed their corporate headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, setting up a 10,000 square foot roasting and distribution facility designed to accommodate a comprehensive reach across the southeast.
A Quick Start
Since the launch late last year, Revelator has invested ample intention and funds, scouting locations, hiring staff, and outfitting shops with state of the art brewing technology—all of this at a rather breakneck speed. In one year they have opened stores in Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Nashville, with Revelator Charleston on the way.
"When we first started I was pretty vulnerable, but by the time we got to opening the New Orleans store it was super easy. It’s easier knowing that there are reliable systems in place, and a trustworthy staff," says Chevalier. "I will say, it definitely takes a certain mentality to work at a startup, especially one with such an ambitious growth strategy."
Meredith Singer is Revelator's marketing director and she’s felt the quick pace as well, noting that the most recent Nashville store launch happened fast on the heels of the Atlanta debut. "The pace is a bit uncomfortable at times, but it’s also fun," she says. "I moved down to Alabama, largely because of the potential down here; the business climate is wide open, the cost-of-living is really low ... The region in general is really growing across the board. You see people leaving these over-saturated markets like San Francisco and New York—you certainly have great coffee options in those cities—but you’re seeing more and more people coming back or people that are just looking to the South because they see the potential that everyone else does."
While many have recognized the opportunity, the southeast may not have been the most obvious promised land. Take, for instance, Birmingham: In 2011 Jefferson County, home to Alabama’s biggest city, became the largest municipality to file for bankruptcy in U.S. history (it has since been surpassed by Detroit in 2013).
An Untapped Market
Perhaps as part of a cultural shift precipitated by the recession, many startups have cropped up in this region, taking advantage of low overheads and a young, ambitious workforce that feels comfortable turning third-wave shops into temporary workspaces. Many of the metropolitan areas in the South are chock full of millennials who represent a fast-growing demographic in specialty coffee. In the past 15 years, daily coffee consumption in the 18 to 24 age group has doubled, according to a 2014 National Coffee Association study.
For specialty coffee, the South represents something of a goldmine yet to be rushed. Still, investing in good coffee in a new market can be a gamble. The quality roasters and retailers paving the way for the region—among them Onyx in Arkansas, Crema and Barista Parlor in Nashville, Octane in Atlanta, and 1000 Faces in Athens—have yet to reach line-out-the-door status like places such as Slate in Seattle.
For specialty coffee, the South represents something of a goldmine yet to be rushed.
The southeast's original coffee pioneer, Counter Culture, launched in Durham, North Carolina in 1995, and has steadily grown each year with strong wholesale programs, bolstered by training centers in both North Carolina and Georgia. However, the roaster has left the retail world to its clients, opting to continue blazing coffee sourcing trails at origin.
Conversely, Revelator is going whole hog on retail, with shops in marquis locations. They hope to benefit from the added level of quality control as an integrated operation, showcasing their coffees for any interested wholesale accounts. "We get to know our coffees really well, and also have the opportunity to turn our shops into little beacons, hubs, lighthouses for the brand," Chevalier explains.
This roaster-retailer model pitches Revelator in a similar model to that of quality heavyweight Blue Bottle Coffee, who climbed through the retail ropes earlier in the year. Though the Bay Area has acquired some profoundly deep pockets. After receiving several rounds of venture capital funding (some $70 million), the iconic brand acquired a few other horizontal operations, withdrew from wholesale dependence, and opened cafes in Japan, a market already thirsty for high quality coffee. By and large the most valuable coffees, worth over $20 per pound green at Cup of Excellence auctions (annual competitions that rate the highest quality coffees in the world), go to markets such as Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong, where it’s not uncommon to find single origins for $6 a cup and prized varieties going for $10 a cup.
All of America, it seems—not just the South—has some appreciating to do before it puts the necessary premium on coffee. For now, Revelator serves quality single-origin coffee for just $3 a cup, which is low for the nation but more or less on par with the region. Coffee savvy cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and New York generally fall in the $3.50 to $4.50 per cup price range.
An American Experience
In hiring seasoned industry professionals such as Sarah Kluth, a green buyer with past experience at Intelligentsia, Revelator is showing the southeast what quality coffee can do without the pedanticism and pretense with which the industry is sometimes saddled. "There is a lot of attitude in service, especially in coffee these days. We’re really trying to remove that and go back to true southern hospitality," Chevalier says. "We’re trying to create an American coffee experience ..."
"Our minimalist aesthetic is really reflected in how we try to listen to the coffees and not manipulate them."
To make the experience distinctly American, Revelator uses equipment manufactured in the U.S. whenever it meets their standard of quality. All stores are outfitted with a two-group Slayer Espresso machine custom-made in Washington. For fast, single-brew teas, a few stores will feature fancy Utah-born Alpha Dominche chamber brewers. Add to those an arsenal of precision grinding imports from Mahlkönig and Baratza, and each store boasts the gold standards for brewing equipment across the board.
Meanwhile, wares and extracurriculars, like mugs and denim aprons, are made by Louisville Stoneware and New Orleans company Holt McCall, respectively. These are the equipment and effects common to all of the company stores; beyond them, individual locations will have the opportunity to build an identity specific to their respective neighborhoods.
"We hire strong store managers and we want them to feel ownership of the store, the location they’re in ... We give them flexibility on what they want to order, to get customer feedback and tailor an experience to the location," Singer explains.
In the Birmingham area, Revelator calls on a local kombucha maker, a candle company and a homestead farm for goat cheese. Small-batch caramels are sold in all stores. In the New Orleans area, sign makers build menu boards for all shops and a blanket maker provides hand-woven turkish shawls made from cotton that meets the Global Organic Textile Standard. "Ideally, as we grow, hopefully, we will be able to see some of these businesses grow alongside us," Singer says.
In this regard, Revelator’s claims to building community-sensitive shops comes across as more authentic, as opposed to the "all things to all people" boilerplate line sometimes assumed by larger corporations or those with aspirations of large-scale growth. Starbucks pursued the community-specific angle some years back though perhaps not as deftly, in one instance, hanging hamfisted brass instruments from the ceiling of their New Orleans stores.
If Revelator succeeds in its intention to build a unique local following in individual communities, it will be because each shop is something of a blank canvas, neutral, and allowing the clientele to bring color to the space. Chevalier, who describes the feel as both minimalist and familial, believes this will set the tone for Revelator to drive the quality conversation in the South in an unassuming fashion."It’s not egotistical, it’s not about the barista, or just about the coffee, or just about the customer. It’s about this whole experience between all three."
All of the shops have a spartan quality to them, which is not to say they lack intention or capacity, by any means. Fischer Architecture out of Berkeley, California handles designs and buildouts after consulting with Chevalier on the standard work flows of a barista. The bar, made of smooth concrete and wood, places the customer eye-level with the barista. Behind the bar, equipment lines up on an even plane. Plumbing and electrical are hidden in the framework, with sinks recessed and water towers jutting from the table top like sleek, silver arms, all of which give the exposed prep area the feel of a complete unit, spacious without sacrificing efficiency.
Most, if not all, of the shops are shotgun style, in the 1,500 to 2,000 square feet range, with additional seating alcoves discretely recessed into the walls parallel to long, sleek service counters. Per Chevalier, "Our minimalist aesthetic is really reflected in how we try to listen to the coffees and not manipulate them."