La Colombe Prepares Nationwide Distribution, New Cafes For 2017

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La Colombe ended 2016 by launching a can into space.

In 2017, it plans to launch just about everywhere else.

After a year spent building relationships with retailers nationwide and preparing to significantly ramp up production, January represents a major milestone for the Philadelphia-based coffee brand. By the end of the month, La Colombe’s “draft lattes,” each brewed and packaged at the company’s new plant in Michigan, will be available in more than 2,000 stores, a 3,000 percent increase over current retail presence. By year’s end, the company expects the textured coffee drinks, which are made with cold-pressed espresso and milk and infused with nitrous oxide, be available on both cold and ambient shelves in around 15,000 locations across all channels, ranging from retailers like Whole Foods and Wegman’s to Costco and Wawa.

In an interview with BevNET, La Colombe co-founder and CEO Todd Carmichael said, after extensive preparation, January was the company’s “big transition month.”

“We’ve met with every single retailer that you can point a stick at,” he said. “We’ve been tasting product and building those relationships and networks. Now it’s delivery time.”

As the coffee RTD space continues to proliferate with brands fighting for market share, Carmichael said the competition has helped make the category more attractive to retailers across the board, while also broadening the options for where such products can be shelved at stores.

“Coffee is one of those things that could fit in a lot of different places at the store now,” Carmichael said, adding that Target was experimenting with different in-store placements as part of a 200-store test for the draft lattes, which are packaged in 9 oz cans. “We like dairy. In our case, it is true dairy — our lattes are 80 percent milk. We also have [12-packs] that fit nicely in the juice and soda aisle as well. You have a couple things going on, and we like that.”

La Colombe’s ability to expand into nationwide distribution is a result of the company’s purchase of a 55,000 square-foot dairy processing and packaging plant in Norton Shores, Mich. in September 2016. Carmichael described the facility’s capacity as “pretty aggressive,” as, at full volume, it could deliver a quarter of a billion cans per year. Yet he explained that the primary motivation in opening the plant was to exercise greater control over the process from concept to can, and to fulfill the brand’s goal to constantly innovate and improve production methods.

“It’s difficult to inspire your co-packer to go to the next level of ingenuity, to be always challenging them, because they’re just not on the same page as you,” Carmichael said, adding that he doesn’t expect to see any wide variations in the production, aside from the ability to produce different sized can formats as needed. “That for me was really key – to be able to have control over the process from the bean all the way to the end of it, so we can always be tinkering and trying to go to that next level with it.”

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The plant’s location is also contributing to the final product itself; as Carmichael colorfully says, “you can almost step outside the plant and throw a draft latte and hit a cow.” More seriously, he praised the quality of milk from local dairy farmers in Muskegon County that La Colombe sources for its draft lattes, which is packaged the same day it comes in.

“Compared to [La Colombe’s] small plant in Pennsylvania, we’ve increased, by my measure, the quality [of draft lattes] by 10 percent by being that much closer to the milk,” Carmichael said.

While investing heavily in RTD canned coffee, Carmichael also has ambitious plans to add 12 to 15 brick and mortar cafes to La Colombe’s existing slate of 22 retail stores. He expects to open four locations in the Los Angeles area — in Santa Monica, Silverlake, Beverly Hills and Frogtown — within the next 60 days, with additional outlets in Miami, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. to follow.

Comparing the experience to how tech giant Apple designs its stores, Carmichael described the cafes as “individual brand worlds” that will encapsulate the brand’s ethos on multiple levels.

“It’s craft meets architecture meets design,” he said. “Everything is designed for you to either purposefully or accidentally interact with another human being. The seating is designed for you to bump into people and interact with people on a social level. Because, ultimately, La Colombe is about people and making people happy.”

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Similar to how Starbucks has introduced limited-run menu items that were created at its flagship Roastery location in Seattle, La Colombe cafes will also serve as a testing environment for potential new products.

Even during this period of transition and expansion, Carmichael continues to look ahead. Praising the work of the company’s engineering team, he teased the possibility of using La Colombe’s custom-made equipment to further explore the potential of texturized drinks by creating a foam in a can or bottle.

“You start looking around and you realize [texturizing] has some beautiful effects on juices and smoothies and sports drinks,” Carmichael said. “Even right now, if you went to my house for a cocktail party, I would serve you drinks made in draft latte cans. I look back at this kind of tunnel of products that are possible through this and I see a lot of different things. It’s not something we will do today, but it’s always possible.”