After reading an article about a Madison-based coffee roaster, Vicki Wilson was fascinated with the business and decided to do a little research. A buyer with Shopko at the time, she went to the local library.
“That was back before Google, so I scoured the phone books looking for coffee roasters in the area. I didn’t find any and saw no business had the name ‘Door County Coffee’ so I trademarked that name and got started,” she says, adding that she was looking to open a business in Door County. “I gambled with my career and savings, but still jumped in because I knew we could do this.”
With support from her husband, Doug, who then worked as an engineer in Green Bay, Wilson launched her coffee roasting business with one employee in an empty grocery store in Forestville.
“We did a lot of research and settled on air roasting since it provides a reliable, repeatable product. We also knew we had to use quality beans,” Wilson says. “From the beginning, we’ve been dedicated to quality because we want to make that cup of coffee so memorable they come back for more.”
Door County Coffee offers not only regular coffee, but also decaf, flavored varieties, fair trade options and seasonal blends. That variety of offerings seeks to satisfy customers’ needs.
Wilson’s gamble paid off, and more than 25 years later, Door County Coffee customers keep coming back for more.
Putting the customer first
When Wilson talks about Door County Coffee’s different business lines — e-commerce, wholesale, the café and retail store in Carlsville, food service and grocery store/mass merchandise — it all comes down to meeting customers’ needs.
“We want to be where she is — whether that’s at home, at work, in the store or here visiting in Door County,” Wilson says. “Yes, she. There are a few ‘he’s,’ but women are our primary coffee buyer. Our customer wants that perfect cup of coffee wherever she is. Thanks to the quality of our beans and our roasting process, there is that consistency of excellence. It is something she can rely on.”
When Wilson launched Door County Coffee, she focused initially on the wholesale industry and getting her coffee into restaurants and hotels.
“We were fortunate to have some early adapters who believed in us and our coffee,” she says. “But as word spread about our coffee, we started having people come to where we were in Forestville to buy directly from us.”
About two years after launching Door County Coffee, Wilson decided “to bite the bullet” and went back to the bank to seek additional funding to expand the business.
“We needed larger capacity so we could produce a higher volume to make a profit. We left that little 3,000-square-foot space and built this,” she says, referencing the building that stands today along Highway 42 — kitty-corner from Door Peninsula Winery.
The initial 10,000-square-foot building included a roasting facility and Wilson added a small café and store to serve walk-in customers.
“It was six years before we made a single dime, but being persistent paid off. We have grown more than tenfold and expanded this building four or five times,” Wilson says of Door County Coffee’s current facility, which stands now at 40,000 square feet and includes the roasting facility, a recently remodeled café and store, a warehouse, packaging area and administrative offices. The café also has a drive-through window — the only one north of Sturgeon Bay, she adds.
Door County Coffee’s growth has come from the ability to tap into the various markets where coffee is sold, which is just about anywhere. In addition to its initial wholesale business, Door County Coffee found success partnering with food service providers, whether it’s an employer like Schneider National, a college such as the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay or a vendor such as Canteen Dining.
“Thanks to the food service providers, our coffee is sold in all kinds of businesses everywhere from UPS in Chicago to the Cook County Courthouse,” Wilson laughs.
Door County Coffee also can be found in grocery stores across the state, including Woodman’s, Festival Foods, Pick ’n Save and Sendik’s, as well as Shopko. They were also available in the now-shuttered Bon-Ton stores, which exposed customers in other parts of the country to the Door County Coffee brand. Those customers now are turning to the business’s website to order their favorites.
“Festival Foods has been a great partner for us. As they expand into new markets, we are right along with them, allowing more people to know about us,” Wilson says.
Christian Weis, district general manager for Canteen Dining-Midwest, says it’s not just the taste, but its story that sets Door County Coffee apart.
“They are a local company, servicing the people of Wisconsin proudly, and standing by their products and people,” he says. “Vicki has even come to one of my grand openings in Milwaukee. You don’t get that type of service from Starbucks, and you can use their bathroom.”
Weis uses Door County Coffee products throughout his entire client portfolio in Wisconsin and Chicago, which ranges from colleges and manufacturers to shipping companies and industry-leading corporations.
When he discusses Door County Coffee with customers as a possible coffee choice, Weis starts off with the company’s story and then does a blind taste test with Door County Coffee and another brand.
“Every time, they choose Door County Coffee,” he says. “This has turned into a great partnership with a local artisan roaster that I can share wherever I go.”
Door County Coffee’s café and store in Carlsville is the company’s most visible line of business with more than 350,000 people visiting every year.
“We constantly hear from customers that Door County Coffee is their first stop on the way up and the last stop on the way out. We like to think of ourselves as a friendly face and old friend that our guests have come to love,” Wilson says. “A big part of that is because our management staff runs the café as if it was their own business. They are always going the extra mile for our customers.”
Earlier this summer, the café was remodeled and now includes a large window where visitors can watch the coffee-roasting process. Wilson says that was done intentionally because not all customers realized it was done onsite.
While the store features its “wall of coffee”— all of Door County Coffee’s flavors, sizes and options (whole bean versus ground) in one place, it also carries other carefully selected items, including products made in Door County and home decor items.
“Wherever people come from, they can take a piece of us home with them,” Wilson says.
E-commerce is the company’s fastest-growing segment and accounts for 20 percent of Door County Coffee’s overall sales.
“We definitely see e-commerce expanding,” Wilson says. “Coffee is a consumable we can send anywhere and it’s easy to ship.”
In addition to its own website, Door County Coffee is available via other online retailers, including Amazon, which accounts for 18 percent of the company’s total e-commerce sales. The company’s marketing email list has 175,000 names on it.
Door County Coffee’s brand is strongest in Wisconsin and surrounding states, including Illinois, Wilson says. Thanks to the company’s e-commerce business, its coffee is shipped to every state — Arizona and Florida see big increases during the winter months as Wisconsin residents head south.
It starts with the beans
Making a superior cup of coffee begins with choosing the right type of beans, Wilson says. Before deciding what beans to use 25 years ago, she learned as much as possible and chose to go with Class 1 Arabica beans — the highest quality available. Once the beans arrive, Door County Coffee’s production team gets to work roasting them to perfection, whether it’s a light or dark roast. The roasting process takes 12 minutes and depending on the time of year, the company can roast anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 pounds a day. (In case you are wondering, the decaf beans arrive that way.)
Door County Coffee has a large room that Wilson dubs Coffee College where guests sit around a table that looks out at the production floor and learn about coffee beans. They discover where Arabica beans are grown and what countries Door County Coffee buys its beans from via a wall-sized map, how the beans are picked (by hand) and how few beans earn that Class 1 designation.
“We want the people we do business with to understand how much care we take in selecting our beans,” says Wilson, adding Door County Coffee works with a specialized broker to procure its beans.
Flavor is another important part of the Door County Coffee story. Many consumers are interested in flavor and the business delivers by using food-grade, FDA-approved mixers — they look like cement mixers — to ensure the beans are evenly coated. Wilson explains that when beans are just “sprayed” with flavoring as they go by on a conveyer belt, not every part of the bean is flavored, which can lead to an uneven, inconsistent taste.
As for the flavoring itself, Door County Coffee works with flavoring experts to see what they have available and from there, employees make their own tweaks. Wilson encourages her staff to innovate and try out different blends, which are then taste tested and adjusted.
“For our 25th anniversary, we have three special blends all based on the bourbon flavor, since that is so popular now. Isn’t that fun?” Wilson says.
In addition to its regular flavors, Door County Coffee offers seasonal specialties in the spring, fall and winter. While some flavors are mainstays, Wilson says they can be switched up as new ideas and trends come in.
“Innovation is important for us. We encourage our employees to try new things and when we select new flavors, everyone gets a vote,” Wilson says.
After the roasting and flavoring process, some beans are packaged and marked for sale while others go through the grinding process. In addition, some of the company’s coffee is also available in K-cup size. “It’s important to keep up with our customer and what she wants, and the K-cup size is definitely a growing trend,” Wilson says.
Walking through Door County Coffee, Wilson greets each of the 53 employees by name, easily sharing what she finds special about each one. A big believer in internal growth, she enjoys pointing out this or that employee started as a barista, but has been promoted to management due to his or her hard work.
Wilson’s husband, Doug, joined the company as chief financial officer and chief operating officer, quietly working to make sure everything gets done on time.
There are also two employees who quite literally grew up with the company. Wilson’s sons, Doug Jr. and Conrad, began working at Door County Coffee as children doing small chores after school. Both are now back at the business, with Doug Jr. serving as director of grocery and mass retail, and Conrad, an engineer by trade like his father, who serves as plant manager. Conrad’s wife, Amanda, began working at the business as a high school student and now serves as human resource and safety specialist.
“I call Amanda ‘my compass’ because all of her decisions are made with our employees in mind. She helps drive our culture with ideas like Wacky Wednesdays and thoughtful gifts, like handing out Valentine’s candy to everyone,” Wilson says.
As for Conrad Wilson, he worked at another Door County business for four years after graduating from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. “He’s improving our efficiencies, processes, technology and safety,” she says. “His impact is felt in every area of our business.”
Doug Jr. came to the family business full-time after college only because a position opened up. “I didn’t get the job because of my name. There was an opening and that was my interest, and everything just worked out,” he says. “I will admit that selling coffee is a lot of fun — everyone loves it.”
Vicki and Doug Wilson have no plans to retire anytime soon, but she says knowing her sons are involved with the business provides her with peace of mind.
“I am the luckiest person on earth,” she says. “I get to make a product that improves people’s lives and that our clients love. I am also surrounded by a team of committed and passionate people who I get to see grow in their areas of responsibility. Plus, I get to see my family every day at work.”
Variety is definitely the word to describe what Door County Coffee offers its customers. The roaster offers more than 100 flavors, including seasonal blends for the spring, fall and winter seasons. For example, this fall, coffee lovers can expect pecan and pumpkin spice blends. The holiday season blends tend to be the most popular and their special packaging makes them a popular gift item, says owner Vicki Wilson.
Door County Coffee’s most popular single origin and multiple origin coffees are Black & Tan and Breakfast Blend while the most popular flavored coffees are Highlander Grogg and Jamaican Me Crazy. As for Wilson, her favorite flavor is Cinnamon Hazelnut.
“We use the same high-quality bean for all of our coffees and do not use flavors to mask a low-quality bean,” she says.
When the company receives an order, most are shipped out within one to two business days.
Door County Coffee
Year founded: 1993
What they do: Artisan coffee roaster and retailer. Their coffees are available and/or sold directly at its store on Highway 42 between Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor; in retail stores; workplace cafeterias; university cafeterias; hotels and restaurants; and online at Door County Coffee’s website and other retailers’ sites.
Number of employees: 53