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About Octane: Unsolicited Advice for Revelator Coffee

About Octane: Unsolicited Advice for Revelator Coffee

Revelator Octane Coffee

If you live in Atlanta and give a hoot about coffee, you’ve surely heard the news: Revelator has bought Octane. It’s a shock, but not a surprise. Octane was a pioneer in Atlanta’s coffee scene and has steadily grown over the past dozen years, expanding from the west side, to Grant Park, to Buckhead, to midtown, not to mention two shops in Birmingham. They have developed and nurtured a loyal community of fans despite an onslaught of competitors both big and small, most of whom arrived after Octane proved the market was ready for quality coffee. Which is why it’s easy to see that Octane is an attractive acquisition target. They’ve got a strong presence in the Southeast’s leading market, and admirable know-how in terms of operating both the retail and roasting sides of the coffee business. More importantly, Octane owns something that coffee companies dream of – a powerful brand. Revelator? Not so much.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering how Revelator managed to buy out Atlanta’s leading craft coffee purveyor, you’re not alone. But the simple fact is – Revelator has money, fueled by a California-based venture capital firm that seems bent on aggressive growth. Octane is owned primarily by Diane and Tony Riffel, the couple that started the company those many moons ago. And behemoths buying up craft coffee companies is not a new thing. The most prominent proponent of the approach is privately held JAB Holding Company – the money that has scooped up stakes in former indy darlings Peet’s, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown, along with Caribou, Krispy Kreme, and the Einstein/Noah’s bagel brands.

While I spend a good chunk of my time writing about food and drinks, my day job is actually brand strategy consulting. I’ve worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies on acquisition and innovation strategies, customer experience mapping, value proposition development, you name it. When a company is looking at acquiring another, the resulting brand portfolio should be among the most important considerations. Unfortunately, more often than not, the question of brand optimization is an afterthought to financial and operational considerations. Sure, assets like real estate and equipment are critical, as are capabilities like operational know-how and expertise. But understanding the nature of brand-customer relationships is where great acquisitions are made… will the acquired brand bring something new and complementary to the portfolio? Which of the brands in the new portfolio offer the best opportunities for future growth? Or, how readily will the acquired brand’s loyal customers move from the existing brand to the acquiring brand if pushed to do so?

Go back to JAB Holdings, the big boy that bought up brands like Intelligentsia and Stumptown – brands that had built-in loyal fan bases. You’ll notice that JAB is now managing a portfolio of strong brands, and not trying to subsume acquired businesses under a single brand moniker. Intelligentsia and Stumptown are both known for high-quality sourcing and roasting, as well as for running effective retail shops – and while the argument could surely be made that continuing to invest in both brands is not the most efficient path to growth, both brands have equity that is worth building on. Killing one to favor the other would be a mistake, and JAB seems to know that.

When a company makes an acquisition, that move always serves a larger purpose. Maybe they’re trying to expand into a new geography or product area, maybe they need intellectual capital or technology to take advantage of an emerging market opportunity, or maybe they are simply tasked with growing the top line. The very first thing to understand when looking at an acquisition is that larger purpose: what is the company trying to achieve?

In Revelator’s case, all I have to go on to figure out the company’s goals are the public comments from president Josh Owen. I’ve seen three things that seem to be driving their decision to purchase Octane:

  1. They want to be “a hospitality company first and a coffee company second… and that experience comes in a lot of forms,” including food, alcohol, and evening hours
  2. They think acquiring local companies that have community connections is a stronger path to growth than entering markets from scratch
  3. They see an opportunity to grow significantly in wholesale channels (like supplying coffee to restaurants and other retail)

Octane is a homerun on points 1 and 2, and a solid at-bat on point 3. They’ve seamlessly blended beer and cocktails into their persona from day one, and they’ve established very strong relationships within Atlanta’s and Birmingham’s restaurant and food communities. Wholesale? Octane is there, and has shown success in the sourcing and roasting skills necessary to succeed, but nothing approaching the success of bigger players like Counter Culture or Batdorf & Bronson, who have become heavy hitters when it comes to the wholesale distribution side of the business. So, yes, the acquisition makes sense, but what about the question of branding? Isn’t point 2 above dependent on nurturing acquired brands rather than taking them out?

Owen has said that they intend to phase out the Octane brand within 12 to 18 months. Simply put, I have a hard time seeing that as the right choice. Has Revelator thoroughly considered the existing equities of their own brand relative to the Octane brand? Have they done so through the lens of the intended target markets – both geographic and psychographic/demographic – that they hope to win with? If they have and have simply concluded that phasing out Octane is the way to go, good for them. But, at least in the Atlanta market, that sounds like a path to failure. Here, Octane has equity; Revelator has apathy and even (among many coffee industry insiders and fanatics) enmity. And there are plenty of competitors who have good relationships with the local community that Octane customers can jump to – think Spiller Park, Dancing Goats, Brash, Chattahoochee… I could go on.

So, about Octane. For Revelator, my advice is this: think long and hard about which brand offers you the best chance for success – here in Atlanta, more broadly in the Southeast, and even on a national scale (if that’s what you’re after). Think about what you’re trying to build and the tools you now have at your disposal. Sure, there’s pride in the Revelator brand that you’ve begun to build over the past couple years, despite its ups and downs; but there’s a lot more than pride in the brand that Octane has built. There’s a community of loyal fans (myself included).

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What do you get when you mix Georgia pecan nut milk and South Carolina coffee rum?

What do you get when you mix Georgia pecan nut milk and South Carolina coffee rum?

Treehouse Pecan Milk Rum

I wasn’t planning on having my day shot to hell. But then the nut milk delivery lady showed up. That’s right, I said nut milk. delivery. lady. She handed over the frosty glass jar of her sweet Georgia pecan nut milk, and was heading back to her car, when she turned and delivered the words that would indeed shoot my day (my life?) to hell – “if you’ve got any vodka, it’s great in a White Russian!” She said it so cheerfully. And why shouldn’t she? If any drink can be spoken of in cheerful terms, surely it is the White Russian. Especially one made with locally-made, hand-delivered, sweet Georgia pecan nut milk.

As I carried my pecan milk back into the house, I was already mentally checking my liquor cabinet. Hmm, vodka? Yes. I hardly touch the stuff, but I do make sure to always have a bottle on hand for guests. And I knew exactly where the fifth of Cathead vodka was in the cabinet, hidden behind a bevy of gins, collecting dust in the back corner. The only other thing I would need for a White Russian was Kahlua, and surely I… no… dear God… I don’t  have any Kahlua.

I went down to the liquor cabinet to check, and sure enough… no Kahlua. That led me into the rabbit hole of searching the internet for homemade Kahlua recipes, but frankly I didn’t have the patience. (One of the recipes included the step of steeping vanilla beans for THREE WEEKS! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THREE WEEKS!? My nut milk would never last three weeks, never mind the fact that I would need to go buy some fresh vanilla beans to get it going, and if I’m doing that, I could just as easily have gone out and gotten the goshdarnt Kahlua in the first place).

Treehouse Pecan Milk RumLuckily, I discovered an old bottle in my liquor cabinet that eliminated the need for Kahlua. It was a Java Rum from Sea Island distillery on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina. I had bought it on a visit to the distillery several years back, and was super impressed at the time (though apparently not impressed enough to drink much of the stuff, as the bottle was still nearly full). In any case, I twisted off the cap, took in a deep whiff, and knew right away that my lack of Kahlua was no problem at all. Better still, the Sea Island Java Rum even eliminates the need for vodka as well, since it clocks in at 70 proof (Kahlua is just 40 proof).

OK, so, coffee rum? Check. Nut milk? Check. Ice and glass? Check. That’s it. No recipe needed, just mix the two to taste and give it a swirl, then sip, and OH MY LORD this is good stuff. The subtle pecan notes in the creamy nut milk, which also has small amounts of honey and vanilla, works wonders with the chewy, dark-chocolatey, coffee-intense Java Rum. This is the kind of thing that I could drink gallons of over breakfast. Or after dinner. Or during any of the minutes that take place in the span of hours between breakfast and after dinner. In fact, if I were to open a chain of coffee shops that only offered this one drink, 24 hours a day, it would bring the Starbucks empire to its knees within weeks, even factoring in the seasonal bump for PUMPKIN SPICE!

So what do we call this drink? This heavenly blend of sweet Georgia pecan milk and South Carolina-bred coffee rum? You could riff on the White Russian and call it the White Southern. And that makes sense theoretically (it is white in color, and it is in fact Southern), but, um… no. I wouldn’t say the name sounds unintentionally racist, but it kinda sounds unintentionally racist.

That leads us to the inevitable Big Lebowski reference and the equally inevitable moniker – the Southern Dude. Perfect. You get your Big Lebowski/Dude/White Russian connection for the inspiration of the drink, and you get your Southern emphasis for the Georgia pecans and the South Carolina rum that make it unique. I need to get busy printing up t-shirts and bumper stickers and ironic trucker hats featuring the Southern Dude and plentiful references to nut milk.

Now, about my day being shot to hell… I may have had just one of these tasty beverages. Or I may have downed the entirety of those two bottles of nut milk and rum. Either way, I am now working diligently on my business plan to launch a chain of coffeeshops dedicated to spreading the joy that is the Southern Dude. It will come in sizes ranging from 4oz up to a gallon. And, like the nut milk company that inspired the drink, we’ll even deliver. But that’s the only drink we’ll offer. Except maybe a seasonal Southern Pumpkin Spice. Because how else are we really going to beat Starbucks?

Treehouse Pecan Milk Rum


Good news from the fine folks at Treehouse Milk, who produced the pecan milk discussed above: “We promise, everything tastes better with pecan milk. Pecans are high in vitamin E and manganese, which is good for your heart. They are packed with 19 vitamins and minerals, and come from a farm in South Georgia.” They also make almond, cashew, macadamia, and cacao almond milks; and they really will deliver right to your door (if you live in Atlanta, for a small fee – I highly recommend it). Also found at fine shops and coffee shops like the Mercantile, Savi Provisions, and Spiller Park.

The Warhorse and all the coffee in Atlanta

The Warhorse and all the coffee in Atlanta

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee
Inside the Warhorse

The Atlanta coffee scene is in hyperdrive, especially on the west side. There, in the course of roughly half a mile, you can already hit five dedicated coffee shops (Chattahoochee Coffee Company, Star Provisions, Octane, Urban Grind, and the Warhorse Coffee Joint), plus Amelie’s and  West Egg, who both pay careful attention to their coffee programs. A new Revelator Coffee will be opening right across from Star Provisions later this year (next to Cooks & Soldiers), as will Brash Coffee just over the footbridge. Hot damn, that’s a lot of coffee – nine spots in a half mile stretch? But maybe that’s a good thing – the more good coffee, the more good coffee drinkers?

The west side is not unique in this regard. Nearby, Atlantic Station is set to get a branch of Land of a Thousand Hills coffee. Buckhead now has an Octane outpost in the Atlanta Tech Village, and the new Corso in Buckhead Atlanta (after being a good-coffee desert for years). Ponce City Market, already blessed with Dancing Goats, is also set for a coffee counter from Hugh Acheson, dubbed Spiller Park. Even downtown is making waves, with a new Condesa Coffee outpost, Jittery Joe’s inside the Ritz Carlton, and the recently announced Western & Atlantic (a “members only” coffee shop that will be part of the Switchyards development, in partnership with the folks from Octane) soon to join Ébrìk Coffee Room as good-coffee destinations.

Can Atlanta actually support all these new coffee shops? I certainly hope so, but surely there’s a point where the saturation becomes too much and supply exceeds demand. Then again, maybe not, since Starbucks pioneered the idea of putting in so many locations that they actually increased demand by their mere presence. We shall see.

Meanwhile… on a recent Saturday, I managed to gulp down two coffees, a cortado, and an ice coffee over the course of a few caffeinated hours spanning several shops on the west side. My favorite of the day was the cold-brewed ice coffee. I’m hesitant to tell you this for two reasons. First, I really don’t want to tip off this very special place to the masses (not really a problem – since masses are not heading to Thirsty South to find out where to get their coffee). Second, when I found out where the beans came from to make the ice coffee, my eyes grew wide with surprise. The beans were sourced from a little boutique coffee seller named… Kroger. It wasn’t the source of the beans, though, that made the coffee great – it was the setting. (And, yes, the cold brewed Kroger ice coffee was also delicious).

To find that extra special  ice coffee, my wife and I had to wind our way through the old buildings and walkways of the Goat Farm to locate the Warhorse Coffee Joint. There, David Stewart greeted us kindly, then kept us company before we headed off to snap a few iPhone photos of the ever-picturesque Goat Farm surroundings. While the beans for the ice coffee were a supermarket special, most of the Warhorse’s coffee comes in green, then gets roasted in small batches. But like I said, it’s less about the specifics of the coffee (no espresso served) than it is the feel of the place. This is not a coffee business. This is not really a coffee shop. This is a place, a space, where people happen to meet, and coffee happens to be served, and all sorts of strange and unusual things just might happen. The Warhorse is not in competition with nearby Chattahoochee Coffee Company or Star Provisions – it’s not in any competition at all.

And back to the Warhorse’s setting… to say the Goat Farm Arts Center is special is an understatement. It is one of the driving forces behind Atlanta’s independent arts scene. And it’s just plain cool and soaked in history. As is the Warhorse. The feel of the place is a bit like that of the wondrous library of a crazy uncle – piano at the ready, books a plenty, strange artifacts and contraptions all around, intriguingly mis-matched vintage furniture.  The coffee and tea are on the house. Really. But you’ll gladly tip generously, I’m sure of it. The Warhorse is the kind of place that makes you want to sit and think, to linger, and linger on. Then wander, and wander on. It’s the kind of place that makes you happy to be in Atlanta.

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The coffee stand at Star Provisions

The coffee stand at Star Provisions

Star Provisions Coffee

A cold and cloudy Saturday morning, 9:47AM, and I was looking for duck fat. The main shop at Star Provisions hadn’t yet opened, so I was left out in the cold. Luckily, the little coffee stand tucked off in the corner opens at 8, so I ducked in to grab a cortado. The guy behind the counter, in the vest and the apron and the jaunty cap (is that twill?) said good morning with some sort of foreign accent. Maybe Italy. Maybe not.*

No matter, he made me a perfect cortado, beans roasted by Jittery Joe’s from Athens. I couldn’t help but snap some photos with my iPhone – those Star Provisions folks know how to dress up a place, something like Southern Martha Stewart if Martha Stewart were a whole lot nicer. Bless her heart.

Did I mention it was a damn good cortado?

* UPDATE: It is confirmed. The barista is Enrico. And he is Italian. Grazie Star Provisions.

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Star Provisions Coffee
1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, GA
Hours: 8am – 6pm Monday – Thursday, 8am – 8pm Friday & Saturday