When Colin and Samantha Benz moved to West Allis, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from getting out and getting to know their new neighbors.
To connect with their new community, the couple started Lake Effect Coffee Co. in 2021.
But instead of customers sitting down for a cup, Colin Benz sat on a custom bicycle and brought his nitro brew to farmers markets and other events.
“It was a just-for-fun way to meet our neighbors,” he said about the two-wheeled delivery method.
The operation is ‘almost like an adult ice cream truck’
Benz estimated biking nearly 500 miles his first year. Sometimes people would stop him as he biked down the street.
“It’s almost like an adult ice cream truck,” Benz joked. “Not only is this a cool business idea, it’s also a really cool bicycle.”
Their second year, the couple focused on the West Allis Farmers Market and downtown Wauwatosa. They also started renting a cargo van or U-Haul for longer distances and to bring more product because they started selling out with the limited space on the bicycle.
Now, in their third year, the couple are opening their first brick-and-mortar coffee shop at 6217 W. Greenfield Ave. in West Allis, which is owned by Epikos Church.
They chose that location because it has “lots of new development and excitement,” Benz said. The couple only had to do some light renovation with painting, new light fixtures, countertops and furniture.
Lake Effect Coffee Co. plans to open the new shop in August
They’re targeting a soft opening in the second week of August with hopes to have a firm schedule by the end of the month. Tentative hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends, six days a week (which six has yet to be determined).
The bicycle won’t become just a decoration in the new shop, it’ll continue to get used, Benz said. Next summer he hopes to add more pop-up events and maybe even add a second bicycle to the fleet.
“I think the bicycle allows us a great avenue to get the word out about the café,” he said.
The shop will serve coffee, tea and hopefully soon some bakery
Lake Effect Coffee Co. partnered with Pilcrow Coffee in Milwaukee to supply its cold brew and Anodyne Coffee Roasting for beans and a special signature blend of Guatemala and Sumatra beans which “gives a dark chocolate tangerine taste,” according to Benz.
The company also partnered with Rishi Tea and Botanicals to offer a line of unique teas.
Those partnerships will continue at the physical location with the couple planning to expand to a full tea menu. They also want to partner with local bakeries to offer simple pastries like muffins, scones and bagels. Belgian waffles ― one of Colin’s favorites ― plus more breakfast/brunch items are possible in the future.
“We want to use coffee as a catalyst to build stronger communities,” he said.
The catalyst for the couple to expand the business was the birth of their son last year. Benz said they were looking for ways to make the business work for the family and it made the most sense for him to quit his corporate job and work to grow the coffee bicycle into a physical space. Since they live in West Allis, they wanted to invest and grow in the city.
The city of West Allis has supported the business with a forgivable loan
West Allis is also investing in them with a recently approved $26,000 forgivable loan through the Community Development Block Grant Program. Colin Benz said the money will be used for about half of his startup costs and equipment like an espresso machine, grinders for beans and refrigerators.
“It was really cool and very unique to see that kind of support from the city,” he said. “We were pretty excited to have that approved to kind of help get us started on the right foot.”
The money will also help them hire employees.
Investing in community job creation is another aspect of the loan, Benz said.
With so many coffee cafes available, why should you visit Lake Effect Coffee Co.?
“The company is owned and operated by your neighbors,” Benz said. “We’re very knowledgeable in our coffee and tea selections and we really want to get to know you as a regular. Inviting people into our lives as a family and business has been one of the most rewarding things.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Lake Effect Coffee Co. is opening its first location in West Allis