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How 30 years of Kaladi Brothers changed coffee culture in Southcentral Alaska

Thirty years ago, the owners of a summer-only coffee cart in downtown Anchorage decided they shouldn't just make coffee, they should roast beans on a large scale and sell them.

Tax day marks the 30th anniversary for that little cart that decided to go big, now known as Anchorage's Kaladi Brothers Coffee.

With 15 cafes in Southcentral Alaska, one in Seattle and over 300 wholesale buyers, the coffee company is one of Alaska's biggest. The 1.2 million pounds of coffee they roast on Brayton Drive is a far cry from the early days, when the small south-side cafe would sell five to 10 espressos a day.

But through a mix of good timing and inventive thinking, the coffee roaster has grown in a city where coffee culture prevails. Anchorage has over 180 coffee shops, stands and kiosks, according to the city. That's roughly one for every 1,600 people -- the second highest per capita rate in the nation behind Seattle.

Sometimes Tim Gravel, Kaladi Brothers president, still can't believe it.

"We couldn't do anything wrong," Gravel said in an interview last week. "There was so much demand. We were going as fast we could to meet it. I don't why we didn't fail."

Kaladi didn't keep Starbucks away -- there are 28 Starbucks in Anchorage, more than any other local shop -- but it's cultivated deep roots, growing a community around coffee.

"(The community aspect) was the intention of the business," said former owner Mark Overly. "And everything would follow that."

Deb Seaton owns Side Street Espresso with her husband George Gee. In the 24 years it's been open, they've only sold Kaladi coffee. She said the coffee shop has been approached by other roasters, but she's turned them down.

"Anchorage is small," Seaton said. "You have to be tied to people, not just selling them coffee."

Early days

With degrees in German and art history, co-founder Brad Bigelow wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life in the summer of 1983.

But walking around Seattle with friend Rick Charron, he noticed the city had a lot of espresso carts scattered around the downtown core.

Then, Bigelow said, there were only a handful of Starbucks in the city. But what appealed to Bigelow was the overhead; namely that it took little more than a cart and a few cheap business licenses to start up.

Bigelow decided an idea like that would work well when it came to cruise ship tourists visiting downtown Anchorage. So he moved back to Anchorage to live with his parents in 1984 and opened the cart with Charron downtown.

Back then, Cafe Del Mundo -- Anchorage's first roastery and coffee shop -- was the only other espresso operation in town. Bigelow said they first bought coffee from Del Mundo and later from a guy with a 5-pound coffee roaster who offered a better deal.

That little roaster couldn't keep up with demand, so in 1986 they decided to do their own roasting.

Bigelow said that commercial business marks the true anniversary of Kaladi.

"We were like 'hey, we really should do this,'" he said in a phone interview last week.

Catalyzing the market

With the shift to roasting, selling espresso at the South Anchorage location wasn't the goal, Bigelow said. But eventually, enough people were stopping by for coffee that they moved the coffee cart inside and went from there.

"It was funny -- if we did a $75 a day (selling espresso at the roastery), we were so excited," he said. "When we started the company, we were not taking any money out of the company. Everyone needed other jobs."

But coffee consumption continued to grow. Gravel said the pace was overwhelming, with growth of 100 to 200 percent each year.

Bigelow still isn't sure how they didn't implode. In the early years things would get missed or business plans would go awry.

"We were having such a good time," Gravel said. "Something that meant someone didn't show up on time to open the store."

Charron left to work on other projects in the early '90s. Looking for other people to come on board, Bigelow reached out to other friends, who were working as waiters in Anchorage.

That's how Overly came to the company, and he had some ideas on how to make the coffee business work.

"If you want to make money in the gold rush, sell shovels," he said in a phone interview from Colorado last week.

Overly said he understood that Kaladi Brothers Coffee was never going to be able to keep up with Starbucks, but thought maybe they could at least hold them off. He thought they could increase espresso consumption by selling and repairing espresso machines and teaching and training consumers to make their own coffee.

"We weren't going to be Starbucks, but we could help other people sell," he said. "So we catalyzed the market rather than creating it."

Moving forward

Things did move forward. A second Anchorage cafe opened in the mid-1990s, with shops in in Soldotna and Wasilla soon after.

But then they took it took further with plans to open a cafe in Littleton, Colorado, which only lost money for three years. Overly, who was ready to leave Alaska, took a buyout, starting his own brand, Kaladi Coffee Roasters in Boulder.

After that failed venture, Kaladi regrouped and made some management changes, Gravel said. That sparked another period of expansion, with Kaladi adding new cafes in Anchorage, buying Cafe Del Mundo in 2011 and transforming it into Black Cup. The company also opened a trendy Anchorage restaurant in 2014, the Rustic Goat.

Gravel said not to expect too many big changes in the next 30 years. The business is expanding its food options, including food trucks and more baked goods. At a tour of the Brayton Drive roasting facility, Gravel showed off a series of minimalist espresso machines to be installed in Black Cup in the coming weeks.

Black Cup, with its modern interior design and emphasis on innovative brewing techniques, mimics the latest development in coffee shop culture in both the Lower 48 and locally with SteamDot coffee, owned by a former employee of Silverhook Coffee, a joint venture of Midnight Moon Co. Inc., Kaladi's parent company.

Gravel said the company is still trying to figure out Black Cup to a degree. But that the other cafes will still remain Kaladi Brothers at the end of the day.

"Kaladi needs to focus on what works for Kaladi," Gravel said. "Instead of what's the new third-wave coffee trend."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the position of the owner of SteamDot coffee. He was a former employee of Silverhook Coffee, a joint venture of Midnight Moon Co. Inc., Kaladi's parent company. It also mistakenly referred to Black Cup as a Kaladi Brothers Cafe. While Kaladi Brothers purchased the cafe, it is operated as as separate entity.

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