Perks of Success: At 10-year mark, Dubuque coffee roaster continues moving forward

Kyle Hoppman pours green coffee beans into a roaster at Verena Street Coffee Co. in Dubuque on Thursday. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

One decade ago, Verena Street Coffee Co. began with just four workers and a 3,000-square-foot warehouse.

Co-founder Michael Gantz remembers those days fondly.

“We were packing everything by hand, and a lot of the blending and flavoring was by hand,” he recalled. “Some nights we were working until 2 a.m. We were just kind of bootstrapping it and seeing what happens.”

The modest experiment has turned into a booming operation.

The Dubuque-based coffee roasting operation now employs 17 workers and operates out of a 30,000-square-foot

facility off Seippel Road.

Verena Street products have become ubiquitous in Dubuque, and the brand is gaining a stronger foothold in a handful of other Midwest markets.

The company has established a presence in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Omaha. In each of these markets, the business has set up warehouses and hired workers to ensure it can effectively serve a growing base of customers.

Verena Street plans to expand into the Kansas City market in early 2021.

Eric Gantz, the company’s co-founder and Michael’s cousin, said the company has taken a measured approach to its expansion, primarily focusing on nearby, Midwestern states and always making sure the business isn’t getting too far ahead of itself.

“We want to continue adding new markets, but we have to make sure we are succeeding in the ones we’re already in before we do that,” he explained. “It is a balancing act.”

GAINING STEAM

Nearly 10 years ago, the Hy-Vee on Northwest Arterial became the first store to stock Verena Street’s products.

Initially, the store carved out only a modest space for the hometown coffee roaster. But over time, it became apparent that Verena Street was a major player in the market.

Store Director Paul Hoppman said the turning point came about four years ago, when Hy-Vee officials toured Verena Street’s recently opened facility in Dubuque Industrial Center South. The new operation represented a major leap forward for Verena Street’s roasting capacity, boasting four times the square footage as its previous location.

Shortly after that visit, Hy-Vee doubled Verena Street’s shelf space, a decision that has paid off in a big way.

“They have a strong foothold locally,” Hoppman said. “The market share they have in our store is pushing 80%, and that is competing against Starbucks and Folgers, the old bellwethers.”

Earlier this year, Verena Street products were added to Hy-Vee’s convenience stores, a development that has been massively popular among customers, Hoppman said.

“I think people trust the brand,” he said. “They know they are going to get a high quality product, and that builds up a lot of trust.”

BRANCHING OUT

Over the course of a decade, Verena Street has also expanded its selection of products.

Michael Gantz said the company began by focusing on its mainstay coffees, including Julien’s Breakfast Blend, Nine Mile Sunset, Lock and Dam #11 and Sunday Drive.

“Our mindset was, ‘Let’s just get the core items on our shelves,’” he recalled. “We figured once that was done, we could think about other things.”

More recently, the business has branched out yet again in multiple new approaches.

Verena Street has rolled out a range of seasonal products, including a fall roast called Pumpkin Smasher and a winter one named Stocking Stuffer.

The company has also dipped into the flavored coffee market, releasing several flavored brands that have been met with strong sales.

And last year, the company unveiled a line of organic fair-trade coffee under the moniker Iowa Native.

As Verena Street Coffee embarks on its second decade, it is likely that new products will be launched and different markets reached.

Even as the company grows, however, its focus will stay close to home.

As Michael Gantz assesses the landscape of the business, he sees both room for improvement and big opportunities.

“There are still a lot of people in Dubuque who don’t know what Verena Street is, which is kind of amazing,” he said. “At first, that worried us. But the more we thought about it, we realized that means there is a lot more potential, even right here in Dubuque.”