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There's a plan brewing to transform one of Chattanooga's oldest brands into a perky powerhouse.
The city's biggest investors have opened their wallets to revive the Fleetwood Coffee Co., which was once counted among the largest coffee companies in the U.S. They'll fuel Fleetwod's reintroduction with $1 million in investments and a rollout of the company's curated blend of java beans slated for late March.
It almost didn't happen. Formed in 1929, Fleetwood Coffee Co. was cast aside by Coca-Cola after a series of ill-fated acquisitions in the 1960s and 1970s, and the once-great coffee giant soon descended into obscurity. The trademarks lapsed as the 11th Street building in Chattanooga fell into disrepair and became home to nothing more than pigeons and rust.
Some older coffee drinkers will still remember the brand, which graced grocery store shelves and was popular throughout the Southeast.
"A lot of people remember it like the Pabst Blue Ribbon of Coffee," said Stephen Horgan, managing director of Intercontinental Beverage Capital. "We're going to position it as a Southeast coffee, in the way Duke's Mayonnaise is a Southeast condiment. It's got solid roots."
Fleetwood will join the International Coffee Group, a holding company that also includes Stone Cup Coffee and high-end Demours Coffee. Fleetwood's role in the portfolio is to serve as the group's mass-market brand, designed to target grocery stores, cafes, and corporate breakrooms across the Southeast, officials say.
Jennifer Stone, a licensed coffee grader and recognized judge at international countrywide coffee competitions, founded the International Coffee Group in 1997 as Stone Cup in an effort to bring curated, single-source coffee directly to coffee lovers.
With help from nearly 100 equity investors that include groups like Blank Slate Ventures, the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, Lamp Post Group and the Jump Fund, Stone added the Demours brand at the beginning of 2015 with plans to launch Fleetwood in the spring.
"Fleetwood is more rounded, more balanced, and it's made up of a couple of different blends," said Stone, who heads the International Coffee Group.
The plan at present is to offer two lines of Fleetwood Coffee: a ground coffee mix targeted at grocery stores and a whole-bean blend for cafes. The roasting will happen at Stone's Amnicola Highway facility in Chattanooga, which has plenty of capacity to expand if Fleetwood takes off, Stone said.
"There's definitely a tipping point where we'd have to pull together different resources, but I say bring it on, challenge me," she said.
The story of how Fleetwood fell into obscurity and climbed back out is a complex tale of marketing misfires and redemption through happenstance.
Founded in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression, the company grew rapidly and secured the original patents for instant coffee before spinning off the instant coffee business to form Tenco.
Minute Maid bought Tenco in the 1960s, and shortly thereafter Coca-Cola bought Minute Maid. Fleetwood, meanwhile, was bought by Duncan Coffee Co. Not content to stand pat with instant coffee alone, Coke went on a buying spree, purchasing a half dozen coffee companies across the U.S. in 1963 that included Duncan-owned Fleetwood in an effort to expand into the coffee roasting business.
But rather than make use of the Fleetwood brand, Coke consolidated its marketing around Omaha, Neb.-based Butternut Coffee, which did not resonate with customers. The venture was a failure, and by the 1970s Coke had decided to sell off its coffee assets to Folgers, which was later acquired by Smuckers, according to family members associated with Fleetwood.
By 1993, Fleetwood had long since ceased to exist. Its factories and warehouses were shuttered, and Smuckers didn't even bother to renew Fleetwood's trademarks that year, according to online filings. But George McGee, grandson of Fleetwood founder Henry King, never forgot his family's legacy.
McGee couldn't help but smile on Friday, as investors gathered in the Mountain City Club to taste the newest variant of his family's coffee, which sat on a table packaged up in a retro-inspired foil bag.
"Superaromatized," the bag claims, mimicking the advertising claims from decades past. "The goodness is cooked in -- not parched out."
McGee was surfing the Internet in 2013 when he discovered that the Fleetwood trademark and patents had lapsed, and therefore were available. Though McGee's uncles were the driving force behind the company's sale to Coca-Cola, he decided not to allow Fleetwood to languish further.
"For a few hundred dollars plus a lot of legal fees, I put it in my name," he said.
McGee didn't do anything right away. But he later met Stone through a golfing buddy, and with help from venture capitalist Lex Tarumianz of Blank Slate Ventures, the two brought investors on board to form the new company.
But Fleetwood's re-entry into the market is only part of the plan for the International Coffee Group. On the high end, the company is starting to heavily promote its Demour Coffee brand, which buys up entire crops from specific, award-winning farmers in order to offer exclusive tastes to discerning customers.
For instance, Stone was a judge at a competition among all the coffee growers in Panama, then she bought up the entire supply from the winning farmer. The product is vacuum sealed, then packaged in a special hard case with a certificate of authenticity and other touches that give it a super-premium feel.
While the market for regular coffee currently stands at about $1.40 per pound, premium coffee judged as a country's best can fetch upwards of $24 per pound. Demour maintains a New York address and will be featured in a New York-based culinary magazine at the end of March, Horgan said.
"This is as much a luxury item as a food product," said Horgan. "It's like a vintage wine. We'd like the world to have it but there's only a select few who are able to afford it or who are even interested in having this type of coffee."
Fleetwood Coffee isn't aimed at the high-end market. Instead, the company is exploring options like an alliance with Moon Pie to offer cups of Moon Pie-flavored joe.
And the march into grocery stores like Bi-Lo, Publix, Kroger and Family Dollar won't happen overnight. The company will start in March with a teaser campaign, then introduce Fleetwood Coffee to Chattanooga cafes and allow consumers to buy it online.
"We don't want to take the grocery market by storm, we want to get it in and it will prove itself," Horgan said. "If we work hard and earn consumers' favor, the grocery store companies will follow."
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