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Moxie Java's Bold New Direction

After some setbacks, Moxie Java plans to 'aggressively expand' in Idaho

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Out the second floor window of Moxie Java's corporate headquarters on Chinden Boulevard, a billboard advertises a steaming cup of McDonald's coffee. Moxie Java, which once had more than 70 franchisee and licensee operations scattered across the country, has shrunk to 31 locations, concentrated primarily in Idaho and North Dakota. These days, Moxie's blue wings aren't nearly as ubiquitous as those golden arches.

But Ken Stokes, Moxie Java's new VP of Business Development and Strategy, wants to change that. Stokes, a Twin Falls native with a penchant for acronyms and business jargon, has worked in brand management and new business development for mega corporations like Jack in the Box, The Kellogg Company and The Walt Disney Company.

Cueing up a PowerPoint presentation, Stokes flipped to a photo of a spilled cup of coffee. That's how he characterizes what happened to Moxie Java last year, when 16 Treasure Valley locations split off and rebranded.

"When the recession hit, some of the franchisees were feeling it," said Stokes. "It is a discretionary category. Some of the franchisees who were a little undercapitalized weren't really ready to take a hit like that. And of course, all businesses look to cut corners as much as possible. Some of those things were subjective and some of them, we feel, were objective and unacceptable."

Moxie claimed that some stores were using cheaper milks and flimsier lids to save money, while some licensees claimed that Moxie was overcharging for its products. It got "very, very contentious," said Stokes. But the straw that broke the camel's back was the 2012 Idaho Ho Ho compilation CD. Stokes says a number of local stores committed to selling the benefit album then backed out at the last minute. Moxie wasn't able to cover its costs, so the Idaho Foodbank didn't receive any proceeds.

"That's what led up to the business of the separation," said Stokes. "There was litigation involved and there was an agreement on both parties to separate and a requirement of rebranding."

But Stokes said that spilled cup of coffee was actually a blessing in disguise. Moxie Java had been unable to expand in the Treasure Valley due to agreements put in place prior to 2001, when Moxie's current owners Rick and Stephanie Dean purchased the company.

"We had franchise agreements in perpetuity, which basically locked up the entire Boise metro area," said Stokes. "So the people that were in were in and we had very little flexibility with that."

Now, the company is looking to "aggressively expand the brand's presence both locally and throughout the Intermountain region." It's also replacing its practice of licensing the brand with a franchise system.

"We're actually targeting specific franchise and investor groups to be able to rebuild a network that is not just optimal for today--as opposed to 10 years ago--but really looks forward to being optimal over the next 20 years," said Stokes.

Though Stokes was tight-lipped about where Moxie Java hopes to grow in the Boise area, he did say high-traffic areas are an obvious priority and that the new locations will get a new look.

"The designs that we're looking at for new double and single drive-throughs, basically a new format, is all leveraged from fire look-out towers that you'd see in the forest," said Stokes. "It's really a very clean simple distillation of that design. The nice thing about it is not only does it bring that kind of iconography, but the building itself in the front is almost all glass. At six o'clock on a cold morning in December, it becomes a lantern; it literally will draw cars in like moths."

Moxie Java also plans to grow its presence in Northern Idaho, starting at the University of Idaho in Moscow. The company will roast U of I's "exclusive retail bean branded product" and has formed a partnership with the College of Business and Economics.

"We're working with the entrepreneurial department, which is actually going to be starting Moxie Javas on campus and running them as businesses for credit to teach students how to actually run a business," said Stokes.

Moxie's coffee is also getting a revamp. Though the local roaster will still focus on small-batch, air-roasted beans, they plan to introduce some "much, much bolder" coffees that they hope will appeal to Idaho's outdoorsy types.

"It's really celebrating this local idea of the kind of coffee you would have when you're up at Bogus and it's really cold; you're out in a duck blind," said Stokes.

"Not for the faint of heart," chimed in Moxie Java owner Rick Dean, who characterizes Moxie's new branding as "attitudinal."

So what does that mean, exactly? Stokes said that Moxie will move from a wine approach--where the bean's origins and roast-style are prominently advertised--to more of a microbrew strategy. He cites Big Sky Brewing's Moose Drool as a good example.

"We're going to be selling the finished taste and an attitude, and the attitude is going to be clearly reflective of this state," said Stokes.

Though coffee trends in larger markets have been moving toward lighter roasts, single origin and Fair Trade beans, and single-cup preparation methods, Stokes says that's not where Moxie's headed.

"What works in New York and what works in San Francisco and what works in Portland, [Ore.] and what's going to work here are different. ... I am not going to force a paradigm onto the people of Idaho, I'm going to create a brand that works for them," said Stokes.

According to Stokes, the new Moxie wants to appeal to Idahoans who aren't afraid to get a little messy.

"I like to say that it's a 'dirt on the shoes' kind of a thing; really being part-and-parcel of where Idahoans spend their time getting dirty is really going to be what our attitude will be," said Stokes. "It's quite different than Starbucks. Starbucks is about probably clean shoes, ours are going to be a little bit muddier."