Colin and Emily Whitcomb opened the doors of Canary Coffee Bar to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin public in late August 2019. Located in Milwaukee’s downtown area, the Whitcombs built out Canary Coffee inside the lobby of the historic Hotel Wisconsin.
The Hotel Wisconsin – built in 1913 – was a fixture in Milwaukee for decades before languishing into a residential-hotel. In 2003 it was converted to apartments. The Whitcombs loved the space and wanted to honor its history, so there are many nods to that throughout the shop; from its retro tile floors to its aluminum ceiling and the Midcentury Modern furnishings that family members Andrew and Marysol Whitcomb helped design and build.
“We nodded to the age of the building with the coffered ceiling and drawing the deep green of the building exterior into our space,” said Colin Whitcomb. “The deep leather on the chairs also makes us think of club chairs you might have found in the Grand Wisconsin Hotel when it was built.”
For many of you reading this, the name Colin Whitcomb is a familiar one. After all, Whitcomb has been a pillar of the specialty coffee community – and a prolific one at that – for many years. Formerly of Alterra, Madcap Coffee, Kickapoo Coffee (now Wonderstate Coffee), and Pilcrow, Colin is a member of the Barista Guild Executive Council and can frequently be heard giving live commentary of the US Barista Championships for the SCA. You might not be as familiar with his counterpart, Emily, though.
The two Wisconsin natives met while working as baristas in Milwaukee’s Alterra Coffee (now Colectivo Coffee). Their mutual love of coffee brought them together. Nowadays, Emily Whitcomb is giving back to her community as a social worker. Now, with Canary Coffee Bar, she’s giving back to the community in a different way – creating a space that welcomes coffee drinkers of all types in an underserved community.
The Whitcombs are hoping to appeal to as broad a coffee audience as possible. Colin has said in interviews that they wanted Canary to function not unlike a craft beer bar, where, no matter what style of beer you like, you’ll find something you like. They have an extremely attentive and knowledgeable staff and their primary goal is to help you find your next favorite coffee.
To that end, Canary is a multi-roastery experience that features a wide variety of options from roasters all over the country. They serve options from companies like: Madcap, Ruby, Snowdrift, Dune, George Howell, and many more. They also feature a wide variety of specialty signature drinks, traditional espresso-based drinks, non-coffee beverages, and an assortment of delicious pastries baked by Hatched.
Colin and his staff are extremely gracious and attentive hosts. They have an intimate knowledge of every item on their menu and they understand how to guide their guests through the menu to find the perfect drink for them. Further, they’re sure to follow up with everyone to ensure they’re satisfied with their orders.
While I was there, Colin floated around the lobby checking in with everyone and really taking time to converse – to build genuine relationships with his guests. This is no easy feat, mind you. Since opening, Canary has become a popular spot – oftentimes with standing room only (such was the case during my visit). The shop was bustling with groups of friends and families at the communal seating areas, and individuals who were happy to take in some sunshine or sit at the bar. The Canary staff had time for them all. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: This visit occurred pre-pandemic.)
Canary Coffee Bar is a much-welcomed addition to downtown Milwaukee and the MKE coffee scene overall. I can’t wait to go back.
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Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.