Caribou Coffee's Erin Newkirk On How They Plan To Dominate The Coffee Industry - Exclusive Interview

If you live in the American Midwest, chances are good that you're familiar with Caribou Coffee. However, even if you're not that familiar with the brand, it's likely that you will be soon. The decades-old coffee company with a focus on sustainability and clean label products is preparing to "dominate the coffee industry," according to PR reps, with brand-new offerings, unique retail locations, and more.

Erin Newkirk is the chief brand and marketing officer at Caribou Coffee, where she and her team bring the brand to life to better serve guest needs while balancing its commitment to global responsibilities. Newkirk has a wide array of experience in the food industry, also working with brands like General Mills and Local Crate. We spoke with her to learn more about Caribou Coffee's plans for the future, as well as how the company is setting itself apart in the world of all things coffee.

Operating Authentically

Tell me about Caribou Coffee's history. How has the brand set itself apart?

In a time when "purpose-led" has become a bit of a buzz phrase for companies, we are proud that Caribou Coffee has authentically operated from purpose for nearly 30 years.

Caribou Coffee was founded in 1992 with the vision of living life to the fullest by eradicating impersonal service from coffee shops. Today, we articulate our founders' purpose by "creating day-making experiences that spark a chain reaction of good." We accomplish this by living in our core values — Support One Another, Take Ownership, Make Fun Happen, Serve with Love, and Be Yourself. That, coupled with our unique and quality line of beverages and other menu items, truly differentiates Caribou from the competitive set.

We thrive on the concept that the possibilities are endless, which drives us to continue implementing fresh, innovative ideas throughout our entire business model. We've created an environment that ignites a spark in each team member, from our baristas to our C-suite executives, which resonates with our guests. Caribou Coffee's unwavering commitment to providing an unparalleled consumer experience has translated to an industry-leading customer service (NPS) score.

We believe that small moments matter, from an exceptional cup of coffee in the morning to a kind interaction with your barista. Those moments might be the first in your day and have a catalyst effect on how you approach the rest of your day. That same philosophy applies to how we operate our business. Our Environmental, Social & Governance strategy and sustainability vision is centered around people connecting in small ways, sparking greater impact and meaningful change.

Why is now the right time for Caribou to "dominate the coffee industry"?

We've spent three decades building equity and familiarity of the Caribou Coffee brand, which has allowed us to build brand trust and connect on a personal level with consumers, ultimately leading to an experience for our guests that is differentiated. We place a large focus on menu innovation and excellence, serving delicious, hand-crafted beverages and products made with real, fresh ingredients. We are proud to say Caribou was the first major U.S. coffeehouse to serve 100% Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee and 100% clean label handcrafted beverages — notable achievements that strengthen our brand even further.

We are often referred to as an "Upper Midwest" coffee company, but Caribou Coffee has a strong brand presence nationwide. In addition to our 322 company-owned locations, Caribou has 137 non-traditional locations nationwide, primarily in grocery stores, airports, colleges and universities. Many people also don't know that Caribou has 273 franchise stores in nine countries. 

Our bagged coffee and K-Cup products can also be found in all 50 states across grocery stores, mass retailers, club stores, foodservice providers, hotels, entertainment venues, and online. With our announcement to franchise domestically for the first time (announced in late 2021), we are thrilled to be bringing our brand and coffeehouse experience to new markets.

Staying Squeaky Clean

Since Caribou is the first coffeehouse to offer 100% clean label beverages, can you explain what that means for our readers and why that matters?

Caribou became the first national coffee chain to offer 100% clean label beverages, which means that our drinks don't contain any chemicals or artificial flavors. It's our pursuit to make every delicious, handcrafted drink using only real ingredients, like real chocolate, vanilla, and caramel. At Caribou Coffee, clean label means that our drinks are not made with artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, artificial preservatives, MSG, or high fructose syrup. 

You can taste the difference in our signature mochas, crafted with real chocolate chips melted into espresso; or in our seasonal beverages, with real pumpkin puree as a core ingredient in many fall favorites; or in the [whipped] cream that tops our signature coolers. It's made fresh daily! Our reason is simple: We believe that real ingredients taste better.

We created an "Off-Limit List" of more than 70 ingredients we don't add to our beverages, and the commitment became official in 2017, though many of our ingredients were clean years prior.

Likewise, since Caribou is the first major U.S. coffeehouse to serve 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee and espresso, what does this certification mean and why should our readers care?

Caribou Coffee was proud to be the first major U.S. company to exclusively source all of our coffee beans from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms, and that practice continues today. A commitment with Rainforest Alliance goes beyond just ethical sourcing. 

100% Rainforest Alliance-certified means that our investment (and your investment purchasing any variety of Caribou Coffee beans) is supporting [the following]: livelihoods (contributing to lifting rural people out of poverty by improving sustainable livelihood opportunities for farmers, workers, and their families), climate (training farmers to grow better crops using climate-smart agriculture, which helps them mitigate and adapt to climate impacts), forests and biodiversity (promoting more sustainable land management practices to protect forests, biodiversity, and natural resources), and human rights (addressing human rights abuses like child and forced labor, low wages, poor working conditions, and gender inequality).

Continuing to source 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee and espresso at Caribou Coffee speaks to our commitment to integrate sustainable practices from seed to cup.

Being a Trusted and Beloved Brand

What are the challenges or extra steps that are needed on Caribou's end to obtain this certification?

Caribou does need to meet environmental and social standards set by the Rainforest Alliance, standards that go beyond just our green coffee sourcing practices. I wouldn't say there are necessarily "challenges," due to the fact that the organization's guidelines align with Caribou Coffee's core values. 

One thing I think is interesting is that our 100% Rainforest Alliance commitment came before Caribou Coffee had a formal Environmental, Social & Governance strategy in place. It's a commitment that our coffee team developed and upheld for years, not just in support of the highest-quality coffee, but also in support of farmers and our partners, some relationships that span over 20 years. It's important to us that we support our global communities, not just where Caribou Coffee products are consumed, but where they are sourced as well.

Why does this focus for the brand matter on a personal level? What keeps you invested in keeping Caribou on this same track?

Because building profitable businesses that make the world a better place is my passion, Caribou Coffee had me at [its] purpose and values. Over the years, I've had so many incredible experiences at my own local Caribou coffeehouses, including founding, building, and selling my startup, coffee dates with dear friends, [and] breakfast dates with my husband and son. What our team does in our stores every day matters.

To be seen as a trusted and beloved brand, you need to be a trusted and beloved brand. It's that straightforward. At Caribou, we demonstrate this authenticity through applying ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) as our management framework.

What to Expect

Since Caribou Coffee's coffeehouses aren't currently nationwide, for those readers who aren't familiar with the physical locations, what kind of experience do these locations provide and how are they different from, say, a Starbucks?

In all of the 10 countries you can find Caribou, our coffeehouses run on our uncompromising love of coffee and a shared positive energy that comes with every cup of Caribou. We call these sparks. [There's] warmth in our seating and fixtures, sometimes a fireplace to gather around, local art or photography that speaks to the importance of community, an inviting and welcoming place that fosters connection, whether you are sitting down and connecting with friends over a cup of coffee, or visiting us quickly in the drive-thru, but still sharing a friendly interaction with our incredible team.

As previously discussed, we also believe the difference is in our products and some of our key brand differentiators like handcrafted beverages that are clean. You not only "feel" the difference when visiting a Caribou Coffee, but you can taste it as well.

In 2019, we introduced a new type of experience to our portfolio, the Caribou Cabin. This prototype has a smaller footprint with roughly 600 square feet built around the drive-thru and walk-up business. The design was engineered to scale efficiency and guest experience while maintaining the quality of our handcrafted beverages. The Caribou Cabin's exteriors are "Cari-blue" and are designed to keep the same experience you come to expect, while on the go! We will open our 30th Caribou Cabin later this year.

Recommendations from the Coffee Expert

What is your personal order whenever you go to a Caribou location?

I love our Crafted Press. It's only available at Caribou, so it's special. Cold-brewed coffee steamed with a splash of milk and real sugar — it's like a latte, but lighter. I love it with almond or oat milk and if I'm feeling it, I get it with real chocolate, honey, or hazelnut.

Do you have any menu hacks or similar recommendations for readers, for when they next visit a Caribou location?

I have been known to "wow" my latte-loving friends with our "Only at Caribou" Crafted Press — it's lighter and more playful, something you can order every day. I also can't say enough good things about our mochas. We source proprietary mini chocolate chips and melt them into espresso with every order. Try a Hot White Chocolate Mocha or a Dark Chocolate Hot Chocolate next time you are looking for a treat!

What are Caribou Coffee's plans for the future? What can readers expect to see from the brand later into 2022?

We're planning to soak in a few more weeks of summer, but can you believe it's almost fall? It's hard not to love the upcoming season as a coffee lover, and Caribou will look forward to bringing back some of our favorite seasonal offerings. Try an Iced Crafted Press with real pumpkin!

Our loyalty guests, Caribou Perks members, will also be enjoying a refreshed and elevated app experience later this year.

We are also nearing a celebratory milestone later this year, with Caribou Coffee turning 30 years old in December. Stay tuned for more details — we can't wait to celebrate with our guests.

Overall, we're extremely excited about Caribou's future as we continue to redefine the coffeehouse experience and open new locations domestically and internationally. We can't wait for more guests to become familiar with the Caribou Coffee brand and products. Cheers to the next 30!

To learn more about Caribou Coffee, visit and follow the coffeehouse on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

This interview has been edited for formatting.