By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Apr 18, 2019 at 1:10 PM

This week, Kickapoo Coffee – the award-winning organic coffee roaster based in Viroqua – released a statement, announcing the decision to change the business’ name in light of growing concerns over cultural appropriation.

"When we founded Kickapoo Coffee in 2005, we chose our name with the intention of honoring the place where our business has its roots: the Kickapoo River Valley, noted co-owners TJ Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes in a statement on Wednesday. "But Kickapoo is not simply the name given to a river. The Kickapoo are a people.

"The Kickapoo Nation is composed of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, and the Mexican-Kickapoos. By using "Kickapoo," we claimed a name that was never ours to take. The decision to use their name, and to continue to roast under it, was an act of appropriation. In an effort to right that wrong, we have decided to change our name."

Despite the decision, new name has not yet been chosen; the coffee brand will continue to operate as Kickapoo Coffee until January 2020. That includes a renaming of the cafes in Viroqua, Bayfield and the Milwaukee-based cafe at 232 E. Erie St.

Change in Milwaukee

Scott Lucey, who co-owns the Kickapoo Coffee cafe at 232 E. Erie St. with Semanchin and Nicholes, says he’s been part of the company’s larger conversation for months and has supported their decision.

"I was 100 percent on board with the decision," he adds. "There was shared consensus among us that this was the right thing to do."

Lucey says the cafe has been preparing its staff for potential discussions with customers, and the news has been shared on a personal basis with regulars.

"We want to share our values with our customers. And we want our intentions, respect and transparency to be visible. So it’s really an honor to work with people who want to run their business that way. It’s part of what attracted me to working with them initially, and it’s part of what makes me proud to continue our partnership."

Months of contemplation

The decision seemed sudden for many, but was in fact part of an ongoing reflection process on the part of the brand’s leadership. In fact, Semanchin and Nicholes shared some of their feelings on the matter in a letter to customers in December 2018

"This is a matter of acknowledging the blind spots that my position of privilege has afforded me," noted Semanchin in an interview. "And this is a process of owning up to that privilege as a business owner and white male. There’s a very personal component to this, but it’s also a product of the culture that we are in."

"Today, there is far more awareness of Native American rights and the voice and position of marginalized populations in our society," noted Semanchin in an interview. "As awareness internally has grown for Caleb, myself and the team, we’ve really been taking the blinders off. And once the process began in earnest, it really snowballed and became clear that there was just one path to take."

Semanchin notes that the decision was not – as some might assume – prompted by action on the part of the Kickapoo Nation. In fact, he says that when they reached out directly to apologize, Kickapoo leadership expressed that they did not have previous knowledge of the brand.

Semanchin says they reached a point when they realized that they had two choices: to share their decision with the public immediately; or to withhold the decision until after a rebranding could be announced.

Ultimately, he says, they didn’t feel good about the latter option.

"We couldn’t continue to operate in our new state of awareness, but we didn’t want a marketing blitz to overshadow the importance of the decision itself," he says. "And we didn’t want to diminish the potential for the conversation that could take place. It simply didn’t feel authentic."

In the end, he says, the announcement is only the first step of a longer process that, he says, reflects the values Kickapoo has tried to uphold.

"We are dedicated to educating ourselves and approaching this work with humility and vulnerability," he noted in a public statement. "It is our intention to hold space for a thoughtful dialogue. As a company committed to social justice and the pursuit of a more fair and equitable world, we recognize that this work begins with us."

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.