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You'd presume CrimsonCup CEO Greg Ubert, a Harvard-trained economist, would understand the daunting nature of the numbers behind the Starbucks empire: $6 billion in sales, 8,700 locations worldwide.

And yet Mr. Ubert somehow musters an irrepressible optimism when discussing his plans to overtake the Starbucks machine by aggregating the independent coffee-house community-estimated at anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 locations in the U.S.-under the unifying marketing banners of "Drink Local" and "Coffee for Independent Thinkers."

He says seemingly crazy things, like: "In three years we'll be No. 2," an obvious challenge to No. 2 Caribou (300+ stores). But he can't possibly have designs on being No. 1, right? Wrong.

You see, Mr. Ubert, 38, believes the world will be a dull and banal place if Starbucks finishes killing off independent coffeehouses. And he also believes his consumer target of "independent thinkers" will eventually figure this out. In fact, his "mission-based" Columbus, Ohio, company with about $5 million in sales is counting on it. (Starbucks did not return calls for comment.)

The plan? Build the already 300-strong base of independent coffeehouses he serves as a wholesaler. In six years, more than 60 entrepreneurs signed on to the "Independents Can Do It Better" program, which aims to channel the "romantic idealism" of the typical coffeehouse entrepreneur into business savvy.

The CrimsonCup team of business consultants imparts operations knowledge and know-how on everything from where you put a refrigerator behind the counter, drink pricing to maximize sales and even banishing cursive writing on menu boards. The idea is to create a reliable, consistent experience, just like Starbucks, yet preserve the local twist.

"Our stores are all different," Mr. Ubert said. "That's a huge and powerful thing-something is different, yet it's the same."


For a small monthly fee-not disclosed but described as less than most cable bills-independent coffeehouses can join and receive support and marketing materials to signify their participation in the program.

EyeThink, an agency based in Powell, Ohio, created the latest incarnation of the "Coffee for Independent Thinkers" positioning. The "Drink Local" theme was launched on the so-dubbed "Independents Day," an Aug. 5 gathering of more than 100 independent-coffee-shop owners.

Attendees left with the tools of grass-roots marketing: T-shirts with the "Drink Local" message, door hangers, posters and flyers. A typical flier reads: "There's a revolution brewing and we're at the heart of it."

But will the "Drink Local" message eventually resonate with consumers bored by Starbucks' ubiquity?

For Dave Forman, co-owner of River Road Coffeehouse in Granville, Ohio, who signed up for the marketing program a year ago, it gave him instant credibility in the community. "People here wouldn't try a Starbucks, they don't like corporate entities and they want individual identities where they shop and eat," he said, referring to small, rural town of about 4,000 with only two chain businesses-a Wendy's and Subway franchise.

CrimsonCup "is for that percentage who says, `Look, I just can't handle more globalization of brands,"' said Dennis Lombardi, exec VP-food service strategies at WD Partners.

Ironically, though, should Mr. Ubert succeed, he faces a conundrum: His company suddenly becomes a big brand, too.

* What he does: Runs a wholesaler servicing independent chains

* What he wants: To unite America’s 7,000-plus coffee houses

* How he plans it: Push a "drink local" movement via grass-roots marketing

* What he’s up against: His sales are $5 million. Starbucks’ are $6 billion

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