I’ve had the opportunity to travel many times back and forth across the Musselshell Valley over the ten years I’ve lived in central Montana. This year, my work and interests have turned to business development. Surveying what I’ve seen happening in the vicinity, I have to say I’m the most impressed by a relatively new venture in Harlowton where downtown touches Highway 12.
That business is Snowy Mountain Coffee Company which is owned and operated by Ian and Mandie Reed. While Ian has spearheaded the effort and handles most of the day-to-day management, Mandie has supported the effort with her regular pay check. I also have to imagine that she is responsible for much of the color and design work that has gone into their business.
I made an appointment to see Ian the other day and found him still at work even though the retail shop had been closed for some time. Ian generally works 12 hours a day, 6 to 6. And, I think he is at it six days a week. Ah, the benefits of being an entrepreneur!
Mr. Reed has been roasting coffee in Harlowton since 2000. At that time, he was employed by Tom and Trudi Horan at Rocky Mountain Cookware. When he had free moments, he roasted coffee in his garage. Before too long, the Reed’s operation moved to Main Street Harlowton and is now at its third location since 2002.
Being a non-coffee drinker (I indulge in chai once in a while), I learned quite a bit about coffee during our conversation in the front of the Snowy Mountain retail shop. There seems to be a whole other world out there which is filled with coffee.
Obviously, we are in the midst of a coffee craze. I asked Ian about that. “Coffee quality has gone down among major coffee companies which mass produce Robusta coffee. But, people are willing to spend money on a good cup of coffee. Arabica beans give a much better taste, though they are much more expensive. One tree produces only a pound of coffee each year.” Ian only sells coffees made from Arabica beans, of course.
Modern coffee houses, like the Reed’s, purvey only premium coffees. This kind of coffee is “an affordable luxury. The world has gotten so mechanized and busy. People come in for a cup of really good coffee, to take a break and to socialize. (Coffee is today’s socially acceptable drug.)
“Everything about coming here feels good. People come here in the morning or afternoon. We try to make it the high point of their day. Some come in every day. That keeps us here.”
But, it takes a lot of work to make a consistently good coffee. “Not all roasting companies put as much time and energy into their product,” as Snowy Mountain Coffee Company does.
The work, however, begins long before coffee beans arrive in Harlowton. Coffee cherries grow on trees (they look like large bushes) in warm weather climates. They thrive at altitudes above 5000 feet, like temperatures within a narrow range around 70 degrees, and prefer volcanic soil and lots of rain.
Coffee trees are harvested of their cherries three times during the one crop they produce each year. The flavor of a coffee depends to a significant degree on the time of that harvest. Once picked, the cherries are divested of their pulp which is returned to the soil and beans are collected for export to coffee guzzling nations like the U.S.
Interestingly, coffees vary characteristically from country to country. “Guatemalan has a spicy quality.” Colombian is the most in demand, generally. “It is a consistently good coffee with a well-balanced flavor and good acidity and body.”
Ian told me that a Jamaican coffee is the most expensive and most prized. He doesn’t carry it, but has a variety of coffees from Kenya, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Sumatra, countries noted above and a few others.
Working with a half dozen different brokers who have people in most every coffee country, Snowy Mountain Coffee Company imports 30 to 50 new coffees every year. Ian is constantly ordering coffee samples. Then, he has to roast them and taste test them. After 40 to 50 cups of coffee, he says, “My palate is shot.” So, he recruits anybody and everybody to help when roasting a new coffee. Maybe you could be a new recruit.
“It takes days to test roast a new coffee.” I think that’s mainly so because Ian’s taste buds can only hold up so long. Reed may go through 20 different drum roasts of his new coffee - at 12 to 19 minutes per roast - before he is satisfied with the coffee and an optimum roast.
To the casual customer, Snowy Mountain Coffee Company may appear to be a lone retail shop. But, most of its business is wholesale with clients as far away as Florida. Most retail outlets are, however, in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, South and North Dakota, Oregon and Colorado. SMCC markets mostly to high-end gift stores and via the Internet. Internet sales have so far been largely to the East Coast. A recent high rating on their Sumatran decaf in “Coffee Review” may have helped their Internet traffic. Much of their other Internet business comes from people who pick up coffee at a gift shop and want more. Ian likes to hear, “Send me a case.”
Recently, the Coffee Company contracted with a percentage-based sales representative agency. This contract will bring Snow Mountain Coffee to most every National Park in the western USA.
Business has been good for the Reeds and Snowy Mountain Coffee. They have been doubling in sales every year, and even faster this year. They are considering opening another retail shop in Billings or Helena. That prompted me to ask about competition. Ian responded, “If you have good coffee and a good coffee house, you can go anywhere and be successful! Our retail business has done far better than I ever expected.”
So, how does a young man get into the coffee roasting business? Reed grew up southeast of Bend, Oregon, 80 miles form the nearest grocery store, where his family raised three to four cuttings of alfalfa hay each year and ran a few cattle. After three-plus years of college, Ian took a job with Allen Brothers, a wholesale coffee roasting company which also owned a chain of stores. Young Mr. Reed ran their wet plant - manufacturing syrups, chai tea concentrate, and cold coffee concentrate.
Shortly after Mandie and he moved to Montana in 1998, Reed took on a ranch hand job for two years at Melville. Then, back to Harlowton working for Rocky Mountain Cookware. Roasted coffee beans and a venture of his own called him early on. Barely 26, he started SMCC in 2001. Reed recalls, “I knew I wanted to be self-employed and have my own business, but my college advisor told me, ‘You can’t do that. Be realistic.’”
Well, the realism has set in. Ian works hard and long, but he obviously enjoys his work and takes pride in it. Asked about spare time, Reed had little to say. Vacations usually come in the summer mixed in with family visits and trade shows back in Oregon.
Ian and Mandie believe that running a retail shop will be a valuable growing-up experience for their children: Riley who is six and Eric, age four. On a rare trip to Mexico some time ago, they were impressed by how families work together closely to run and maintain businesses. We have gotten away from much of that in modern America.
The Reeds met as the result of one of Ian’s college roommates marrying Mandie’s sister. Mandie graduated from Eastern Oregon State University. She now works was Wheatland County MSU Extension Agent following on her previous job with NRCS.
I understand that Ian also has talents as a metal worker and artist, but he doesn’t have time for that now. And, besides, “I can’t compete with the Chinese.”
But, it is quite clear that he can make good coffee, that he runs a neat Main Street shop, knows how to market, and is building an expanding business. Something that is definitely good for Harlowton and Montana. Reed says, “I like it here. I think the town is geared for a lot of potential. We are sitting on the teeter-totter, just ready for movement. I see people coming in this direction. We need to be ready for them.