5 Sparrows Flying High

By Beacon Staff

When Melanie Nelson lost almost half her customers at her Lakeside coffee drive-thru during the recent economic recession, she began reevaluating everything. With three young children and a husband working in an unpredictable construction environment, Nelson sought sustentance.

She found it by “stirring up a revolution.”

Using her background as a barista, Nelson began making her own specialty chocolate, chai and frappe mixes as an artisan alternative in the cafe products industry. Nelson, 30, and her husband Andy, 31, opened 5 Sparrows in Kalispell last December and since then their business has grown in popularity beyond the valley. The Nelsons are shipping out roughly 300 pounds of different mixes a week to local distributors like Montana Coffee Traders and to out-of-state companies, one in Washington and one in California.

The Nelsons’ latest concoction inside the small business on West Idaho Street has them even more excited about the future.

Three years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the herb known as stevia as a safe sugar alternative to artificial sweeteners such as Splenda. Considered healthier, the herb has been popular in Europe and Japan for decades. However, since the FDA approved stevia, none of the large companies in the U.S. have started using it in their products. That’s where Nelson saw a great opportunity for her budding business.

“We’re cafe people and cafe people just inherently think outside the box and are willing to innovate all the time. That’s what we’re trying to do is give our customers something new that they’re asking for,” she said. “Plus (stevia is) good for you.”

Nelson went through the approval process with the state to become one of the first companies in the country, she believes, to use stevia. Last summer 5 Sparrows debuted four different sugar-free products featuring the all-natural sweetener and the Nelsons have been busy meeting the growing demand ever since.

“People are begging us for the product,” she said.

In a wide-open backroom space, Nelson gathers an array of ingredients, from premium cocoa to natural vanilla, and stirs together different mixes scoop by scoop, from white chocolate to spiced chai.

In the beginning, Nelson reached out to local companies, like Coffee Traders, and introduced her creation. She received glowing reviews and affirmation that she was on the right path.

“They tried it and loved it and so it’s ended up being locally a really good partnership,” she said.

Now Nelson said companies across the West have found out about 5 Sparrows and are increasingly showing interest in distributing the products. The Nelsons are staying locally minded with their manufacturing, something that’s important to them. Even their bumper stickers follow the same train of thought as the familiar “Who’s Your Farmer?” slogan — “Who’s Your Barista?”

“We do as much as we can to use everything from Montana,” she said, from any ingredients available to the labels brandished across their packages.

The result is exactly what Nelson hoped for — sustainability for her family. She quickly credits her husband’s support, financially and emotionally.

“We’re a team,” she said.

In turn, he credits her entrepreneurial zeal and hard work.

“Since we opened the doors it’s been a good experience,” Andy said. “It’s been great to see it grow. I’m excited for the future.”

One final question came up recently — where did the name 5 Sparrows come from? The answer, according to Nelson, is the biggest reason why 5 Sparrows is flying high.

“Our name comes from the Bible,” she said. “Luke chapter 12, verses six through seven.”

In the New International Version of the Bible, Jesus reassures his disciples to have steadfast faith, saying, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

That passage stuck in Nelson’s mind when times were tough. Today she looks at her current state and the passage rings truer than ever.

“We know that God has our backs because we’re in His will,” she said. “We feel like He opened these doors for us and He will continue to.”