Oases of Caffeine

Coffee huts dot the Flathead Valley, providing opportunity for business ownership and entrepreneurship

By Molly Priddy
Shea Fast, owner of Cowgirl Coffee in Whitefish on Jan. 19, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

There’s a reason the idea of oases has such a pull on the imagination, a waypoint of plenty and just what you need to get moving again amidst an environment void of anything to keep you alive.

An oasis often appears to a stranger in a strange land just as they need the resources within. For many who have managed to make it onto the road bleary-eyed in the morning without drinking the day’s first cup of coffee, a series of tiny oases in the form of coffee huts awaits.

They dot the Flathead Valley, these little way stations of caffeine, in parking lots and on the sides of highways. Some, such as Kalispell’s Espress Way, have been here since the early 1990s, a full decade before mega-coffee-corporation Starbucks set its first foundations in Montana.

Shea Fast, founder of Cowgirl Coffee, first arrived in Whitefish in 1995 and as a professional snowboarder who stopped here for a photo shoot.

“I fell in love with Whitefish,” Fast said, standing in January’s melting snow as more started to fall from above. “I said, ‘I love this place; I’m moving here.’”

As a kid from the Bay Area who had worked in coffee-related jobs since she was 14, Fast saw an opportunity with a small coffee hut in Whitefish. One of her friends on the professional snowboarding team had a relative who owned a car wash here — Big Mountain Superior Wash on Wisconsin Avenue — who said Fast could put up a hut in the parking lot there.

And so, 16 years ago, the first Cowgirl Coffee hut was born, using a unique coffee blend from Montana Coffee Traders that Fast helped develop and has used from the first day she opened.

Her original plan was to have Cowgirl Coffee take over the world, Fast said, and she dove headfirst into the world of entrepreneurship.

“When you invest in something, you have to stick it out for at least three years,” she said. “I worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. I didn’t make a dime — I just worked and worked.”

Two years after opening her first location on Wisconsin Avenue, Fast opened another Cowgirl Coffee on U.S. Highway 2, near the intersection of Birch Grove Road when the massive building out there housed Costco instead of the current tenant, Applied Materials.

Within 10 years, the third location on Baker Avenue in Whitefish opened. Fast now employs an average of 16 people, has low staff turnover, and her huts have become integral parts of many local folks’ days.

Fast said it’s been interesting to watch wave after wave of coffee huts come into the valley; many pop up and eventually fold because there’s a misconception that it wouldn’t require much work to keep a hut open and running, she said.

“You have to be an owner-operator to really make a return,” she said.

Of course, Cowgirl Coffee is but one of the stalwarts of the coffee hut industry in the Flathead. Copper Mountain Coffee has multiple locations, and longtime Billings coffee business Mountain Mudd has a presence.

Other coffee huts are becoming engrained in the local consciousness, with snappy names and convenient locations for the caffeine-deprived. According to the Kalispell Planning Department, hut construction has slowed save for the new Florence Coffee Company south of town.

Fast, whose go-to coffee drink is an Americano with heavy whipping cream, said consistency is key to a successful coffee hut operation. Cowgirl Coffee is open all year, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and people come to expect that of the huts, she said. In the decade and a half that she’s been in business, Fast said she’s seen the industry change here and there, but the biggest shift has come in people believing in women entrepreneurs.

“Being an owner and entrepreneur (when I first started), other people didn’t believe you’d be successful,” Fast said. “I remember a guy who said my Wisconsin Avenue location was a bad location.”

Now, she’s built a new website with fresh marketing possibilities, which is her new focus for Cowgirl Coffee.

But like a traveler who believes there is relief on the way, perhaps just over the next hill, Fast kept moving forward, building her own oases and watching people appreciate her efforts.

“I just knew I was going to make it work,” Fast said.

For more information on Cowgirl Coffee, visit www.cowgirlcoffeecompany.com.

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