Lessons from the Road

What I learned about business and people from traveling the country with Sarah Calhoun of Red Ants Pants

By MAGGIE DOHERTY

Recently I was asked how I got started in the craft brewing business. I replied: pants. Specifically: Red Ants Pants. Likely you’ve heard of this Montana business that started with a very simple but important mission: make work pants for women that fit women’s bodies, function for hard work, and look good, too. Sarah Calhoun started the company in 2006 in the small ranching town of White Sulphur Springs, and I met her a few years later at one of her pants parties.

When she and I met in 2008, I was broke and couldn’t afford a pair of her work pants, but I did get a free sticker and slapped it on my water bottle. Later that winter my boss at the Hellroaring Saloon at Whitefish Mountain Resort wanted to know all about Red Ants Pants. I made Pat Latorelle watch the now famous commercial where a truck is pulled out of a ditch by just one pair of Red Ants Pants. Pat loved it and then told me: call Sarah. Let’s do a trunk show and revue party at Hellroaring. I was a little apprehensive, but I called Sarah and told her about Pat’s idea to hold a fashion show at a slopeside ski bar. Sarah came to town with her Red Ants Pants and we put on an amazing show as a group modeled the pants to tunes like Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”

As I helped pack up the show, Sarah asked what I was going to do for work after ski season. I told her that I had a gap between my next bartender job. I must have impressed her with my dance moves so she invited me to help her sell pants on the road. I instantly agreed, and for six weeks I accompanied Sarah on what we came to call “Tour de Pants” through Washington, Oregon, and all the way to Los Angeles before heading back to Montana in time to make a Bucking Ant float for the Miles City Bucking Horse parade. We towed a 1964 Airstream trailer named the Ant Hill and hosted pants parties for women who were gardeners, trail crew workers, welders, electricians, and farmers, just to name a few. We also sold a fair number of pants to men as well.

What I learned on that first Tour de Pants, and subsequent other trips to the Midwest and through the Rockies, was that Sarah was someone who dreamed of doing business very differently. It’s a bold approach to drive across the country to make the connection between the importance of American-made and a product that fills a niche need, in hopes that folks will buy your pants. It’s about possessing a firm belief in your own values, and in honoring and celebrating work. It’s not about sales pitch meetings but rather stories shared over a campfire in a Wisconsin field with a volunteer crew of EMTs. We may not have had heat, electricity, or running water in the old Airstream by the end of our Tour de Pants years, but what I was left with was the rare opportunity to see this country of ours in such a unique way and meet people who were kind, passionate, and focused on creating good in their communities and with their neighbors. Ultimately, what Sarah taught me is that your most valuable asset in business actually isn’t the pants but the people who wear those pants.

Maggie Doherty is the owner of Kalispell Brewing Company on Main Street.

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