Essential Elixir

A Flathead Valley establishment for nearly 40 years, Montana Coffee Traders is still roasting beans through the pandemic, even as its cafes remain closed

By Tristan Scott
Zach Farnes, roastmaster at Montana Coffee Traders, shows dried coffee cherries on Jan. 18, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Most coffee drinkers have employed adjectives like “essential” and “critical” to describe their morning brew, but the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing measures enacted to slow the spread of infection have given new meaning to those words.

As the federal government offers guidance on what industries and jobs may be considered critical infrastructure and continue to operate during the public health crisis, coffee manufacturing meets the classification guidelines, which include handlers, sellers and roasters.

But at Montana Coffee Traders, which serves the Flathead Valley as a community fixture, with coffee shops in Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls, in addition to its roastery just south of Whitefish on U.S. Highway 93, the pandemic has foisted a sizable burden on its operations, particularly at its cafes, which typically bustle as prominent social hubs.

In early March, before a single case of coronavirus had been confirmed in Montana, the leadership team at Montana Coffee Traders laid out a business continuity plan in the likely event the infection spread inside the state. On March 13, when Gov. Steve Bullock confirmed the state’s first cases, the company took immediate steps to isolate the roasting facility and divide roasters and production employees into two teams.

“If one person were to get sick, then you would have this other team of people who are ready to go and work,” Leslie Hunt, Café Resource manager, said. “Luckily that has not happened, so we’re still working with alternating teams.”

The dramatic steps, taken early on, helped ensure the company’s signature beans continue to be distributed, but impacts to the cafes and their dozens of employees have been more difficult to avoid.

Although the company tried to keep staff in place by scaling down to a pick-up only business model, similar to what other restaurants have adopted, Hunt said maintaining social distancing directives became too cumbersome.

“It got to be really challenging, and knowing that people were interfacing with the public to any degree was worrisome,” she said. “In a restaurant setting, it’s really hard to maintain those barriers in such tight spaces. It got to be too stressful.”

With a staff of 75 manning the company’s three cafes, about three-quarters were laid off, with the 17 remaining employees allowed to fill out slots in production. Any laid off employees who were on the company’s health insurance plan were allowed to stay on the plan without any cost to the employee, Hunt said, and all of the staff are still entitled to their free half-pound of coffee.

But for a business that thrives on its friendly, front-of-store presence, the café closures have been difficult to absorb.

“We had our annual staff holiday party on March 3, because we’re so busy during the actual holidays,” Hunt said. “Ten days later we were responding to the outbreak. None of us saw it coming. There was such swift movement of everything.”

Montana Coffee Traders was recently approved for relief under the Payroll Protection Program, a $349 billion relief program that Congress authorized to help small businesses survive the pandemic, and allowing about 20 staff to continue receiving paychecks for up to eight weeks.

Still, Hunt said it’s difficult to know what lies ahead given how quickly life has changed amid the coronavirus outbreak, particularly with the Flathead Valley’s summer tourism season looming just around the corner.

“How we reopen again is hard to predict, because how we closed was really hard to predict at every stage,” she said. “Hopefully we can just hire everyone back, but what happens in the coming weeks is going to dictate what we do.”

“It’s challenging,” she continued. “It makes me realize I have really taken for granted the connection we provide, both for our customers and for our staff.”

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