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WHITEFISH, Mont. — Take a drive in the Flathead Valley, specifically to or from Columbia Falls, Kalispell, or Whitefish, and odds are you’ll see the sign: the two C’s, represented with horizontal horseshoes, and the glittering lips softly shaped for a kiss even Marilyn Monroe would be envious of.
The sign is the proud display of a local coffee hut, boasting the distinguishable logo for the Cowgirl Coffee Company.
“Cowgirl Coffee came to me with the idea of loving to camp. Every time I go camping, I make cowboy coffee, which is grounds and boiled water, and that’s cowboy coffee. And so I thought, ‘That’s really cute. I love rich coffee like that, but I’m going to call it Cowgirl (Coffee),” said Shea Fast, the owner of the Cowgirl Coffee Company. “That’s really how it came up. It wasn’t like the big fancy belt buckles and the big hair or anything, it was really because of camping.”
Fast knows a thing or two about coffee. Campfire cravings aside, she has worked in the coffee industry since she was 14, often landing at various espresso establishments while chasing her main dream, which is how she wound up in Big Sky Country to begin with.
“I came here, actually, on a snowboarding photoshoot because I was a professional snowboarder,” Fast recalled, “and fell in love with the little town of Whitefish. I decided that this is where I wanted to live, and I packed up all my things, moved to Whitefish, and started working at a coffee shop.”
The “pressure of becoming an adult” sent Fast to massage school to pursue a small practice, but she joked “being in a dark room, listening to flutes” wasn’t her calling. She couldn’t shake the idea of crafting cappuccinos and caffeine.
“I was very fortunate to know a man whose son was a pro snowboarder, and he owned a piece of property on the way to (then) Big Mountain, which is the Whitefish Ski Resort,” said Fast. “And so I asked him, ‘Hey, could I put a coffee shop here?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And that’s kind of how the whole entire dream came to fruition.”
Fast can still remember that first year of entrepreneurship, well, the blur of it anyway. She recalls working “seven days a week, 365 days a year,” but recognizing opportunity for growth as locals and tourists alike fought their caffeine craving.
“I love the start-up part of it and feel I was called to do that more than just sit and operate. So, then I opened the second one and then the third,” said Fast. “And now we actually are at five locations, and it’s going to be our 20-year anniversary in 2022.”
A lot has happened in those two decades, but Fast remains proud of the impact Cowgirl Coffee has had in the Flathead. She recalls seeing her distinctive coffee cups, the ones displaying the horseshoes and those “kiss lips,” at business meetings and in the hands of locals on the sidewalks and tourists visiting Glacier National Park. But her epiphany moment, that point in time she truly realized coffee was her calling, was certainly unique.
“You know, it’s sad to say, but I remember being really proud of seeing Cowgirl Coffee in the trash can. (I was) out at Home Depot and happened to go throw something in the garbage and then I saw my brand sitting there and that was like, ‘Wow,’” she laughed. “And then, of course, big recognition we had from, I think it was Julia Roberts who tweeted Cowgirl Coffee with a picture of Cowgirl and how cute it was, and that was a big deal. And we also were recognized (by) the Food Network (which has) done some articles and little shout-outs and some videos. Local recognition is always what we strive for the most, but, on the national level, it’s been pretty awesome.”
“One thing, Cowgirl Coffee did get voted the best coffee cup in the state of Montana (by) the Food Network,” Fast continued, “so that was a neat article to see, too.”
The recognitions have been blessings, but Fast knew her operation would need to rely on more than its name and image. Cowgirl Coffee has concentrated on the patrons, guaranteeing a positive experience from order to the last drop.
“I definitely want to say that probably the strongest focus we’ve had has been customer service; the service and the product being exceptional,” explained Fast. “We know that with customer service, people are really going to like being heard, validated, to have the staff be cheerful, but also, the product has to be exceptional too. You can only get away with being happy and friendly so long if your product isn’t great. We started with organic coffee since day one, that was in 2002, and we haven’t veered from that, and we really tried to keep things local. Of course, we’re trial and error along the way.”
“One thing I’ve always done (has) been word-of-mouth marketing. Word of mouth goes a long way,” she continued. “People love, sadly, to talk bad about things these days, but they also really do love to share their great experiences, and that’s really where we drive home is to have exceptional experiences — every single person that comes through the drive-thru or the walk-up.”
Fast says she’s never stopped learning, including the coffee industry and traditional education. She touts various leadership and coaching conferences and courses, always striving to be a skilled leader and positive role model to her employees. She says it’s rare for young men to apply, admittedly that’s likely due to the business name, though she would welcome them with open arms. But she calls it a “blessing” to see the young women she employs learn business and communication skills to set them up for success down the road.
Whether it’s the trustworthy employees or the consistent caffeine-deprived customers, Fast can’t help but feel fortunate to have found the Flathead Valley nearly three decades ago.
“Montana is definitely a seasonal spot, so we see some ups and downs in the summertime (and) in the wintertime, and then there’s those great times we love, the local times where it’s quiet, and it’s why we all live here,” she said.”Oh man, I can’t thank the local Flathead Valley (enough) for just embracing Cowgirl Coffee and just making Cowgirl Coffee who it is. Our customer base is so strong, they’re so positive, they’re so loyal to this great, strong, organic espresso that we have. So, we are ridiculously appreciative, and we just want to be the best for them.
“And again, our customer service and our product, we want to be 100 percent, any way we can keep providing that. We love hearing about it and we’re just super appreciative of Montana as a state too. I told you that, I just love Montana, the state. We’re so lucky to be living here right now in these times.”
Fast’s words began to fade, her mind drifting to reminisce on the wild ride it’s been — roaming from place to place, shredding the slopes and crafting caffeinated concoctions. But there’s no doubt she’s right at home, two decades in and already dreaming about the next.
“I’m really willing to kind of take a ride and see what the next 20 years looks like. I think coffee is a really fun business, but I’m not sure if we’re going to just continue and stay here where we are or we’re going to jump to the next level,” she said. “I’m kind of a jump to the next level girl, so you’re going to probably see us expand to some degree. I’m not sure what that looks like, though. And that’s always the fun part. Again, that’s what I like to do is see the bigger picture and go for it.”
That’s the cowgirl way.