Guilty Pleasures without the Guilt and the Gluten

Open Road — Week Three by Team OKRA

When we first crossed the border from North Dakota to Montana, I realized I only really knew few facts about Montana:

1. Montana is the fourth largest state and its capital is Helena
2. Glacier National Park is in Montana
3. Its three electoral votes went to Trump
4. There is a grocerant in Bozeman called Sola Café.

With such limited information, I was apprehensive that a first generation east-coast Indian-American, might not have a place in a conservative, rural community. But, boy was I wrong. Let me explain the Montana I learned about.

Team OKRA manning Sola Café

When we first walked into Sola Café, we were awe struck by the fresh produce in the grocery section along with the smell of bold coffee at the counter. We finally met the owner of this culinary haven and our third entrepreneur, Tiffany Lach. Tiffany is filled with positivity, excitement, and brilliance. She is an MBA without an MBA, having a shelf of business-related books. Coming to Bozeman in 2008, Tiffany along with her co-founder, Stacey Wenthe, opened Sola Café to provide healthy, locally sourced, and vegan/gluten-free friendly food to her community. And a community space, a platform for local agriculture, an art exhibitor, and more. As Suzi (I’ll introduce her later) informed us, “Tiffany is all about community.” Now she has two Sola Café’s, co-owns Red Tractor Pizza, and is opening her third shop soon in Big Sky. With so much momentum, Tiffany is already thinking about what’s next? Her question for us was, “Should Sola Café start a new gluten-free e-subscription service line?”

Monday morning at Sola Cafe, meeting Tiffany for the first time and listening to her story.

Initially, our project plan was to complete secondary research and speak to stakeholders surrounding Sola such as staff, customers, and partners. Unfortunately, with the limited time and 75% of the team sick, the plan was not feasible. Still, Tiffany wanted us to connect with Bozeman, so she arranged three meetings for us on Tuesday with: Les Craig and Trevor Huffmaster at Blackstone Launchpad, Suzi the Executive Director of Montana Women’s Business Center (hosted by Prospera Business Network), and Jordan the founder of BrandBoss Creative.

Team OKRA visits Blackstone LaunchPad at Montana State University. Left to Right: Trevor Huffmaster, Ava Damri, Ozge Sahin, Les Craig, Ravi Patel, and Kevin Jones (and Tiffany Lach if you can spot her on the wall)

Through those meetings, my perception of Bozeman changed rapidly. Lately, the city has seen an emergence of transplants who cannot get to Bozeman fast enough. Bozeman attracts students, as it’s home to the Bobcats at Montana State, and tourists, who come to enjoy the spectacular mountains and ski resorts. With these folks, a brewing tech community, a spread of cultural and racial diversity, and a mission to open the city to the world has shown up too. The transplants share many of the same values as the original Montanans: a strong work ethic, a passion for giving back to the community, and a love for wilderness and adventures. Particularly, as Jordan shared with us, “Montana has badass women.”

Sola Café’s Huckleberry Coffee Cake

Coming back to the project, we finally concluded that e-commerce was a good idea, and began to answer the question, “how?” We scouted several options, and agreed with Tiffany that using a third party marketplace to sell one product, her huckleberry coffee cake (which was delicious!), as a pilot program was the best option. As we browsed marketplaces, we realized almost all the platforms either had none or select few products “Made in Montana.” While a great opportunity for Tiffany, it is a challenge for Montana to open up its borders and share its fortune with the rest of us.

By the end of the week, we left Tiffany with a platform comparison chart with suggestions, a profit and loss statement for the new business line, and a roadmap to get there. Honestly, I never thought my life journey would bring me to Montana. I can safely say, I will be returning again. I still need to try a patsy, go trout fishing, and visit Compass Café in Big Sky. In the meantime, I cannot wait to have a little bit of Montana with me wherever go when I purchase my first huckleberry coffee cake from Sola Café online.

Team OKRA with Tiffany Lach in Sola Café

P.S. We also made two trips to Red Tractor Pizza to meet more folks among Tiffany’s community. On Thursday night, over live bluegrass music by Bridge Creek Boys (actually Matt Broughton, the fiddler, is a local farmer that works with Tiffany), we had a big family meal with several team members and Tiffany’s family. Tiffany is really close to her staff and invested in their long-term success. She is inspired by Zingerman’s commitment to train employees to be their best. On Friday morning, we had the fortune to meet the infamous Val, the bakery manager who will be Tiffany’s future partner in crime for the e-commerce business, and the legendary Adam, her co-founder at Red Tractor and outdoors enthusiast. Seeing how excited everyone feels to work with Tiffany is the best indicator that she has a bright future ahead.

Thursday evening at Red Tractor Pizza, Team OKRA with Tiffany, her family, and Sola Café team members