Thad and Heidi Reiste, owners of Electric City Coffee Bar & Bistro, met while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Today, they operate a successful coffee bar and bistro in Great Falls, MT. By focusing on the quality of their product, leaning on their shared military experience and seeking guidance when needed, the Reiste family has created a downtown Great Falls staple that continues to grow.
The U.S. Small Business Administration recently spoke with the husband-wife duo to learn more about their operation.
What made you want to start a business? How did Electric City Coffee Bar & Bistro come about?
Heidi grew up on a small farm in Indiana where families were close-knit and spent a lot of time supporting each other and the local community. Thad is from Great Falls, and grew up working around his family’s small business, learning customer service and how to become involved in the community as well. We’ve always had an underlying passion for small business, and we share a similar work ethic and sense of pride, so we compliment each other very well.
When a local Great Falls bakery/coffee shop was planning to go out of business, we offered to buy out the owner and purchase the equipment from them to get started. We decided to rebrand the business and change locations creating the “hometown coffee shop” vibe we thought the community would support. We have since added several other options to the original plan, expanding our menu and services.
What were some of the early challenges?
We had two primary challenges when opening a small business – the first was simply being new business owners and learning how to lead and supervise civilian employees (as opposed to service members). Civilian life has its challenges that we needed to understand and accommodate. It is much more fluid, and the structure isn’t the same, but we have grown and adapted to the new lifestyle.
The second challenge was understanding cash flow and building a budget. After several years we still are constantly watching cash flow and working to ensure we stay within national standards, maintaining a profit margin and compensating our employees in order to maintain a quality staff, offer quality products and provide excellent customer service.
How did your military background help you when entering the business world?
After nearly five years in the business world, we’d say the most important thing we gained from our military experience is team building. We have managed to hire very passionate and creative people to work for us. They support and contribute to our ideas and plans. Great leaders surround themselves with great people – we remember that daily.
What was your experience with the SBA, and how did the SBA help you?
Our first encounter with the SBA was a simple inquiry about our ideas and thought process behind opening the business. The folks at the Montana District Office reassured us that we were on track but had us perform an exercise to ensure we had thoroughly considered each variable regarding opening our own business. They provided us with a framework business plan which forced us to review each step of opening, operating and improving our business.
Several things were discovered during this process that we had never considered. They also had us focus our efforts on what we were each best at, ensuring we weren’t duplicating efforts throughout the business process. As we continue to grow we still use the SBA regularly to review the business’ progress, comparing it against national standards and considering new ideas and revenue streams.
How is the business doing now?
Over the last five years we have always shown profit and have grown from seven employees to 15. Our menu and services have expanded to include wine and beer sales, hosting evening events and offering later hours to drive more evening traffic to the business.
Great Falls, specifically the downtown community, has consistently supported us since opening day. We are now known as a staple in the community and a “go-to” location for many downtown businesses and residents.
What do you love about being business owners?
We love working with our regular customers and getting to know members of the community. It has been great to have a stable staff and working with them to grow the business so that it benefits all of us and improves everyone’s quality of life. We continue to encourage our team’s creativity and risk-taking in order to enhance their skills and customer service. We love providing a quality product to Great Falls!