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Small-town success Kicking Horse coffee brews bold move to the U.S.

Elana Rosenfeld, CEO of Kicking Horse Coffee, attributes much of the brand’s success to its location in Invermere, B.C.

Stephanie Van de Kemp

This is where The Hippie Dream ended up.

High mountain ranges on both sides, the Columbia River in the valley below as it begins its long journey to the Pacific Ocean – and a 45-year-old woman who stands, weeping, as a parade of young people, heading out into the real world, passes by.

They do things differently in little Invermere. Each June, the local paper runs individual photographs of every graduate of the high school. The graduates then gather and parade down the main drag while the entire town turns out to cheer their success.

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This year the woman in tears – "And I didn't even have a kid in the parade," she admits – had gifts for each graduate heading out: a T-shirt, a travelling mug, and a bag of newly roasted coffee beans created, and named, especially for the occasion: "Kick Ass" coffee.

Elana Rosenfeld is the chief executive officer of Kicking Horse Coffee, a small-town success story that is all about getting ahead while staying right where you are.

The story wasn't intended to end up in a 60,000-square-foot plant at the edge of town, a growing business with 70 employees and distribution across the country and into the United States. The privately held company doesn't reveal its financials, but last year Kicking Horse roasted three-million pounds of coffee and expects this year to reach 3.4-million pounds.

The story was supposed to be about living the dream. Back in the early 1990s, Ms. Rosenfeld and her partner Leo Johnson headed west, stopping in Jasper to purchase a 1972 orange Volkswagen Westfalia, the classic hippie wheels. She had a degree in religious studies, he in sociology and anthropology, with no plans to use any of it.

"I had a van," she says. "I had a dream of living in a nice little cabin out in the woods. No electricity. No running water. We'd plant a garden …"

They fell in love with Invermere, a far cry from the Toronto she'd grown up in or the Montreal they'd left behind after university. They used what money they had to buy a small acreage and put up a rustic cabin and garage.

To make ends meet, they took jobs waiting and cooking and eventually took over a small café, which they later sold with the idea that they would go into the coffee business.

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"What are you two schmucks going to do," asked Elena's mother, Carol, "sell coffee out of your garage?"

Turns out that was exactly what they planned to do. And Carol Rosenfeld, who had always wanted her daughter to become a chiropractor, should not have been so surprised. After all, she had herself founded a successful gourmet food business in Toronto.

"I'm also from the city," Elena Rosenfeld says. "I grew up in an entrepreneurial family and I love business. I get turned on by business."

The business they chose was to roast and sell fair trade organic coffee. The name they chose was Rocky Mountain Roasters, only to discover it was already taken. A friend suggested Kicking Horse – after the famous mountain pass – and, 18 years later, the little garage operation has evolved into the town's largest and most notable business.

They believed there was an in-store market for a premium coffee product and there was. They began supplying Thrifty Foods, a Western chain, and soon spread to major supermarkets across the country.

A few years ago, the two founding partners parted ways. Ms. Rosenfeld would stay on running the coffee operation, but she needed a financial partner if the business was going to grow. Nearly a dozen international groups came calling, all intrigued by the strong brand recognition of this small-town coffee with the crazy names: Kick Ass, Half Ass, Grizzly Claw, Hoodoo Jo – even one named after the size of one employee's truck engine, 454 Horse Power.

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The deep-pocketed partner that came on board, Branch Brook Holdings, is banking on Kicking Horse being as successful in the U.S. as it has proved to be in Canada.

Given that the coffee beans come from places like Nicaragua, the shipping takes place from Vancouver and the targeted markets are in eastern centres like Montreal and New York, the question invariably arises as to why this company that began in such a small town stays in the small town.

"Are there challenges? You bet," says Chris Wrazej, Kicking Horse's chief operating officer. "Hauling green beans in the middle of winter, having rail and trucks down. But it's all about being a part of this particular success – and Invermere has played a big part in making Kicking Horse successful.

"You just have to take a look around. This community has been a great part of the success of this business working. When we talked to the partners, we made it clear it was not a case of just taking the name and moving it to Vancouver or moving it to Calgary. What made us successful was this place."

Mr. Wrazej had spent 15 years in the resort business – from Whistler to Mont Tremblant – when he decided to shift to this little company that could.

"These guys were motivated," he says of Ms. Rosenfeld and Mr. Johnson. "It wasn't about the dollars. It was always about putting together a great product and it was about the people. And coming from a human resources background as I do, this job was like winning the lottery."

It is certainly a unique place to work. Employees can have flexible hours. They get daily workout breaks. Management holds regular catered meetings. They periodically get "fun days" to head off skiing or kayaking. There is a hostess in the lunch room, easy chairs inside, Muskoka chairs outside – and they are in the process of installing a library.

"I like people to feel they are loved and nourished," Ms. Rosenfeld says. "That's what motivates me: to look at the jobs we created by coming here, the opportunities we created for ourselves and now the opportunities for our town, our people."

In her opinion, Kicking Horse's location is every bit as important to the business's success as the quality of the product and the catchy brand names.

"People who choose to live here want to live here," she says. "There's a different mentality, and it certainly shows up at the workplace. We have a very passionate, motivated team who really appreciate their jobs, appreciate that they can live here and have a great work environment and opportunities.

"There are advantages to staying in Invermere. There's something definitely special here."

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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