Kicking Horse Coffee began as a tiny, two-person operation in an Invermere garage in 1996. It’s since become a multi-million-dollar global business. We chat with co-founder and CEO Elana Rosenfeld about the biz of the bean.
Kicking Horse Coffee is one of the most successful business stories to come out of the Kootenays in the past 20 years. Actually, make that the past century. What began as a tiny, two-person operation in an Invermere garage in 1996 has become a multi-million-dollar global business employing 120 people. And the fact it has stayed true to its roots by roasting, serving and distributing only Fair Trade, organic coffee makes the accomplishment that much more impressive.
In 2016 Kicking Horse Coffee was purchased by Italian conglomerate Lavazza and the deal valued the company at $215 million. Co-founder Elana Rosenfeld stayed aboard as CEO and she’s been successfully maintaining the fun, “kick-ass” vibe of the marketing ever since. She’s also collected a number of accolades both for her and the company: Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” award”; Canada’s “Fairtrade Product of the Year”; most trusted coffee/tea brand in Canada; and one of the top 15 “Best Workplaces in Canada” for the past three years in a row.
Raised in Toronto, where her mother pioneered a gourmet food company in the 1970s, Rosenberg went on to study at McGill University in Montreal where a coffee culture scene was well established. After graduation, she moved to Invermere to be close to the mountains and launched a series of ventures including the Blue Dog Café, which is still around today. At one point she purchased a cappuccino machine for the café but couldn’t find decent beans in the area and had to resort to purchasing them in Calgary. That was when she and her then husband Leo Johnson came up the idea to start roasting beans locally.
Since then Elana Rosenberg has dedicated herself to her business, her two daughters and to living a balanced lifestyle by mountain biking, skiing and stand-up paddleboarding when she’s not working. We caught up with her via phone to ask about Kicking Horse Coffee and the business of coffee in the Kootenays.
Thanks for taking the time to chat. I gotta say, my parents love your coffee. They stockpile your beans. Last Christmas I discovered 8 bags in a kitchen cupboard!
That’s great! You’ll have to thank them for me.
You started over 20 years ago in your garage. How has the coffee scene in the Kootenays changed over the years?
There wasn’t a coffee scene back then! [Laughs] I moved from Montreal where we hung out in cafés so it was a bit of a culture shock to learn people didn’t know what a cappuccino was here. Things have changed a lot since those days though…I’d have to say Starbucks did a lot to pave the way in terms of education.
Why do we love coffee so much now?
‘Cause it’s a drug. [Laughs] Seriously though, I think part of it is the ritual. We don’t have a lot of those in North American society anymore. Whether it’s a private ritual like I have every morning making my own cup or the ritual of sitting down with friends and family within the community, there’s something enjoyable about it….And it’s also a community builder. It acts as a hub around which we gather to share stories about what we’ve been up to around town or in the mountains. It makes sense because the way coffee is cultivated and processed, there’s just so much human interaction involved with every step.
How does coffee play a role in mountain environments like the Kootenays?
It’s funny because when I think about it, it’s sort of the reverse for us. Mountain culture here has really fed into our brand and our style; it’s played a huge role in our coffee. It came first. We simply wouldn’t have a brand without it and it informs the way we operate. I say to our café staff that people are coming to us to interact and connect with the mountain lifestyle and that’s what we’re providing. Yes, coffee is the draw but you walk into our café and there’s this atmosphere of energy. I see it everday. My office looks over the café and I can watch the tourists. Many of them have made a pilgrimage to Kicking Horse, not just for the coffee but for the mountain experience.
We’re starting to see more speciality coffee roasters and shops selling single source beans. What impact will these small businesses have on the overall landscape?
It’s awesome! They’re providing more education, creating more interest, more choice. It helps connect people to what’s involved.
Meanwhile your business has gone from small shop to global powerhouse.
It’s amazing because this is just the way things grew. I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit and when we first started I really gravitated towards the business side of things. But we’ve always been really clear about who and what we are and that’s made the whole process seem natural.
Tell me about Lavazza.
Lavazza has been looking at us for a number of years. They’re kinda like the mecca. They’re 120 years old….and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. And they believe in our brand. It’s definitely exciting.
How would you say this deal has changed the local coffee landscape?
Hmmm. Not a lot has changed on the ground. We’re still a wonderful place to work and Invereme is a wonderful place to make a living. It’s been great to watch folks who have worked for us in the past go off and start their own thing. And maybe this will inspire more people to say, “Hey, they can do it. We can do it too.”
For more about the business of coffee in the Kootenays, read our story “Coffee and its Impact on Mountain Culture.”