It’s a spectacular late-September morning somewhere on a swath of national forest land in the foothills outside of Boise, Idaho. Mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers stream over the dirt single-track trails at varying speeds. And then there’s Matt Bishop, Andrea Hovey, and Richard. Bishop wears a cowboy hat, chaps, and an apron. He also boasts an MBA from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. Hovey dons a fedora and a blue athletic shirt. And Richard is a mule. Combined, they are Café Mulé — a trailside coffee operation that has quickly earned a following of enthusiastic outdoor enthusiasts.
Since May, Bishop and Richard have been transporting a makeshift coffee station to different points on Boise’s extensive trail system. Later in the summer, Hovey joined them. Trailside mule-served cold brew is an incredibly popular piece of their fledgling coffee venture that’s currently meandering past Food and Drug Administration hurdles. Because while “mule-side coffee” is certainly unique and intriguing, both Hovey and Bishop know handing out free coffee isn’t enough to sustain a business — they need to get their product into local stores.
“In a way, we built our business model around a cool venue that we offer,” Bishop, 35, tells Poets&Quants. “But we know that we can’t scale and monetize mule-side coffee.”
Indeed. But for the two, it’s a start. And what they’ve gone through in the past eight months or so is an important lesson in nimbleness and ingenuity — bootstrapping a business off the ground, Idaho-style.
FORMER MILITARY OFFICERS TURNED ENTREPRENEURS
Bishop and Hovey first met at the Naval Academy. Bishop was courting his now-wife, who lived on the same floor as Hovey. After graduating in 2003, the two remained acquaintances and Facebook friends while Hovey went into the Navy and Bishop the Marine Corps. The two wouldn’t meet again until this past summer in Boise.
In 2008, Bishop was finishing his time with the Marines and, “like a lot of younger military officers,” didn’t really know what to do next. So he began applying for MBA programs. “An MBA seemed pretty awesome. And it was,” he says. Bishop’s wife, also a Marine Corps officer, took a position in Washington, D.C., so he ended up choosing McDonough over a few other options.
Almost instantly, Bishop was impressed by his classmates’ networking prowess. “It was cool to go to an MBA program where I was with a lot of people who were highly driven,” he says. “And they really understood networking, which to me was really foreign.” While the military helped build his leadership chops, networking was a different beast. “I was in this institution that gave me great leadership experience but I was detached a lot from civilian life and the corporate world,” he says.
ENTER RICHARD THE MULE
When graduation came around in 2010, Bishop took a gig as a senior consultant at Deloitte. But it was short-lived. He missed the military aspect of his life and soon took a commission as an Army officer. The position went so well, Bishop ended up on a 22-month term of active duty. Then, in 2013, his wife was accepted to a physician’s assistant program and the two move their three young children from the East Coast to Boise.
Once settled in Boise, Bishop began taking his children — all under the age of 5 — on daily hikes in the Boise foothills. The area’s flowing trail system is robust, stretching from downtown up into the nearby Sawtooth Mountains. Almost daily, Bishop would take his children up the trails while his wife was in school. On those hikes, he noticed something: Each time he went out, he wished he had a cup of coffee.
Around that time, Bishop began experimenting with some entrepreneurial activities like organizing a backcountry foot race. But it was the trail-side coffee idea that continued to invade Bishop’s mind-space. “I was looking at different event models I could do and mule-side coffee seemed like a cool idea that came to me,” he says. He spoke with community members and friends and received consistently positive feedback. But there was an initial, and substantial, hurdle. How would he huff up miles of trail — with significant gains in elevation — with the materials needed to serve coffee?
The answer? Mule power. “A mule seemed to be the thing that really fit the character of this area,” Bishop says.
So in December of 2015, Bishop enlisted the help of a “real mule guy” to help him find a mule. And that’s how he found Richard. “Richard was sold to us on some less than honest terms,” Bishop says, laughing. “You know; horse trading is not known to be an honest industry.” The main issue was Richard’s age, which is important considering the mule’s main responsibility would be carrying about 200 pounds of coffee supplies. The previous owner said Richard was 13; Bishop’s mule guy said closer to 20. “But I really love Richard. He’s got such a sweet temperament,” Bishop says. And a sweet temperament is essential for a job that would require lots of interaction with people, horses, and dogs. So he bought Richard on a two-week trial contract. Richard — later confirmed by a veterinarian to be closer to 20 — passed the test.