IF YOU CAN’T SELL IT, INVITE 73 OF YOUR CLOSEST FRIENDS AND GIVE IT AWAY
Meanwhile, Bishop faced another logistical hurdle. “What ensued was some different turns that I hadn’t expected on the regulatory standpoint,” Bishop says. The regulatory standpoint involved acquiring a vendor permit to sell coffee on public land. All of the land Bishop had eyed for his fledgling business is managed by a five-agency entity called Ridge to Rivers, composed of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Fish and Game, Ada County, and the city of Boise. Since the majority of locations Bishop had picked out were on BLM land, he would need the approval of Ridge to Rivers to sell his coffee. Ultimately, the BLM decided not to grant Bishop a vendor permit.
The back-and-forth took months, further delaying Bishop’s go-to-market timing. Upon receiving the final decision, he delved into Forest Service regulations and found a loophole. If he capped his service to less than 75 people, including himself, and if he served for free, he wouldn’t need a permit. “Basically I would be considered a non-commercial entity,” Bishop says. He created a social media campaign around #73forFree and planned to take to the hills with Richard and coffee for the first time on the last weekend of May.
THE FIRST-EVER MULE-SIDE COFFEE SERVICE
All the while, Hovey watched from afar. During a bicycle trip in South America, she stumbled upon a blog post from Bishop while cruising Facebook. Bishop titled the post “Meet Richard the Mule,” and Hovey was captivated. She spent half an hour waiting for the page to load on dial-up Internet just so she could learn what her fellow Naval Academy grad was up to. After she read it, she reached out to Bishop. Hovey wanted in. When she returned to the U.S. in July she would move to Boise and help with Bishop’s Café Mulé.
When Bishop packed the 200 pounds more than 500 feet in elevation to his initial location in May, he spoke with more than 50 people and gave out more than 30 cups of free coffee. “That was never the model I envisioned,” he says. “I always envisioned an exchange and a coffee shop-type thing where people hike up and there is this cool venue but they pay for their coffee.”
But it worked. Soon there was a cult following and people were following Bishop and Café Mulé on social media to find them on Saturday mornings. He even gained the support of bordering land owners to set up and sell coffee on the private land over which the trails cross. One of his supporters was Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little. But largely because of the unique community and following he’d built, Bishop chose to continue to serve for free.
COMMERCIAL KITCHEN SPACE WITH A SIDE OF LEFTOVER DONUTS
After six weekends of serving hot coffee, Bishop and Hovey created their cold-brew batch. The Boise foothills can get scorching in the summer. No one coated in sweat and dirt wants a steaming cup of joe. Switching to cold brew created another hitch. Since it’s a relatively new product, Hovey says, there are no best practices for gaining FDA certification.
Growing pains continue. They’ve received no investments, and according to an Idaho Statesman article from early this year, each Saturday costs the team at least $50 to operate. For now, they are selling beans that are sourced from four local roasters, and apparel. They also have a specialty cocktail at 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend, Oregon. More importantly, the duo has been able to trade cold-brew assistance for retail kitchen space.
Guru Donuts is an artisanal donut shop and local favorite in downtown Boise. Bishop and Hovey are helping the shop develop a cold brew and in exchange are getting a “whole corner” of the kitchen, three compartment sinks, and “all the leftover donuts” they can handle. “It is those types of relationships that are awesome and really essential when you’re at our size and place in the market,” Bishop explains. According to Bishop, the bank account “stays steady most months.” They’ve not yet become profitable.
PARALLELS BETWEEN MILITARY EXPERIENCE AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
For the two former military officers, entrepreneurship parallels some of their early assignments. They often had no idea how to accomplish an assignment while guiding a small team. “If I didn’t know something, I was charged with figuring it out,” Bishop says. “And that’s what I feel like the day-in and day-out is now.”
As for the MBA, Bishop says the softer skills he learned are most beneficial to him now. And the harder skills will hopefully become increasingly important as they grow. “The harder skills I got are really great background for communicating with people who are further ahead than us,” Bishop says. “And they are also great background for plotting where we want to be and waypoints in our future.”
Even if Café Mulé ends up being a bust, the two say they’ve already learned a lot. And one of those things is that they both are keen on entrepreneurship.
“I think every venture is an opportunity to learn and grow,” Hovey says.