Elana Rosenfeld co-founded Kicking Horse Coffee in Invermere, B.C., roasting coffee in her garage in 1996. The company was well ahead of the curve by selling premium beans just as Starbucks was entering Canada and raising expectations for coffee drinkers. Cheeky marketing helped the brand gain traction on grocery store shelves. Last May, Italian coffee giant Lavazza bought an 80-per-cent stake in Kicking Horse, valuing the company at $215-million. Still based in Invermere, Ms. Rosenfeld remains at the helm.
I grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Toronto. My mom was actually in the gourmet-food business. She started in the early ‘70s, and opened up a gourmet-food store on Bloor Street across from Holt Renfrew. Then they went into manufacturing, selling to gourmet-gift stores in the U.S., Canada, even over to Europe.
In British Columbia, Invermere is a very beautiful place. When you move to a small town, you really have to make it for yourself. The jobs aren’t provided.
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We started with a fruit stand. Then we bought an existing smoothie bar and cafe. And then I tried to figure out what our area needed. We didn’t have a coffee roaster so we thought we’d give it a go.
Very early on we saw the momentum and the potential around our product. People were really connecting to our brand and the quality of the coffee. We introduced whole-bean coffee when there wasn’t any, or very little in the marketplace, and organic and fair-trade coffee, which there wasn’t any in the marketplace.
Making the product organic and fair trade was really a no-brainer.
I did not go to business school. I was a religious-studies major and women’s-studies minor. Really, my whole take on business is ethics and values and also creating the kind of world I want to see.
So it wasn’t really a question of price. It was just a question of it being the right thing to do. I like to buy organic. At the time, I had a garden and I wouldn’t use herbicides and pesticides, so why would I do that in my business?
The U.S. market is really quite different than the Canadian market. It’s like going to six or seven different countries and each region is vastly different. It’s just a much more complicated maze and a different distribution platform. It’s expensive to do business in the U.S. from Canada, so you need to be prepared to make that investment.
It was definitely a big shift for our organization [when I split up with my husband/co-founder Leo Johnson]. It wasn’t a negative impact, but it certainly stalled progress for a short time while we had to figure out our next move. And then we brought in an equity investor, and that was definitely a great partnership that we had for five years. It moved the business from an entrepreneurial stage into a more structured, organizational phase.
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When the Lavazza deal was announced, the reaction in town was pretty funny. I remember walking around and I heard ‘ciao bella,’ ‘gratzie,’ ‘buongiorno.’ Lavazza is a very well-known and respected brand. It’s been around since 1895. There was a fun curiosity to what that Italian element will bring to Kicking Horse and to our community.
My role hasn’t changed too much so far. Although we share many similarities in our philosophies, our brand is very different than the Lavazza brand. Our marketplace is a lot different. We plan on learning from each other, and Kicking Horse Coffee can benefit from its scale and expertise. I’ve started Italian lessons and I’ll be spending more time in Italy.
We still have a lot of work to do in North America. The U.S. market is still doing very well, but there’s still a ton of opportunity. Believe it or not, we still have a lot of work to do in Canada. There is still a lot of growth opportunity. Lavazza is in 90 different countries around the world and we are looking at those potential opportunities and seeing where our brand would be a good fit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Elana Rosenfeld is speaking at The 2018 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit, where Canada’s top entrepreneurs share their strategies for success. Full lineup and early bird tickets available at tgam.ca/SBS18.