Off The Leaf, a popular coffeeshop that opened in 2008 on Grand Avenue, is getting ready to go big.
Besides making plans to open two new shops in Billings and four elsewhere in the country, the new owners of the business will send out a fleet of trucks and SUVs on Monday, bringing their mobile coffee bars to music festivals all across the country this summer.
Don’t picture a typical drive-up coffee kiosk. Picture a state-of-the-art compact coffee bar made of wood and steel, but with notches in the frame allowing the two pieces of each pod to be picked up with a forklift and loaded on a truck.
“We’re redefining the mobile coffee experience,” said Chief Executive Officer Greg Switzer, who has been in charge of Off The Leaf since October, together with Chief Operating Officer Ethan Kanning.
By the end of this year or the first quarter of 2016, they also plan to open new coffeeshops in downtown Billings and on the West End, and this summer they will start in on an extensive remodeling and expansion of the original Off The Leaf at 819 Grand Ave. They are also at various stages of development in opening four franchises in California, Colorado and on the Eastern Seaboard, Switzer said.
Off The Leaf was founded by Brian and DeAnn Carpenter in 2008, with the help of a group of equity partners. Switzer said Brian Carpenter called him in March 2014 to talk about a change of ownership.
Franchising was always part of the original plan, Switzer said, but Carpenter thought he, Switzer, had the skills needed to take the company big, and Carpenter was also by then devoting much of his time to the Refuge Foundation, which he founded to develop and coach “non-profit leaders.”
Four of the five original equity partners are still involved in Off The Leaf, Switzer said. Funding for the expansion has come from Stockman, First Interstate and Wells Fargo banks, as well as from investors, described by Switzer as people “we knew who believed in our business and believed in our culture.”
They also have a management team that answers to shareholders. Switzer is a graduate of Billings West High who had been working in California in medical-device distribution. He continues to live in the Sacramento area, but says he’s been spending half his time in Billings, and a lot of time in other areas where franchises are being considered.
Kanning is a graduate of Billings Senior High. He worked for City Brew for three years and from 2012 until last fall did aerospace sales for a company in Washington state.
Switzer said they were working on expansion plans and brainstorming with designers from Collaborative Design Architects, a Billings firm, early last winter. They asked themselves the question, “How are we going to serve a lot of coffee to a whole lot of people all at once?”
The answer they came up with was the mobile tour, taking their coffee to music festivals around the country. Collaborative Design created the nine “pair pods,” each one consisting of a wet pod and a dry pod for making coffee drinks. The units were designed to be of the highest quality, efficient and able to produce coffee in mass quantities.
At the festivals, Off The Leaf will set up two separate stations, each consisting of four pair pods, to serve festival-goers, with another pod used to make coffee for the musicians and festival staff. Switzer said they are ready to produce 25,000 cups of coffee a day at the festivals.
They already have contracts to work 15 festivals this summer, and Switzer said he has been contacted on a weekly basis by people wanting the mobile units to come to their events. In the near future, he said, he envisions expanding to send the mobile units to fairs, colleges and sporting events year-round.
Each pod has a foam-padded wooden box that can be lowered over the top of the unit for shipping, and the empty crate can then be used to display clothing and other goods at merchandise tables that will be set up next to each set of four pair pods.
The merchandise will be related to the My Fight campaign, which helps women in developing countries start small businesses or find work, and which now sells handmade clothing, jewelry and textiles made by some of these same women.
Off The Leaf had to hire 40 people for its mobile tour, including 30 baristas, and they came from all over the country. They’ve been in Billings since June 1, training from 9 a.m. to midnight in a warehouse on Moore Lane where the coffee pods and other gear are being assembled.
Kanning said he was in the warehouse the other night, drinking what he described as the best coffee available between Minneapolis and Seattle.
“And we were in a warehouse at midnight, in Billings, running off a generator,” he said, shaking his head.
The credit for the good coffee goes to Gary Theisen Jr., the owner of Revel Coffee Roasters, which has provided all Off The Leaf’s coffee for years. As part of the expansion, Theisen has merged his operation with the Off The Leaf and is now its “creative director of coffee.”
They also hired Cory Neal, a formally trained chef, to run the food operations. Off The Leaf opened a bakery in Laurel in November, which now provides baked goods just for the Grand Avenue store. It will expand as the business does, adding croissants, muffins, breakfast and lunch sandwiches and a variety of desserts to the Off The Leaf menu.
Off The Leaf will debut its mobile units this Saturday during the Strawberry Festival in downtown Billings, then hit the road Monday. The mobile fleet will include two 26-foot-long cargo trucks, a similarly sized refrigeration truck, six SUVs to carry workers and a big pickup truck towing a food trailer to feed the workers.
This summer, work will begin on remodeling the original shop, increasing available seating from 80 to 115 and adding a drive-through lane and corporate offices. The store will get a new look using reclaimed wood, steel and a more modern feel, similar to that of the mobile units.
The local expansions, with the new stores, will create another 50 jobs, according to the partners.
The whole expansion plan is being done under the slogan Wake the World, promoting Wake, the citrus-berry energy drink they developed, and calling attention, according to an Off The Leaf press release, “to things that matter in people’s live and activating a culture of generosity.”
Off The Leaf has always kept its eyes on a bigger prize than profits, stemming from Brian Carpenter’s work as a youth minister at Faith Chapel. As Switzer put it, “Off The Leaf was originally envisioned as a place where people would love to go and where they would be loved.”
“We get asked if we’re ‘the Christian coffeeshop,’” Switzer said. It’s not the kind of question he would want to deny, he said, but the explanation is a little more nuanced.
After thinking about it for a bit, he added, “We’re not a faith-based company. We’re a company based on our faith.”
No one overtly pushes religion on customers, he said, “but if they recognize where our hearts are, that’s great.”
Details: A lot of local talent has gone into the creation of the new mobile units. In addition to the businesses already named, Todd Clippinger’s American Craftsman Workshop created the wooden fronts and crate-lids for the coffee counters, and Melissa Burns of Girlwood did the woodburning for the logos and other messaging. 7K Fabrication and Welding did all the metal work on the mobile units.