The downtown Billings coffee boom just keeps rolling along.
Lenny and Jaxi Howes are busy remodeling a space at 2712 Second Ave. N. into Ebon Coffee Collective, a coffee shop and bakery that they hope to have open early in March.
The Howes are natives of Helena who’ve been living in Billings since 2010. They both have lots of experience in the coffee business and had been thinking of opening their own coffee shop for nearly a decade.
“I actually hired Lenny for his first coffee job,” Jaxi said, back at Morning Light Coffee Roasters in Helena. They both worked there and then at two other coffee shops in Helena, including the Coffee Spot, where Jaxi started her career as a baker.
She gained more experience after they moved to Billings, where she worked the night shift as a baker for Joanie Swords at Harper and Madison. Lenny, meanwhile, found work as a barista and later as a trainer at Off the Leaf, which Jaxi described as the first serious coffee shop in Montana.
She said she learned a lot about baking from Joanie, but the real lesson for both of them was watching two locally owned businesses—Off the Leaf and Harper & Madison—become successful without compromising on quality.
They began thinking in earnest about opening their own place about a year ago. They wanted to be downtown, to take advantage of the foot traffic and to be part of the increasingly vibrant scene, but they looked at a few locations outside the downtown, too.
Then their friend, Ryan Kabeary—an alum of Off the Leaf now managing another downtown business, the Art House Cinema & Pub—spotted the vacant storefront just south of City Hall on Second Avenue.
The space, with big picture windows out front, a large bank of windows on the alley and an upper-deck seating area, had been a coffee shop for at least 25 years. Building owner Bill Honaker, who also owns Walkers Grill, said the first coffee shop there, Café Jones, opened in 1991, when Todd’s Plantation was the only other real coffee shop downtown.
It later became Paula’s Edibles and kept that name through two owners, then most recently was Mad Cupcakes, which closed late in 2015.
Jaxi said she has no doubts that downtown Billings can support all the new coffee shops and the one established business, Rock Creek Coffee Roasters at Broadway and Second Avenue.
In cities like San Francisco, she said, there might be three or four coffee shops a block apart, and locals like to frequent all of them. Billings, she said, “is not tapped out by any means.”
The Howes, who have two sons, ages 3 and 1, are getting a lot of help with the renovation from their friend, John Beal. When Beal heard they were going to open a coffee shop, he asked if he could work for them after it opened.
“We said, ‘What if we let you work your way into a job here?” Lenny said, and Beal’s been at it ever since, building countertops, refinishing floors and doing other construction work. One thing they won’t change is the copper-colored pressed-tin ceiling in the front of the space.
For the rest, they’re using recycled or repurposed materials and furnishings as much as they can, which includes building counter tops out of salvaged barn wood.
If you’re wondering about that name, Ebon is a contraction of “ebony,” another word for “black,” as in black coffee. It’s most commonly seen as a poetic contraction or as a word handy in crossword puzzles.
“So it’s a real word, but it’s not very common,” Lenny said.
They’re calling the store Ebon Coffee Collective because they plan to use one coffee roasted in Montana and two national roasts. To start, they plan to use coffee from Little Red Wagon, a roaster in Bozeman, as well as some from Gary Theisen’s Revel Coffee Roasters in Billings.
For a national supplier, they have so far settled on just one: Heart Coffee Roasters out of Seattle.
Jaxi plans to put in an oven and bake on the premises, with an emphasis on gluten-free and dairy-free treats. She said she has always spent time around people with dietary restrictions and “I think they deserve really yummy cookies.”
She also plans to bake scones and muffins, and to offer things like avocado toast at breakfast time. She won’t have that many products, though, because the emphasis will be on coffee, about which they are both passionate, rather than on food.
The Howes did some online crowd-funding and managed to raise $4,000, putting up their own money for the balance. One innovation they will introduce is the use of Mason jars rather than paper go-cups.
Patrons can take the jars with them and bring them back for refills, and after 10 or 12 refills they’ll get a free drink. Hours will be 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with limited hours on Sunday and closed on Monday.
As for the other coffee shops under construction, MoAv has been having some delays with renovation and is now looking to open in late March or early April, while Annex Coffeehouse and Bakery is shooting for sometime in April.