10 Questions With John Machacek: Thunder Coffee

Written by: John Machacek

John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past nine years. He knows their ups, their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for the Co-Founders of Thunder Coffee, Dexter Dutton, Skyler Dutton and Nicole Dutton.

1. Will you please tell us your Thunder Coffee elevator pitch?

Thunder Coffee is a specialty coffee shop and coffee roasting company dedicated to serving exceptional coffee and providing extraordinary experiences. Community is our priority, and coffee is our passion.

2. You started as a mobile coffee shop before opening your coffee shop. Was this part of the game plan from the start?

Skyler: Operating as a mobile unit was not part of the game plan. We had originally wanted to start a brick-and-mortar location. As we began forecasting how much upfront capital we needed, we quickly realized that we weren’t equipped to open a brick and mortar. Around the same time, I was working full-time for a different company and was spending a lot of time on the road. So, I spent a good amount of time listening to business podcasts. One day I heard a self-described serial entrepreneur answer the question, “what is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?” This person answered by using the analogy of building a large expensive warship versus building a canoe. In his opinion and experience, he sees new entrepreneurs spending a lot of time, energy and money into building this extravagant ship with all the bells and whistles without ever taking the time to see if it will even function. His position was that instead, entrepreneurs should build canoes. They are small, cost-effective and agile. Plus, you can send out multiple canoes and see which perform best, allowing you to make an informed decision before building a big expensive ship. I pulled over as quickly as I could and called Dexter to pitch him on the idea of bailing on the brick-and-mortar temporarily and operating a mobile coffee cart instead. Making this initial pivot allowed us to get to market much faster and allowed us to start building relationships sooner.

3. So, then how and when did you decide on opening your coffee shop in the newly developed Sheyenne Street corridor in downtown West Fargo?

In the early months of 2019, we had already been actively searching for a place to call home for Thunder. We saw a lot of properties and none of them seemed to be exactly what we were looking for. We were also working closely with Steve Dusek at Dakota Business Lending. Many of the properties we had been interested in didn’t quite match anything he was interested in either. Steve eventually connected us with EPIC Management and the City of West Fargo because he was made aware that the city of West Fargo had an enterprise grant available for businesses on Sheyenne Street and EPIC was constructing a new building that might be a good fit for us. We went and looked at prospective spaces that EPIC had available and were excited about all of the new developments that had happened on this section of Sheyenne Street. We could see the potential that this area has for future development, and we wanted to be involved. On top of all that, one of the spaces had large, beautiful windows and checked several other boxes that we had, so we decided to apply for the Enterprise Grant and move forward with pursuing the space. We ended up being awarded the grant and have now called 300 Sheyenne Street Suite 190 home for the past two years.

4. On top of your move into the coffee shop stage, you’ve also added coffee bean roasting into your business model. Why did you decide to get into roasting and how has it been going?

Dexter: Roasting coffee has been a dream of mine since starting to work in coffee over 7 years ago, but always seemed out of reach. During the onset of the pandemic, we knew we needed to look into additional revenue streams, and roasting seemed like the natural next step. We bought a small 250- gram roaster, and I proceeded to burn the life out of the first 30 or so pounds of coffee I touched. I learned a lot of what not to do and I know I’m a much better roaster thanks to all the mistakes I made when starting. Once I dialed in some of my skills on the 250g machine, we started selling small bags of coffee, which got out of hand quickly. I was roasting 7-10 hours a day on that machine just to keep up. We knew we needed to up our volume but couldn’t quite justify the leap to purchase our own machine yet. We asked another local roaster if they would mind us renting some time on their machine, to which they graciously agreed. Roasting on their machine gave me a chance to test out larger batches, expand our offerings and learn how to operate a “big boy roaster.”

In September of 2020 we finally got our hands on our own Mill City 6k Natural Gas Roaster which can roast up to six kilograms of coffee at a time. Learning to build the roasting program has been such an exciting challenge. It’s an entirely different model than catering events or even operating a brick-and-mortar cafe.

The love that the FM area has shown us, as well as the coffee we have been making, has made all the trials of building a roasting program so extremely worth it, not only in the business sense, but also in how we can connect our products that come from around the globe to our friends and patrons in the Fargo Moorhead region and beyond.

5. The specialty and craft coffee scene has really blossomed in the Fargo-Moorhead area. What are your views on this scene from being on the inside of it?

Dexter: I fell in love with specialty coffee thanks to the folks in Oklahoma City that had been working in coffee since the late 90s. The specialty scene in OKC really had its legs under it and gave me the chance to learn from some really wise and kind individuals. What really excites me about the Fargo Moorhead specialty coffee scene is just how young it really is. Here we have a handful of really great shops that are roasting delicious coffees and serving great drinks, but there is so much room for more great hospitality, specialty roasters and cafes. It almost seems that every day we are hearing people that say “I didn’t know coffee could taste this good,” or that are asking us questions on how to brew better coffee at home. Conversations that tell me that the FM area has yet to experience the coffee boom that other cities have gone through. I’m excited about our future as there are a ton of potential customers around town that just don’t know businesses like ours exist yet.

6. One thing that makes Thunder Coffee stand out to me is your genuine friendliness and your community-minded persona. It doesn’t surprise me that people go out of their way to come visit your shop. Is there intentionality to any of this?

We absolutely are intentional about treating our community well. On one of our windows, we’ve put, in large letters, “Community. Driven. Coffee.” This phrase serves as a mission statement of sorts and, for us, as our mission starts with community. From the beginning, we’ve set out to offer exceptional experiences to our customers, and to us, that starts with a positive experience for the customer. Whether it’s a friendly hello when you enter our store, a goodbye when you leave or righting a wrong on an order, we want our customers to feel welcome, valued and seen. We’ve been fortunate enough to build a team of like-minded and customer-focused people. We seek out those traits in our interview process and what we’ve found is that our team doesn’t need a lot of coaching in customer service. Instead, we get to just tell our team to be authentic in their interactions with customers. Customer service aside, we’ve also been fortunate to really lean into community involvement. A few times per year we find ways to support other small businesses and nonprofits either by promoting them in our shop, raising money or raising awareness for their cause. We do this because we feel like it helps build a sense of community and belonging that we want to see.

7. Going into this, and through this, you were not only new entrepreneurs but also family members (Husband, Wife, Brother), and at times balancing side jobs. What are some practical operational things you’ve learned?

Skyler: The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I know I would have never made it to where we are today without Dexter, Nicole and the rest of our team. The initial days of Nicole, Dex and I doing all the things and wearing all the hats were chaotic and full of valuable lessons, but lately, things have fallen into a nice rhythm for us since we’ve been able to place people into the right roles. Like Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great, it’s not enough to have the right people on your bus, you have to have them in the right seat as well. For me personally, I’ve had to make adjustments to my communication style. I’m not always an effective communicator, but I realized it’s an area I needed to improve to build the culture we wanted and to keep relationships healthy.

Dex: The mindset shift from college student to college dropout to entrepreneur was a whirlwind of identity, personal life and financial crisis all in one that nothing on this earth could have prepared me for. The most practical thing I have learned over the past five years has been to get what needs to be done, done. Thankfully, I had Skyler and Nicole alongside me to help reinforce that simple lesson over and over again. They are both some of the hardest-working people I know, and there is no way we would be doing what we are now without them.

Nicole: I think it was important for us to define what was important to each of us and figure out what we wanted for Thunder Coffee at an early stage. By creating an identity for Thunder Coffee, we were able to focus and create our mission and vision. Because none of us had been business owners before we had to do a little research. We looked at what other coffee companies were doing, asked questions to local resources in our own entrepreneurial ecosystem and received a great deal of support and guidance. Ultimately, we had to decide what we wanted to create with Thunder Coffee and get behind that vision together, as a team.

8. What lies ahead for Thunder Coffee in the near future?

We have a few exciting things in the works that will be really fun to announce soon. Until then, folks can always find us at our West Fargo Cafe, and still count on seeing us around town at mobile events like the Red River Market and continuing to try and grow our wholesale business both locally and beyond. We’ve got a fun project coming up with the Dakota Medical Foundation and Giving Hearts Day which we will announce soon!

9. If you could go back in time to yourselves from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?

Nicole: Don’t be afraid to fail, because it’s inevitable that you will. No one gets it all right the first, the second or even the third sometimes! Build in backups and redundancies after each failure. Learn from them, adapt and do something different next time. Then, share with your other entrepreneur friends and you can all commiserate, laugh and reminisce on all the tough times and how far you’ve come.

Trust your gut. pray, meditate and search inside yourself when trying to figure out the right direction for the business. Too many times we talk about ideas with others and work to justify strategies in spreadsheets, but it’s more important to know within your core what to do. My brother Nathan, who also owns his own business, gave me that advice and it bears repeating. He told us, “If you have a great idea, just do it. Don’t let anyone (including yourself) talk you out of it.”

Dex: The best way to be great at something is to be okay with being really bad at it to begin with. My biggest fear when I started roasting was making “bad” coffee. I had no textbook to follow and had to figure out how to roast “good” coffee on my own, and that fear kept me using one or two techniques that I thought worked really well at the time. It took me a while to realize the only way I could improve my roasting was to step out of my comfort zone and be okay with the fact that a new idea might not work. After embracing that, I feel like I’ve improved greatly as a roaster and am now confidently putting out much better tasting and consistent coffees, all because I wasn’t afraid for them to not work out.

10. What can we do as a community to help Thunder Coffee succeed?

The easiest way is to help us grow our reach by following us on social media (IG @thunder.coffee FB @thundercoffeefargo) and sharing our content or events. Another way to help us is to support locally owned coffee shops. There are so many unique shops to get a great drink, have a meeting and connect with people. We also have some great local roasters for your at-home coffee. We love to see our small business community thriving and think it’s great to see people choosing to support not only us, but other locally owned coffee shops versus supporting a larger corporate store.

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