The rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee dances through the air. The espresso machine is working hard, heating up and frothing milk to go into various espresso beverages. Behind the scenes stands a business owner with years of passion that is served up in every cup of joe.
Welcome to the life of Brad Lepper, president and founding partner of Stone Bru Coffee Company in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s an ambitious dreamer who has embarked on an extraordinary journey to open a small business. It began with an opportunity born out of the unlikely combination of fine espresso and laundry. Today, Stone Bru is a coffee roaster, retailer and wholesale supplier of certified organic coffees.
Brad’s venture is about more than just the coffee; it’s about the path he forged as a small business owner with the help of his business partners and Northwest Bank.
From Music Notes to Coffee Tasting Notes
Brad had an unconventional childhood. When he was 7 years old, Brad and his family began to travel across the country, singing at churches and county fairs.
“We went full Partridge Family-style traveling across the country and singing,” said Brad. “I learned quickly how to communicate with people from all different walks of life, which has helped me in my career as an entrepreneur.”
After Brad turned 18, he moved to Nashville to take his shot at a career in the music business. After seeing the political nature of show business, he changed the direction of his career and started down the path of real estate and small business investment.
“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs,” said Brad. “My dad had an excavating business. My grandparents were farmers. All my uncles own businesses. I wanted to pave my path as a small business owner.
“I was interested in real estate and found a location that had been a former fast-food restaurant,” he continued. “I thought it would be a perfect spot to renovate into a laundromat, but laundromats have no need for a drive thru. Then my aunt, who owned a coffee shop in Lincoln, suggested we should look into starting our own café.”
Even though Brad didn’t have any experience in the coffee industry — and he didn’t drink much coffee at the time — he formed a partnership with Jeff Boonstra and Robby Jennings to open the new business. They met Nick Topf, a sales rep from a local roasting company, who made Brad his first latte. After that meeting, he was hooked on the idea of starting a coffee shop. The idea for Stone Bru was born, and they opened their first location in Sioux City in December 2015.
“We knew we wanted to serve organic coffee, so we wanted an earthy name,” said Brad. “And our first location was on Stone and Gordon Drive, so ‘Stone’ seemed to be an obvious choice. My wife had the idea of spelling it ‘Bru’ and having the accent over the ‘u.’ It looks like a vapor coming off the top of a coffee cup.”
Roasting Their Way to Success by Adding New Locations
In 2019, the company shifted their business operations and began roasting their own coffee. They decided to form a partnership with Nick to handle the coffee side of the business and shifted to roasting their own coffee “in-house.” They also began distributing many of the coffee products they used in their café such as Torani, Hugo Tea, and Mavam Espresso Machines.
At the end of 2020, Stone Bru entered a new era as a company. The roasting and wholesale division of the company was on pace to surpass the total revenue generated by the retail café and needed more space. They purchased an old plumbing warehouse in downtown Sioux City and began renovations on the 22,000-square-foot space. Now it’s home to a roasting facility, coffee bar, warehouse, espresso equipment repair shop and corporate offices.
“When we started the business, we thought it would just be one drive-through, but we fell in love with the art and science of coffee. Today, we have two separate divisions of the company: our retail side and roasting/wholesale side. We had a vision and found the capital to turn our idea into something that not only provides a living for us, but also a service to the community.”
Creating a Perfect Blend With Northwest Bank
For more than 10 years, Brad has been working with Northwest Bank in various capacities. In the early years of his business, he met Brent Plantage, commercial banker, VP, to discuss commercial loans and they have maintained a great relationship since.
“When I first met Brent, I was impressed with how receptive he was and helpful in answering my newbie questions,” said Brad. “Since then, we’ve done a lot of business together over the years, including loans for Stone Bru. I appreciate the small-town banking relationship that I get from Brent and the Northwest Bank team.”
Brad also regularly uses Northwest Bank’s banking services, including business online to check his accounts at any time.
“When it comes to online banking, I prefer Northwest Bank’s platform,” said Brad. “The app is easy to use and is great for making transfers.”
Savoring the Future
Brad’s goal is to continue to grow the retail and wholesale sides of the business. He’s excited to work with Northwest Bank on future expansion opportunities.
“Our goal is to continue to grow the retail portion of the business, telling our story and providing a quality product in the community,” said Brad. “On the wholesale side, we want to keep building relationships with other entrepreneurs and helping them turn their dreams into profitable ventures. The wholesale company has been doubling our business every year, so we’re growing quickly and want to keep chasing this momentum.”
As for his personal goals, Brad said he’s looking forward to the next best thing.
“It’s a lifelong pursuit to build a career that not only makes money, but it adds value to life. That’s what Stone Bru is to me. But, my goal is to never retire and keep finding new things that will morph and change over time. There’s no dollar amount or end date in mind.”
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