New Brew In Town: Mountain Mudd

KALISPELL | Sunday, March 18, 2007

It's been open just a day, but already the name of one of Kalispell's newest businesses is mud.

More specifically, it's Mountain Mudd Espresso, the latest coffee chain to come to the Flathead Valley. Two drive-through Mountain Mudd kiosks opened Saturday: in front of LaSalle Tool and Papa John's.

With 41 drive-throughs and a number of caf/s already in the valley, some people have suggested the area is already sufficiently caffeinated.

"I think that's kind of the perception," owner Kirk Fritz said.

Fritz, however, says there is room for Mountain Mudd. In fact, he hopes to open at least four kiosks in Kalispell and one in Whitefish.

Fritz already is awaiting approval for a third drive-through. If approved, it will open in Kalispell by the end of April.

His first pair of kiosks opened on the 13th anniversary of the original Mountain Mudd drive-through, which Fritz's sister-in-law Brenda Burkhartsmeier began March 17, 1994, in Billings. It relies primarily on word-of-mouth advertising, a tactic that has proven successful thus far, Fritz said.

Since the original Mountain Mudd opened more than a decade ago, the company has exploded. There are 75 drive-throughs across the nation, 16 in Billings alone. The business is self-branded; Mountain Mudd has its own espresso, chocolate, syrup, paper products and merchandise.

Last year, the company began a partnership with Cenex Harvest States, a Fortune 200 company. Mountain Mudd runs exactly as it always has, Fritz said, except now a larger partner is involved.

The partnership was in part inspired by a Mountain Mudd kiosk that leases part of a Cenex parking lot in Billings, Fritz said. Gasoline and traditional convenience store products, such as cigarettes and beer, have taxes that make profit margins low.

"Coffee is really the only product left with profit margins," he said.

To maintain those margins, however, coffee has to remain separate from the convenience store.

"Customers tend to steer clear of c-store coffee, no matter how good it is," Fritz said.

A coffee kiosk in the parking lot, however, will attract business for other products in the store, he explained. And a convenience store parking lot is just the sort of place Mountain Mudd wants to put its kiosks.

"Our business is unique in that you're looking for space in a parking lot or on a driving route," Fritz said.

He wants to put Mountain Mudd kiosks in places where traffic can flow in and out easily. Parking lots with one main entry and exit don't work as well.

"We have to be more accessible daily, rather than just relying on shoppers." Mountain Mudd prefers to depend on that flow of traffic rather than cater to the sit-down crowd at a caf/. A caf/ means long hours, a larger staff and that person with the laptop who buys one drink and sits at a table for four hours at a time, Fritz said.

"It's very romantic," he said, "but I don't know how lucrative they are." It has taken about five months to bring Mountain Mudd to the Flathead, Fritz said. Each kiosk must be hooked up to the city's sewer system. Agreeing to landscape around the drive-throughs was another prerequisite for approval.

"We missed Thanksgiving, we missed Christmas, we missed Valentine's Day," he said, ticking them off on his fingers. "I said, ‘We are not missing St. Patrick's Day.'" It was important to Fritz, a Flathead native, to bring a nationally recognized Montana-based business to his hometown. And even though kiosks are commonplace in Kalispell, he believes Mountain Mudd fills a unique niche.

"I know this is a proven concept," he said. "I truly believe that it's something different." Commitment to quality and quick service set the business apart, he said.

"In our opinion, it's unsurpassed by any other coffee," he said.

The menu is basic, offering traditional hot and cold caffeinated drinks. There are no blended beverages and no food products.

"We've not been into fads," Fritz said. "We consistently offer the best of what people want."

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