GOSHEN — Every business has a set of values. For Myron Bontrager, owner of the Electric Brew in downtown Goshen, relationships are what what drives his.
He attributes the recent Business of the Year award he and his wife Dana received from Indiana Main Street to those relationships he’s cultivated with his family, his employees and the community.
“Relationships build loyalty, loyalty builds stability, stability builds success,” Bontrager said, sitting in his coffee shop Tuesday morning.
That’s what he tells his employees when they become a part of the business, and it’s something that Bontrager has practiced on every step of his venture from the moment he purchased the Brew from Brenda Hostetler in 2007.
At the time — at the age of 50— Bontrager was president of Face of the City, the organization that would morph to become Downtown Goshen Inc. He was also a pastor.
Having never owned a business, but being passionate about downtown Goshen, Bontrager took on a new career. Never tell anybody they can’t start a new career at 50, he adds.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve, and I worked really hard to come up to speed as quickly as possible,” he said. I made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot of things, had a lot of fun. And I still do all of the above.”
When he talks about relationships, Bontrager is not only talking about his with the community. It starts from the moment the coffee beans are picked in the farms around the world he does business with.
If there’s anyone who doesn’t take coffee for granted, it’s Bontrager.
In 1987 he and his family moved to Costa Rica, where they lived for a year. In the streets of San Jose, Bontrager would literally stop to smell the coffee as it was roasted in the shops.
Though fascinated as he was about making coffee, Bontrager realized how much work had to be put into the process. He once visited a friend who owned a coffee farm and helped him pick coffee for an afternoon. He describes it as one of worst experiences he’s ever had.
A year later the Bontragers moved to Ecuador, where they lived for at least five years.
“Costa Rica sort of whet my appetite for the coffee industry,” he said. “I think Ecuador gave me a glimpse of the injustice in the wages.”
So when they bought the Brew, the Bontragers started moving their business to become fair trade. Now, all of the coffee imported for the coffee shop is direct trade, meaning all the coffee bought by the importer came directly from the producer.
The idea behind fair and direct trade is that there needs to be a relationship between the buyer and seller, so there is less of a chance of one taking advantage of the other.
“As those relationships evolve and as you maintain them it makes the business a lot better,” he said. “It’s a much better cup of coffee when there’s a relationship tied to it.”
Bontrager could never run a Starbucks, he said.
“Starbucks is turning over cups of coffee, and it’s not about the relationship,” he said. “They make millions of dollars, and they’re great at what they do, but that’s not who we are. We are committed to building relationships over time.”
To Bontrager, this means he’s going to make sure to clean the bathroom thoroughly because chances are the next day someone he knows will walk into his business, he said.
That’s why he tells his employees that his is not a job only.
“We’re the thread in the tapestry of the community and these are relationships that are important, and relationships build the business, ultimately,” he said.
And those relationships change how the Brew interacts with other local businesses as well. From paying for marketing to sponsoring events and giving at fundraisers, Bontrager works with people he knows and believes in.
“When it comes to relationships, they provide opportunities,” he said. “Is this a cause I want to give money to or is it someone I believe in? I usually choose the person I believe in because there’s always good causes out there but relationships mean my life makes their life better.”
The Bontragers apply that thought to everything they do, including their moving into and running the former Daily Grind in Elkhart.
“We’re trying to make the transition from what it was to a place where it becomes a default place for people who are looking for a place to gather. We are looking at it long-term. It took us 20 years to get here (in Goshen), and so we have to be patient knowing that it’s going to take years and time to build that solid loyalty that only comes out of rubbing shoulders with the community and the clientele.”
The nomination form submitted by Downtown Goshen Inc. to Indiana Main Street says walking into “the spacious, yet intimate cafe, it feels like coming home.”
Bontrager said that’s something he’s worked on keeping over the years, but he gives all the credit to Hostetler.
“Obviously our thumbprint happens over time,” he said. “So I was very impressed and excited about the community gathering aspect where people can feel like they’re at home and they feel like they have a vested interest in the business itself, so we intentionally took what was there and moved forward.”
Through its nearly 20 years, the Brew has become more than a gathering space. Bontrager knows a number of authors who have written books at his business, and every day he finds students of all ages working on anything from school essays to dissertations.
“You know they are working on their career, their future,” he said. “I feel honored to do that. That we can provide the space to be able to do what’s needed in order to take that next step in your life.”
More importantly, Bontrager said he wants his business to be the space people seek when they need to get away from everything else.
“That’s what I want to do the rest of our lives, is to create place that makes people smile,” he said.