I’m sitting with owners Heidi and Thad Reiste of Electric City Coffee, Coffee Bar & Bistro in Great Falls when Thad casually mentions that Charlie Russell left his footprint in their building. Wait, what? Thad goes on to say that this location was once an art supply store. The store owner’s daughter gave them a digital copy of a photograph where Charlie was framing one of his paintings, while standing in what is now Electric City Coffee’s kitchen.
Thad Reiste tells me their building holds magic. I’m looking around at the brick walls that display the works of local artists. Somehow, it seems fitting that this business and building came together. Creativity is alive and well under this roof, from the crafting of exceptional baked goods and desserts to the paintings surrounding me. I feel like Russell set a precedent for this space.
Heidi, originally from Indiana, would meet Thad, a Great Falls native, when they were both stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. They both retired after long careers in the Air Force. Heidi admits she wasn’t good at retirement nor being a stay-at-home mom and needed to do something. That something turned out to be the creation of a coffee shop treasured by the locals.
When the owner of the Daily Grind in Great Falls shared with Heidi she was retiring, Heidi saw the writing on the wall. The Reiste’s would end up buying the equipment and recipes from the Daily Grind and relocate to Central Avenue. Heidi spent six months with the previous owner learning the ropes of the bakery business. When I asked if she had any formal culinary training, Heidi replied, “I grew up on a farm and have been baking since I was old enough to sit on the counter.” You can’t put a price on the value of hands-on experience carried over from childhood.
Thad and Heidi opened their new eatery on Central Avenue under the name of Electric City Coffee in January 2015. Thad likes to throw out that Heidi created a monster. “It has taken six years of blood, sweat, and tears, grinding away every day side by side to make this work,” says Thad. But their monster is both successful and succulent in what comes out of the kitchen. Judging by the number of patrons stopping by for pickup orders or settling in for a cup of coffee and a pastry, the work has paid off.
Over the years, the couple has dialed in what they are best at and hired the appropriate team members to fill in the gaps. Thad declares, “I’m not a customer service guy. Putting me in front of the cash register is a big mistake. But the girls behind the counter are killer good.” Where Thad excels is making the dough. Lots of it, six days a week. It’s a mix of French, sourdough, oat, white, focaccia, and croissant dough. Then Heidi takes over with the fillings, baking and most importantly, schmoozing with the customers. Their son, Nick Stogsdill, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Napa Valley, joined the team and holds court over all that comes out of the kitchen. As a family, they are perfectly in-sync with the effort it takes to run this business.
I was curious about Nick’s lunch special – the Braised Pork Belly Bowl. Sitting on a bed of rice was braised pork belly, green onions, mushrooms, fresh jalapeño, pickled cucumbers, and braised bok choy. The dish was full of flavor and vibrant in its presentation. Nick is very inventive with his dishes, such as the Caribbean Chicken Bowl, featuring orange soy chicken, braised pineapple, tomato, and jalapeño over a bed of rice. Occasionally Nick crafts a Curry Chicken Bowl, blending coriander chicken with zucchini, carrots, roasted chickpeas, and rose hips on a bed of sun-dried tomato jasmine rice. Tuesdays always feature creative tacos.
Along with daily lunch specials, there is always homemade soups, salads, and sandwiches on the lunch menu. Paninis come in several flavors, including BBQ pork, chicken bacon ranch, Cuban, and turkey avocado, their number one seller. For that first meal of the day, options include yogurt parfaits, baked oatmeal, breakfast sandwiches, avocado toast, and burritos. In addition to the gamut of coffee drinks, using roasted beans from Montana Coffee Traders, Electric City offers tea, chai, kombucha, Italian sodas, and flavor-filled smoothies.
When asked about their most popular item, the answer is pumpkin bars. I can’t sample one, as they have sold out for the day. My good friend Gayle Fisher, who has joined me for a coffee, raves about them. “I think pumpkin is a vegetable, right, so I rationalize the bars must be good for you,” she says with a chuckle. Electric City Coffee is known for its gluten free and vegan options, including bread, muffins, cookies, bars, cakes and pies.
With COVID-19 protocols, Electric City Coffee closed the doors on March 27 and resumed business on May 4. Until the closure, they were open in the evenings for dinner, with beer and wine offerings. With the shutdown came time to rethink their priorities. When they re-opened, they went back to their foundation of serving coffee, pastries, and desserts, and focused on breakfast and lunch. They dropped the wine and beer license and ceased making dinners. “It was the best decision we made, given the current COVID-19 pandemic, to concentrate on what we do best,” says Heidi.
The vibe inside Electric City Coffee is cozy, casual, and comfortable. The wait staff is very personable, and I’m sure under their masks, sporting beautiful smiles. It won’t be my only visit to this coffee shop and bakery. I hold a great deal of admiration for this couple, having survived the challenges of COVID-19 with their business.
I like to think that Charlie Russell would have been right at home devouring a breakfast croissant and putting down a strong cup of java with his buddies at Electric City Coffee.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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