Coal worker turns hobby into side hustle and energized small business


Travis Helfrich, owner of Coal Country Coffee, works in the coal yard of Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Leland Olds Station near Stanton, where he’s been employed for 13 years. Photos by NDAREC/Liza Kessel

coffee beans

“Not many people get mad at the guy making coffee,” Travis Helfrich jokes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone being mad at a guy like Helfrich, who not only makes good coffee, but helps make the electricity Americans depend on to power their lives. He’s a coal worker, then a coffee roaster. In that order, for now.

While adjusting to a shiftwork schedule in his mid-20s, Helfrich picked up a coffee-drinking habit.

“I never really had a taste for it. I started drinking coffee as a tool to stay awake,” he says. “Then, I started drinking and sampling other coffees, better coffees, and it blew my mind.”

Coal Country Coffee produces a line of four signature roasts and one decaf roast.

A self-described serial hobbyist, Helfrich got more curious about coffee after watching a video explaining the coffee roasting process. His caffeinated interest turned serious when another hobby – restoring cars – got the boot from his garage, to make room for his first coffee roaster.

Helfrich experimented on his new roaster, which could only roast 3 pounds at a time, every 25 minutes, and started giving his coffee to family and friends.

“After getting a bunch of good feedback, I decided to take it to the next level,” Helfrich says. “It all happened quick, honestly right away. I started putting the coffee in little craft bags and handing them to people. Then, I realized it was cheaper to buy in bulk, so I bought a lot of bags and it kind of escalated from there. It launched me into starting the company.”

His company, Coal Country Coffee, opened for business in September 2017 and is a nod to the local area, which supports a booming energy industry and provides quality jobs to many working families, including Helfrich himself. More than coffee, Coal Country Coffee is an homage to the “hardworking Americans that build, operate and provide for so many others,” its website states.

In the early days of the business, Helfrich would roast coffee, still in the 3-pound batches using his first roaster, around his work schedule at the power plant. He also enlisted some reliable help from his dad, Dave.

“When I was at work, my dad would take over at my house and roast. And sometimes, I’d get off work (a 12-hour shift) and roast for a few hours, just to keep up,” Travis says.

After producing nearly 40,000 pounds of coffee through his first roaster, Travis upgraded to a larger model capable of roasting 50 pounds of coffee per batch. He also moved the business out of his garage to a larger, remodeled truck shop served by Mor-Gran-Sou-Electric Cooperative in Mandan’s Industrial Park.

Currently, Coal Country Coffee imports its coffee beans from Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, ensuring all beans are seasonally fresh, and is pursuing direct trade sourcing from a farm in Guatemala. Travis also pays attention to elevations when sourcing his beans and adjusts his roasts depending on the beans’ moisture content.

“When I started hobby roasting, I didn’t realize there are hundreds of different coffees from all over the world,” he says. “Central American coffees have a smoother mouth feel, for example. Asian coffees have a heavier mouth feel and earthier flavors.”

North Dakotans, he’s learned, prefer darker, smoother roasts, which is why he sources his beans primarily from Central and South America.

Using his own recipes, Travis and his dad roast the entire line of Coal Country Coffee, which includes four signature roasts and a decaf roast.

“Lignite” is the brand’s pillar dark roast, named for the lignite coal found in western North Dakota – the single largest deposit of lignite coal known in the world. The dark roasted beans mirror the blackness of coal and lend a familiarity to Travis, who’s worked for 13 years in industrial maintenance in the coal yard of Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s Leland Olds Station near Stanton.

“Boilermaker” is Coal Country Coffee’s medium roast, which Travis chose “because it has a good rhythm.”

“Steam Engine” has the most caffeine, because it’s a light roast. “Caffeine is in the oils. As you roast, the oils get pulled out of the bean. The longer you roast, the less caffeine there is,” Travis says.

“The Sportsman” was one of the first roasts Travis made, but the last one to hit the shelves, because he wanted a special custom bag. This medium-to-dark roast is the brand’s best-selling coffee, Travis says.

“Power Outage” is (you guessed it) the brand’s decaf roast. Coal Country Coffee held a naming competition for its decaf roast, and a local woman submitted the winning name.

“Most people don’t believe in decaf, but I love our decaf,” Travis says. “Most decaf coffees are chemically processed, but ours is water-processed. The water process is a lot better, and it doesn’t take a lot of flavors out in the process.”

After the coffee is roasted, it gets packaged. Each coffee bag is affixed with the Pride of Dakota label, signifying it’s a North Dakota-made product. Coal Country Coffee has been a Pride of Dakota member company since 2018.

“There have been stores that have reached out just because we are a Pride of Dakota member,” Travis says. “It’s definitely helped a lot, and the (Pride of Dakota holiday) shows are amazing.”

Coal Country Coffee has grown to be sold in more than 90 stores across the state and exclusively brewed at Cappuccino on Collins, Copper Dog Cafe and Paddle Trap in Mandan, at Café Noko inside CHI St. Alexius and Cafe Realms in Bismarck, at locations in Sidney and Circle, Mont., and in a new mobile coffee trailer in Bismarck-Mandan called Chuggs Coffee.

Next, Travis hopes to create a signature roast for each coffeeshop that brews his brand, like he did for Marathon Petroleum’s refinery in Dickinson.

“Our employees enjoy the blends that Coal Country has provided thus far and appreciate the local support it provides to the community versus the typical big box names,” says Jake Benz, Marathon Petroleum operations day foreman.

And, Coal Country Coffee will soon be unveiling a new loose leaf tea, made of coffee cherries, with plans to open its Mandan doors to community members who want to enjoy a free cup of coffee.

“For 25 years, my grandpa went to Dakota Farms (Restaurant in Mandan). Just recently, they closed,” Travis says. “This will give him a place to hang out. I’m sure he’ll be up here, drinking his morning coffee.”

For a coffee brand that honors the American worker, Travis is quick to recognize the contributions made by Coal Country Coffee’s only workers – his dad and mom, Reyne, and wife, Lacy. They show up, work hard and do it all unpaid.

“I can’t fire them, because they don’t really get paid,” Travis says with a laugh. “It’s the truth. They’re awesome. Having different people with different ideas makes a huge difference. They help me to continue taking the business in the right direction.”

Travis never set out to make Coal Country Coffee his career. His employment at the Basin Electric power plant provides a good living and allows him to pursue his many hobbies, from snowmobiling and motorcycles to cars and coffee.

“It helps that I work full time at the plant, because everything that Coal Country generates just goes back into the company,” he says.

For now, he’ll remain a coal worker first, business owner second.

“We’re just going to see where it goes, and it’s growing, so as long as we’re growing every year, we’re happy,” Travis says.
He has this piece of advice for new and emerging business owners: “Take the community’s feedback seriously and definitely be as much a part of the community as you can. Time is probably most small businesses’ worst enemy, but try to be there with your company and be present.”

And, find a group of honest friends, for honest feedback.

“Luckily, I have very honest friends,” he says through a grin. “Every bit of feedback I get, or a review online or an email, it makes my day, and gives me a bunch more drive.”

Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at


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