Named the most beautiful café in Montana, MoAV Coffee resides on an old corner in downtown Billings. The space, originally a hotel built in the 30s, had been neglected for years. After getting laid off from his job, co-founder Jeff Hosa knew it was the perfect opportunity to open the shop and help change downtown Billings. Once co-owner, Paul Aspen, stepped in, the two were able to create a coffee culture that helped propel MoAV into the successful café that it is today. They now own two coffeehouses with a third shop, a combination of a café, roastery, and kombucha brewery, in the works. I talked to co-owners, Jeff Hosa and Paul Aspen, to learn more about how MoAV is changing Billings and the city's approach of coffee.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I saw an article where your company is listed as one of the most beautiful cafés – where did the name and design come from?
Paul: The name originates from Montana Avenue, and that’s the street that our café sits on.
Jeff: Initially, the design of the café was a full remodel out of an old space. We’re in a 1930s building downtown that used to be the Carlin Hotel. Being in Montana, everyone goes with this old, country-chic styling, and we both used to live in cities so we were trying to bring a modern style to the café.
P: We’re in a city where a lot of people still do ranching and hunting, it’s a very prominent thing here, so we’re trying to do something a little different. Throughout the summer, probably about 40% of business is people who are traveling, and they’ll say it reminds them of a café from Seattle, Portland, Nashville, or something. It’s very forward for what’s going on in Billings right now, so that’s fun.
Why did you decide on Billings, MT?
J: The coffee scene in Billings wasn’t on par with what it should have been. The ultimate goal was to really step up the coffee scene in terms of specialty coffee and bring it more conscious-forward to the community and to our customers. The biggest thing, other than trying to have the best cup of coffee, is we truly believe in empathy with how we treat each one of our guests. We find that interacting with the customer, showing empathy, and having this true engagement is the most important part of our café. That’s what keeps them coming back other than the coffee. Another reason of choosing downtown Billings is that this was known to be a really bad corner and was never known to be good for the community, so by turning this building into a café actually turned this corner into a spot for the community and for downtown.
What is your philosophy when it comes to coffee?
P: There’s a lot of cafés that still serve Italian sodas here. That’s kind of the climate that we’re up against. We’re not too far from that, but at the same time we are. We have four flavors: we make vanilla, caramel, and chocolate now, and the white chocolate is Ghirardelli. We want to be unique and have a different approach to coffee. There’s not a lot of learning out here in terms of roasting, so it’s kind of learning a lot of stuff from the internet. It’s a lot of trial and error. We’re developing our own style and our own flair.
J: It was super important for us to start roasting for ourselves. Prior to that, we used Huckleberry Coffee Roasters from Denver, Onyx Coffee, we dabbled with a little bit of Cat & Cloud. The biggest thing was bringing that philosophy behind coffee and letting people experience coffee in its true form. We want to make sure in our engagement with our customers, we’re educating them. We always have one single-origin coffee on drip, and that usually doesn’t change, because we want that consistency. Our blend, the Dapper Lion, stays very consistent. It’s got a juicy Tanzanian in it, because we want someone to have that experience with espresso, but we also know our clientele and know that when it’s blended with a flavored drink, it’s going to stay consistent and have more of those chocolate and nutty notes. If you throw a single-origin Ethiopia natural process into a 16-ounce latte with chocolate in it, it’s probably not going to meld very well. Understanding our clientele and catering to them while having experiences such as pour-overs is opening new doors for our guests to experience new things and broaden their horizons.
Can you tell me a little about your sustainability practices?
P: It’s hard in Billings, because recycling isn’t mandatory, and there’s not a lot of recycling options here. One of the big things we do is exchange our stir sticks for pasta so you can stir your coffee with pasta instead of plastic. Just some fun nuances that you wouldn’t typically think of. But it’s hard to be sustainably conscious in a city that doesn’t care. It costs more to be sustainable here. We also get our milk from Costco every Monday and Friday, so we always know how much we have. There’s no question if we’re going to run out of it, there’s no waste on something that has been checked-over, we check everything that comes through here. I can’t remember the last time we threw away a gallon of milk. As far as sustainability with people, we work it into our business to where we want our employees to be thinking about other peoples’ needs. If somebody comes in and they graduated or got engaged or whatever, we let the shop buy them a drink and celebrate with them. We keep that joy going through the rest of their day.
How did you get started in coffee?
P: I got started probably ten years ago at City Brew, and it has a million flavors and it’s kind of like a small Starbuck’s here. I jumped around from City Brew to Starbuck’s to Caribou, I lived all across the country. I was working at another company here in Billings and gave that job to a friend, worked at The Annex, and then Jeff asked me to be a part of MoAV.
J: My coffee background is very small. My first experience with a great cup of coffee, I remember, it was a French press cup of coffee up in the mountains. My brother-in-law fresh-ground it right in front of me, and we had this awesome cup of black coffee. I got to experience having a good cup of coffee properly brewed and just enjoying it for what it is and not adding any flavors. That’s what initially piqued my interested. Prior to that, I was actually an engineer in the oil field, but my brother-in-law was very passionate about coffee and worked [in the industry], and we always had this vision of opening a shop down the road. The oil field had a slump, I got laid off, and I got this opportunity [to open MoAV]. Prior to that, I did a lot of pour-overs at my house, talked to baristas around town, learned from my brother-in-law. He was actually in El Salvador for a bit working on a farm down there. Ever since then, it’s all been self-taught and on YouTube looking up to people who are really running the standard right now like Chris Baca and Jared Truby. That’s where I kept growing my love for coffee. For roasting, we just threw some beans into the roaster, and it was just like “go for it”. With the huge amount of connections and resources we have, having a lot of help from coffee shops that are already doing it, opening their doors and knowing we’re not competition, we’re a community. My coffee career has only been about 2 ½ years.
P: That’s where Jeff and I make good business partners, because I have had a whole bunch of bad experiences, and I’ve seen the whole spectrum of where coffee is, so I can bring that knowledge into moving forward with other stores and staffing. I have a feel for that where Jeff has a different perspective than me.
J: I traveled a lot, so getting to go to bigger cafés and cities, understanding their culture and then coming back to Billings and realizing I’m not getting that consistency was where I learned to integrate at MoAV.
Is there anything that has been particularly rewarding opening a shop?
J: There’s your downs and ups opening a business. Getting to bring Paul on, I feel like that’s when we actually opened MoAV. When it was me and Paul, I felt like we had a cohesive vision. We knew how we wanted to treat people, and from there, it’s been more positives than negatives. You’re going to have your stressful points in running a business. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s getting to see wonderful people every day, getting to grow new friendships, seeing your team members grow not only in coffee but in life. I would never have imagined seeing all our team members on their days off wanting to come chill at our coffeeshop. If someone gets slammed, they’ll without question just jump on bar and know that they’re ingrained into this culture. It’s this amazing shed of light that I never thought I would ever have. Interacting with our guests every day is super rewarding and enjoyable. It’s surpassed any job that I have ever had. Getting to be a barista or roast coffee for somebody, that just hit me a month ago. Like, people are drinking the beans that I roasted. That’s huge.
P: One of the most rewarding things for me is seeing one of our team members who was really struggling when he first came on. He was drinking every day and not taking care of himself very well. There was a lot of hardship in his life, so we have just been committed to seeing his life change and walking through that with him. There was one night when he was closing, and we have a music venue right next to us, and he went out and got plowed and didn’t finish his shift. And we were like, “Look man, we’re going to show you grace, we’re going to love you and walk through this with you, but if you do it again, you’ll be fired”. And since then, he’s totally turned his life around. We’ve invested in who he is and what he’s passionate about, trying to get him into that stream. And now, he’s just a phenomenal employee and a friend. He’s impacting peoples’ lives through us tough-lovin’ him. We say all the time that coffee is important, but peoples’ hearts are way more important.
I see that you opened a second location.
P: Yeah, there’s a church here in town called Faith Chapel, and their café struggled for the last ten years. They lost a ton of money last year, and pretty much all the staff go to church there. They were like, “Either you guys say yes, or we shut the entire thing down”. We started seeing cool connections being made in our café downtown, so we wanted to know what we could do to help people in this environment. We spent a lot of money making the space much more intentional. On Good Friday, this guy was standing in line and had a new mug, we were pouring a latte for him. And he was like, “Yeah, I had to buy a new mug, because I just lost everything in a burglary”, and I knew I had to figure out something to do for them. I gave them two $50 gift cards, and the guy just started weeping – he hadn’t experienced that grace. It was one of those moments where I realized it was totally worth the money and time we put into it.
Favorite coffee that you’re roasting right now?
J: We have this Kenyan Konyu that we just started roasting, and it’s our first Kenya. I’m stoked about it. It’s just a gorgeous coffee, it’s super vibrant and juicy. It’s one of those coffees that you serve to someone who’s used to having Folger’s or a dark cup of Starbuck’s. You give this to them, and they’re experiencing flavors out of a coffee they never thought they’d taste. It gives us that option to really excite our guests. Another great process that I’ve loved doing is our espresso blend. It’s so fun to roast with and mess with, because it started off with a mild Ethiopian Limu that has more chocolate than fruit notes, and then a simple Colombian. It was popular and good in milk but understanding that I can put in a Tanzanian or Costa Rican honey process to liven it up just a little more, I find that’s one of the greatest parts of roasting. You’re engineering these coffees to have these taste profiles accentuated in the coffee. While I love single-origin coffees, blending different flavors to make something well-balanced and amazing no matter if it’s covered in milk and flavors or just an espresso. Those are some of the most exciting parts of roasting coffee.
P: I’m mostly excited about our decaf right now, honestly. It’s a naturally processed Mexican, and it’s just been really fun to serve people delicious decaf. There’s so much negativity behind decaf, but we’ll pull them a shot, and it just blows peoples’ minds.
J: Yesterday, we did a Peru, it’s an old technique I learned early-on, where the coffee was singing at one temp level, but it was also really good at another temp level. So what I did is roasted it two different ways and blended that, and so you have this crazy, cool blend of coffee that you couldn’t get roasting at one level.
Anything else about MoAV? Fun facts?
J: First, we are super grateful for [The San Franciscan Roaster Co.], Mahlkönig, and Synesso. We couldn’t do it without those machines, and we’re super excited about that. We’re ordering an [SF25 Roaster], because we’re expanding to another brick and mortar with a proper roasting facility, café, and kombucha brewery. That’s something new and exciting that will be happening this year.
A fun fact about us: We’re super into cars and the car scene. Paul started the Zip Tie Club which does some great stuff with the car community in town. Paul drives a Passat wagon, I have a couple old Mercedes we roll around, one of our employees runs an old BMW. That’s a fun, quirky scene we get to be a part of. Also, I have a wife and four kids, and Paul is Paul!
Images courtesy of MoAV Coffee.