KALISPELL - When Melanie Nelson discusses "stirring up a revolution," she means it in the sweetest possible terms.
Her brand of revolution is neither subversive nor political, unless she happens to be debating whether to mix up a fresh batch of hot chocolate (white or dark?), spiced chai or frappe, in which case she puts the "artisan" in "bipartisan" and pledges allegiance to all four.
Nelson's version of a revolution applies to a business model composed of shifting paradigms, customer satisfaction and hot, tasty drinks. But what's really setting her apart from the mainstream is her use of a sugar-free sweetener called stevia, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2008, and is considered a safer alternative to artificial sweeteners like Splenda.
Despite its longtime popularity in Europe and Japan, however, stevia still has not been embraced by the U.S., and Nelson saw it as a unique opportunity to distinguish her product line from the prevailing convention.
"Offering a healthier sugar-free alternative is really what sets us apart and makes us unique, and our customers are taking notice," said Nelson, who since opening one year ago has started distributing her 5 Sparrows brand products to Flathead Valley coffee shops like Montana Coffee Traders Co. and Colter Coffee Roasting, as well as to shops in Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley.
It has been a successful and surprising first year, but Nelson is quick to attribute her revolution to humble beginnings.
For eight years, Nelson, 30, owned and operated a specialty espresso business in Lakeside, a drive-thru coffee kiosk on the west shore of Flathead Lake that employed six people. When the recession hit and tourism slowed, Nelson lost half of her customer base and was forced to lay off two-thirds of her employees. Pregnant with her third child, she began looking to sell the business, passing it on to one of her managers.
"And then I started to wonder if I could make my own chocolate," she said.
She began experimenting with recipes and crunching numbers, poring over cost-of-goods conversion charts with her father.
"I remember one day he set down his glasses and said, ‘You could sell this," she recalls.
Nelson conducted market research and discovered that most area coffee shops were buying their chocolate and chai mixes from out-of-state distributors, which meant they had to buy in bulk. Asked whether they would prefer to purchase smaller quantities from a local distributor, they expressed interest.
"Everything was just serendipitous in how it worked out," Nelson said.
The idea to offer sugar-free products was derived from Nelson's previous business experience at Lakeside Coffee Co., where customers routinely asked for sugar-free drinks. When she learned that she could naturally sweeten her products with stevia and xylitol, Nelson decided to shift the focus of 5 Sparrows to sugar-free products.
"In café culture, you're encouraged to think outside the box and to learn from your craft," she said. "Coffee drinkers are fanatical about their specialty drinks, and we are excited to offer something new to our customers."
Nelson and her husband, Andy, hope to continue expanding the business, which they currently run out of a space on West Idaho Street in Kalispell.
She is currently the only full-time employee while Andy works in construction, and she estimates that 5 Sparrows is mixing and packaging about 360 pounds of powder mix every week.
She recently brought her sugar-free mixes to a tradeshow in Seattle, the heart of the coffee movement, and a distributor has started advertising her product line.
"Since we're a little homegrown Montana business the trick is for us to get people to try it," she said.
Locally, the 5 Sparrows product line has gained broad appeal, due in part to Nelson's emphasis on buying local. A "Who's Your Barista?" bumper sticker appeals to the locavores, and the convenience of buying local has been a big selling point to Montana businesses.
Nelson encouraged people to inquire about the 5 Sparrows product line at local coffee shops, and to visit the company's website at www.5sparrowsbrand.com.
"Being able to have a quality local product is really important to Montanans," she said. "I'm not putting any limitations on how the business might grow."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at email@example.com.