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From Combat to Coffee: Air Force Veteran Trades Boots for Beans

Mike Sutmaier is a firm believer in the power of coffee. As a self-described serial entrepreneur, he says, “one of my side businesses as a real estate company is you can break the ice by offering someone a free cup of coffee. You can branch off into multiple business sectors using coffee as an ice breaker. If you approach [a client] with something of value, it’s a good olive branch to open someone up for a sales pitch.” Going into the coffee business was an easy choice for this 20-year Air Force veteran to make when he was exploring business options while retiring from the Air Force on Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers the Boots to Business (B2B) entrepreneurial education and training program as part of the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program for separating military members.  Mike took advantage of this program – twice! During his second time through the program, he worked with Greater Omaha SCORE Chapter 40 mentor Blake Martin. “On the second go-around I met Blake and wanted to her more about the franchising aspect of business ownership. We talked about the different levels of business, and I learned about Hard Bean, which is more closely related to a licensing agreement.” Mike and his wife Eva opened Hard Bean Coffee in 2018 in La Vista, Nebraska as a brick-and-mortar coffee shop and within just a couple of years opened 9 additional satellite locations, including four locations on Offutt Air Force Base.

The secret to Mike’s phenomenal growth was his research into learning how to use water pumps so businesses could set up a coffee cart or a kiosk with no water line – they just needed a power connection. “We had been working with beauty salons where they could make full on coffee drinks. They had a full coffee station without needing a water line.” Mike would provide each location with a glass-lined coffee pot they could fill at the Hard Bean location in La Vista. “The lining is so good essentially it would stay hot for 18-20 hours. They could turn it into their own little coffee club. Offices would come in and fill up the pots, and we’d give them cups and sleeves and such to get advertising. If they needed something more elaborate, we had water pumps, and they could make anything from specialty coffee drinks to whatever they wanted to do. We really knew how to cater it to their needs. I really enjoy that – just seeing the customers’ challenge set and then helping them achieve their goal. It ultimately works out to be customer satisfaction [for the clients] – what better way to beef up customer service than to have a complimentary coffee stand?”

And Mike wasn’t ready to stop growing. “We were looking at doing other services like delivery and starting coffee clubs.” But that idea had to be temporarily abandoned when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. Mike had to close five of his locations, including the brick-and-mortar coffee shop. He was able to keep four of his locations up and running on Offutt AFB, thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. “I’m glad the SBA has all these programs that help us keep all our people hired. For now, we have 14 employees. I’m so glad we are able to keep them employed,” Mike says. “SBA has been there the whole way. When we needed help the SBA has been there and we are very thankful for that.” In fact, Mike has utilized the SBA since the very beginning – he started Hard Bean Coffee with an SBA Express loan from Northwest Bank.

Mike is optimistic about the future. His 5th location will be reopening soon on Offutt Air Force Base, and Mike plans to continue with his business model of hiring active-duty personnel and their dependents. “We noticed over the years that it’s hard for military dependents to get a job because employers know they are only going to be there a short time, or they hire only local people, so I want to make sure we counter that.” Mike also has some advice for future vetrepreneurs. “You already have a lot of the skill sets; you just don’t realize how much of the skill sets you already have. Make sure that you try and not be too afraid to get started. Have a really good back-up plan and a really good banker and SBA representative. If you have the right team in place the hard part is meeting the customer and community needs. Once you have that set things will just start growing from there.”

Company Name: 
Hard Bean Coffee
Bellevue, NE