A Conversation with: Sarah Krogh Phelan, Co-Owner of Fiddlehead Coffee

Note: This is Episode 3 in the Reality Check series, where we are conversing with individuals who left stable positions to pursue ventures they felt would be more impactful in their communities and more personally fulfilling. Enjoy!

Sarah Krogh Phelan has a passion for coffee, cultivating strong communities, urban homesteading, and sustainable farming practices. Yet, for most of her life, she spent 50 hours (or more) of her week focusing on retirement packages.   

She, like many entrepreneurs, thought her dream of opening a coffee shop was unreasonable, and dove into more stable pursuits. With the mindset that her job was mainly a means to earn income, and not necessarily her primary source of fulfillment, she made her way through the corporate world, establishing her position at Thrivent Financial.

Eventually, the difficult traveling schedule, combined with the realization that she “did not have a burning passion for retirement packages” caused Sarah to make a career change.

She left her position at Thrivent to work as the marketing director for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. All the while, she knew she wanted to start her own business in Rochester, MN, and simultaneously searched for opportunities to do so while continuining with her marketing job.

Sarah’s wide skill set and entrepreneurial spirit allowed her to make connections with business owners in the Rochester area. During one of her many meetings with local entrepreneurs, Annie Henderson (owner of Forager Brewery and Restaurant) offered Sarah the retail space of their establishment to start her urban homesteading shop. Just like that, Sarah had the opportunity she had waited years for. Faced with the prospect of continuing her job in marketing, taking care of her family, AND running this new shop, Sarah was understandably overwhelmed.

“It was one of those moments where I was like…Crap! Now I have to do it…I’m always biting off more than I can chew.”

Not one to shy away from challenges or hard work, she forged on wholeheartedly.

At the opening of her shop, Sarah’s brother-in-law Patrick served coffee, drawing upon his years of experience in the industry. They decided to partner up to bring high-quality coffee and an urban homesteading shop to the retail space of Forager, and Fiddlehead was born.

Fiddlehead

During this entire process, Sarah was still working her job in marketing. She recognized she was being stretched too thin between this job, her family, and Fiddlehead when the stress began manifesting physically. Considering her personal health and fulfillment, she decided to dedicate herself to Fiddlehead full time.

“My body was telling me it was time to stop. It was really hard to have so many different focus areas and not be able to put all my energy into making one really great. I felt like I was half-assing everything. That was excruciating.”  

I remember stopping into the shop a few days after Sarah made this difficult decision, and she generously opened up about how terrifying and simultaneously exhilarating it was to give up her safety net.

Yet, it has proved to be worth the risk.

Even though she works harder and longer at Fiddlehead than she has in any previous position (and she’s had some pretty demanding schedules in previous jobs) Sarah has never been happier with her work.

“70 hours here is infinitely easier than 40 hours working previous jobs. This is effortless. You need to find something you’re really passionate about. It is still hard. To find those sweet spots in your career path takes a while.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 3.59.41 PMHer experience brings to mind the famous adage “If you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life.” Although there are certainly days where Fiddlehead feels like work (especially when she’s washing dishes…Sarah’s favorite task)…

sarcasm

…Sarah is most fulfilled when she has a variety of tasks to perform. Accordingly, each day at Fiddlehead presents a new opportunity. Sarah jumps between washing dishes (again, her favorite task…), strategizing long term marketing goals, and organizing community events (recently, Fiddlehead spearheaded a peaceful gathering to support a local mosque after it was attacked). No two days are the same.


The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma


When asked about the challenges she has encountered as an entrepreneur in Rochester, Sarah echoed the sentiment of the previous two individuals I interviewed for this series: capital is the most essential need when opening a business but also scarce in smaller midwestern communities.

“It’s been so hard. We started with literally nothing and went around to every bank. If you don’t already have collateral in a business or a bunch of cash sitting somewhere, you just need to find someone privately who can finance your operation. If we could have had that upfront and been able to capitalize on it, we would have been much better off and much more successful.”

It’s a cry for help that many business owners in the area have repeated: there need to be more sources of funding for entrepreneurs in order to cultivate a local economy. However, as our previous interviewee Amanda Leightner said, Rochester can be a bit resistant to change, so these sources of funding can be reluctant to invest in small businesses when there are more stable ventures to fund.

This has been a trend across the United States since the Great Recession. According to a report by the Economic Innovation Group, the past decade has been the only recorded time in US history where businesses were dying at a faster rate than they were being created.

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 2.38.47 PM

Graphic from EIG.com

In addition to the difficulties with securing funding, Sarah also comments on how it can be impossible to separate her personal life from work, especially because she owns the shop with her family. Yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“In a more corporate setting, your piece is not so influential to the end product. That’s what is so exciting about [Fiddlehead]. We birthed this thing. We take care of it. We spend every minute with it. It’s part of you.”


A Rare Find


Fiddlehead is named after the curled fronds on a fern, a rare delicacy with an extremely short harvesting season.  Similarly, the owners of Fiddlehead seek to create a unique respite for anyone who walks through their door. The shop is already special in that it is a family venture: Sarah’s co-owners are her husband Sean, brother-in-law Patrick, and his fiancé Samantha. However, Fiddlehead’s mission is perhaps the largest thing that makes it as special as its namesake. Sarah explains how she and her co-owners strive to make their shop a beating heart of the Rochester community, a place where lifelong members of the area can have coffee alongside those traveling from overseas to be treated at Mayo Clinic.

“Being able to cultivate a local economy is really important to us. We have a unique opportunity to educate and bring people together. We want to be a beating heart of Rochester. Come and get your lifeline here. Get caffeinated but also be able to build a community here.”


A Dynamic Community


Rochester is experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. With visitors coming and going frequently to be treated at the clinic, difficulties with retaining young professionals, and a $5.6b economic expansion plan called Destination Medical Center, it can be difficult to characterize the city’s distinctive traits, especially when Mayo is removed from the equation. However, this enigmatic identity presents an opportunity to impact even more people.

“We get to be a second home for people who are going through the hardest things they’ll ever go through. More than once someone has come in after finding they have something terminal. Or they’re here because their kids are getting treatment. We take it very seriously…the responsibility to care for them while they’re here and create a place that is respite in that time.”

Just as Sarah fuels the Rochester community, the community fuels her, keeping her motivated during the early mornings, long days, and difficult periods where life can feel consumed with work.

Sarah’s story represents what is beautiful about most small business ventures: they are aimed at enhancing the community using the owner’s assets. Some individuals work to improve their areas though fitness, motivational speaking, food, medical care, financial services, or media outlets. Through Sarah’s brave decision to pursue Fiddlehead full time, many Rochester residents and visitors have left her business with not just a caffeine high, but a sense of belonging.

That’s not too bad for $4.

Thanks for reading. Speak to you soon.

-Nora

Fiddlehead is currently undergoing an important transition, moving to a new location in downtown Rochester. More information on this move and how to support their operation can be found here.

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