The Iowa Small Business Development Center at Southwestern Community College helped Heidi Bell start and grow her coffee house business by providing assistance in developing a business plan and financial statements, referring her to a revolving loan fund and a website developer, and providing training in QuickBooks and more.
Heidi and Lance Bell are fourth generation farmers in Decatur County. After completing their education at Iowa State University, they returned to the family farm. They both believe in, and are committed to, sustaining rural Iowa communities and rural economic development.
In 2009, with help from the Iowa Small Business Development Center, Heidi purchased a storefront on the town square in Leon, population 1977, and started a coffee house named From The Ground.
Heidi’s primary motivations for starting From The Ground were to:
- Open a restaurant/coffee house that would serve an unmet need in the community by focusing on serving lighter, healthier meal options featuring salads and unique specialty sandwiches.
- Offer a gathering place with a homey, friendly atmosphere where people feel they belong, with an emphasis on customer service. In particular, Heidi wanted a place women felt welcome to gather, since there were many other places in town for men to gather.
- Provide a venue for local entrepreneurs to showcase and sell their wares. From the Ground has a dedicated area for:
- Ben Lou Street Bookstore, owned by a local retired lady who had always dreamed of owning a bookstore but did not have the resources to do it on her own.
- Pies and Such, featuring homemade cinnamon rolls and freshly made pies from Carol Yoder, another local woman who had a dream of her own bakery but didn’t have the resources to make it happen.
- A gift shop that includes locally-made jewelry, art, crafts, woodworking and more.
- Provide a place for community and school activities and events. From The Ground serves as a meeting site and specialty meal option for the local Farm Bureau, class reunions, Unity Club, a venue for local artists via open mic nights, and the high school art department’s sale and show each spring.
SBDC Regional Director Dave McLaren takes great pleasure in working with Heidi. He began helping her in August 2009 when she requested assistance to open a business in Leon that would help her promote the entire community. Heidi says this about working with the Iowa Small Business Development Center:
“The SBDC has been a great asset since day one with my business and I might not be in business if it weren’t for Dave’s support. He did an excellent job in asking me to really think about some tough questions when I was developing my business plan. Assistance with my financial statements and referral to the revolving loan fund were very important. I have utilized SBDC for QuickBooks classes and continuing education through the Small Business Development Conference. Access to financial support for website development was also a great asset. I continually refer small businesses to the SBDC for support and guidance and whenever an entrepreneur shares their dream plan with me I refer them directly to Dave.”
Today, From The Ground is a thriving and successful business with seven employees, but it has not been easy. The greatest obstacle was overcoming the perception of what the business is. The type of food and atmosphere was very unique and a little overwhelming to Heidi’s rural farming community. Heidi has worked hard to overcome the perception that the coffee shop is “fancy” and “uppity”. Getting some of the locals to come in the door was a challenge. Once inside, Heidi could usually prove that her food is good, and of sufficient quantity to satisfy both men and women.
All of Heidi’s employees are a team and are treated like family. They are dedicated and encourage each other to work hard. They show up when scheduled and step up to cover for each other when life happens and someone must be gone. Heidi feels her work team is one of the most successful areas of her business. She sees employment at From The Ground as an opportunity to build skills and help others achieve their dreams. She is very particular in selecting her staff, wanting hard-working, dedicated employees. She views her business as a service to the community and an opportunity for employees to build skills. Her employees are all part-time, working between 15-25 hours per week, based on their needs as well as hers. Currently she employs:
- Two male students who are interested in pursuing careers in the food service industry.
- Two retired women who want to work a few hours a week, surrounded by people in a positive environment.
- Two moms who need additional income. One is trying to find her place in the workforce when her kids are in school because her family needs additional financial resources, and the other needs a job that is flexible and close to home.
- An expectant mother who has been with Heidi since high school and needs strong guidance and support.
Heidi tries to help her community by ordering and purchasing many products locally, being an advocate for local businesses, and continually learning about what is happening with other local businesses so she can refer customers to them. For instance, when someone was looking for jeans for back to school Heidi recommended a sale being run at the local ALCO and a trip to Long Creek Outfitters in town. She shared her personal experiences about both stores’ customer service and the benefits of shopping local.
For the last three years, Heidi has served as President of the Leon Chamber of Commerce and on the Leon Community Development Corporation Board. She has taken the lead in actual marketing efforts for Leon, including building a website, addressing dilapidated housing in the community, creating a vision/mission statement for her community, and helping others develop their ‘30 second commercial’ promoting the community. Her additional community activities include church youth group education director, a member of the Leon Hospital Board, a Little League sponsor, and a 4-H leader.
But Heidi’s community efforts don’t stop there. She also tries to support local businesses by serving as a mentor. When new business owners come to town she tries to develop a rapport with them, provide insight into advertising services, web development, how to become involved in the local Chamber, and so forth. When a new, young pharmacist started next door, Heidi learned that she had an interest in rodeo and talked to her about ways she could volunteer in the community that were connected to her interests, plus she recruited her for the local 4th of July celebration that revolves around the Leon Rodeo.
According to Heidi, “In everything I do I advocate for Leon. I can be quoted as saying that we want to see Leon thrive, not just survive.”
Dave McLaren of the SBDC feels that every community in rural Iowa needs someone like Heidi, who is totally committed to her community. From the Ground’s economic impact includes:
- Providing the opportunity for two additional entrepreneurial women to start and grow their businesses in Leon.
- Employing seven people in a small rural farm town of only 1977 people.
- Providing opportunities for local artists, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs to showcase their products and services.
On March 4, 2014, Heidi was honored as the Iowa SBDC’s 2013 Deb Dalziel Woman Entrepreneur Achievement Award winner. She was presented with an award plaque and House and Senate Certificates of Recognition in a ceremony held at the State Capitol. She also met with Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, who congratulated Heidi on her accomplishments.