A multi-faceted java-fueled business was percolating well before Autumn Pruitt started Hardy Coffee Co. during the not-so-great recession as a 23-year-old business administration and humanities graduate. She didn’t have rose-colored glasses, though.
“I started working in a small bakery to make sure that the dream I had matched up with the actual work in a commercial kitchen,” she recalled. “It didn’t disappoint.”
Less than a year later, Pruitt and her husband, Luke, took over the lease and purchased equipment from her then-employer.
“In 2012, we acquired the coffee shop we had been subleasing from and have since opened three additional locations,” she said. “In 2015, we began roasting our own coffee under the brand Hardy Coffee Co.”
Later, every piece — bakery, coffee shops, roasting lab — and every location — downtown, Benson, North Omaha, Chalco — was unified under the Hardy brand.
Pruitt owes much of her going “all in” on coffee and baked goods to her upbringing.
“We always joked that there should have been a couch in the kitchen, because that’s where we all managed to gather,” she said.
“I’m convinced,” she continued, “that there is no more authentic way to bring people together than around delicious things. For us, every cinnamon roll and mug of coffee is an invitation to rest and gather and connect.”
The familial connections don’t stop there; Pruitt’s grandfather, Leo Bastron, was a cook in the Air Force during WWII. Post-military service, he worked at a bakery in Gering, Nebraska.
“’Hardy’ is a real word, of course,” she added. “We hope that the name of our brand resonates with the resiliency of our Midwestern customers. But it’s also my maiden name.”
Interestingly, neither one of Pruitt’s parents were coffee drinkers when she was growing up.
“My dad is now on board with Hardy Coffee every morning, but my mom will forever order from the tea menu,” she said. “I think coffee love may be a recessive gene.”
Recipe for a Buzzy Business
As a young entrepreneur, seeking funds amid a historic credit meltdown, Pruitt recalled how banks weren’t “too keen” on lending to her.
“From the very beginning, we had to be creative and scrappy in the ways we funded the operation and spent money,” she said.
Pruitt has also had the fortune of leaning into an “incredible support system.”
“I have a husband who has jumped into this dream with both feet and, even after seeing the ugly and hard parts of it all for the past 11 years, continues to bet on us,” she said.
“This last year, he finally made his way onto the payroll after working for free for years … It’s been so rewarding to run after this vision together.”
Success, she said, isn’t a “secret.”
“People tend to romanticize their plans, but dread the daily work of executing them,” Pruitt asserted. “A successful business, just like a successful life, is about doing the next right thing. About following through on the things you know are right.”
And Pruitt hasn’t experienced the “industry mantra” of “you just can’t hire good help.”
“True leaders and some of the best humans I know who have come alongside me on this journey to help shoulder the load — and to have so much fun in the process,” she said.
Speaking more to the industry as a whole, Pruitt said women have been baking forever and are increasingly better represented in specialty coffee circles.
“Most of the work I do these days is not the physical work of baking and brewing, but that of CEO of a small business,” she said.
To that end, she cites a 2021 Small Business Trends survey, whereby a reported 31% of small business or franchise owners are women (up from 27% year prior).
“The relationships I have built with other women entrepreneurs has been lifegiving to me on this journey,” Pruitt said. “We experience a unique set of challenges in creating and building and leading, without a safety net that being part of a large organization provides.”
She said it’s a reminder of how much representation matters in any type of role that needs more diversity.
“When you connect with — or even just see — someone in a role who you can identify with, it creates precedent and the encouragement to attempt it, too,” she said.
Fueling Others’ Successes
The question of how she inspires others is a “loaded” one for Pruitt.
“The danger comes in trying to be inspiring,” she said. “A few years ago, we went through the process of closing one of our shops. From the outset, everything about it seemed like it would be wildly profitable.” After all, the Hardy team had done the painstaking work of planning, building, staffing, training.
“But it just never worked,” she said. “I had my first baby just two months after this location opened and it felt like, for two years, I was trying desperately to keep everything together. To say the right things. To hide the mistakes. To do the same things I had done before and more, and to learn how to step into a new role as a mom at the same time.”
Exhausted, discouraged and on the verge of bankruptcy, Pruitt worked up the courage to be completely vulnerable with her team. She showed them the real, hard truths..
“And it turns out that the stories I had been telling weren’t nearly as endearing or inspiring as what was true,” she said. “Since then, I’ve tried to lean into authenticity much more than trying to craft a message that rallies anyone.”
Pruitt also acknowledged what she characterized as the “wildly talented people” before her, who contributed to making specialty coffee more mainstream and a staple in people’s lives.
“I’m so grateful for the work they’ve done that has served as an on-ramp for me and my business,” she said. “I am also thankful to be on the front end of some of these trends in Omaha. But, in a global economy, we really have the benefit of sharing information and knowledge and trends in ways that push us ahead so much faster than we could go on our own.
Going forward, the Hardy Coffee Co. team is committed to growing its coffee program to partner with wholesale accounts across the region.
“We want to become a regional partner with anyone looking to open a shop or brew really good coffee in the neighborhoods they know and love,” she said.
The business’s roasting side is also being cultivated.
“I plan to develop direct relationships with coffee growers around the world,” Pruitt said.
“We work with a really great importer now. But I’d love for our team to visit and personally connect with these operations in the same ways that we invest in our communities and teams here.”
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