How do you get your coffee business off the ground in its inaugural year? For Savannah Rutter of Pilot’s Coffee House in Spokane Valley, it’s taken a lot of Runway.
Pun intended: Pilot’s is now moving hundreds of Runway breakfast sandwiches a week, a rock-star menu item featuring bacon, egg, cheddar cheese, fresh avocado and chipotle mayo on a toasted asiago bagel.
“When we started, we did maybe 10 a week, so to be up to that volume is so awesome to see,” Savannah said. “It’s crazy all the trips to get supplies and how much it’s grown.”
When Pilot’s Coffee House opened April 6, 2019, Savannah knew it would take even more than serving great DOMA coffee to get people to try a brand-new establishment.
“Coffee people are very loyal to the places they’ve always gone,” she said. “To get them to try something else, it’s easier for them to try a food item than it is for them to switch their coffee stand right away.”
With so many coffee drive-thrus serving warmed-up sandwiches pulled from packaging from the same vendors, Savannah decided to go all in on fresh-made sandwiches. There are four on the menu plus a build-your-own option featuring a selection of three meats grilled to order, six breads, three cheeses and standout add-ons like avocado, spinach or chipotle mayo.
“It’s never microwaved, because we literally don’t have one,” she said.
The strategy has paid off. Even the sacrifice in speed was neutralized by an emphasis on call- or text-ahead ordering for people who don’t want to wait the extra five minutes required for a quality sandwich. Served all day, the sandwiches have even attracted a rare niche for a coffee stand: catering clients and other large call-ahead sandwich orders.
Savannah worked for seven years at another Valley coffee location, Whistle Stop Coffee Shop, and even continued to take weekend shifts after she landed a marketing job out of college “because I loved it so much.”
“I knew it was something I would always want to do because it was such a fun job, but I eventually knew I would want one that is my own, that I could put my own twist on and have it themed the way I wanted to,” she said.
It happened sooner than she might have anticipated. She and her fiancé, Scott Stone, knew they would want to open a business together at some point, but when she came across the opportunity to transform a stand for sale in her hometown, the couple decided to make the leap.
Not only does Savannah lack regrets, she hopes her venture motivates others to follow their passions.
“To anyone who’s ever thought about opening a business, you should just go for it,” she said. “I’m pretty young, and I managed to make it through a first year. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
Savannah admitted a soft spot for the largely blue-collar, hard-working clientele that frequents her East Sprague business. Alongside the bustle of morning commuters shuttling downtown, she said Pilot’s emphasizes quick, exceptional service that treats every customer the same.
One of the passions behind the Pilot’s venture is job creation. The idea of providing an earning platform for people to achieve their own dreams is “something that’s really important to our business.”
“The first year is a lot of changes and a lot of just going with the flow, and our team of girls have all been awesome,” she said.
Co-owner and fiancé Scott is a pilot, and the couple enjoys flying privately out of nearby Felts Field. As such, it’s reasonable to think the stand received its name from …
“I reiterate: Our business is not based off of (Scott),” Savannah said. “I love him, but it’s based off our dog.”
The name of the couple’s Goldendoodle? Pilot.
The namesake of Pilot’s Coffee House? Pilot, the Goldendoodle — not Scott, the pilot.
Not that Scott and Savannah’s aviation expertise doesn’t influence every aspect of the stand’s brand and menu. Where else in Spokane can you order a Layover Latte or find your energy drink menu labeled “Jet Lag Fix”?
“When we first began, I was like, ‘OK, what are all the aviation words I know. Let’s incorporate all of those but also try to make them like a level 1,’” Savannah said. “We want aviation nerds like us to come in, but we don’t want to do very distinct parts of a plane where most people are like, ‘I don’t know what that is.’”
The aforementioned Runway breakfast sandwich is “by far the most popular,” Savannah said. While the focus on food as a gateway was a large part of her strategy for attracting customers, she knew incredible coffee was key to retention.
To this end, Savannah was quick to latch onto a partnership with DOMA Coffee Roasting Company of Post Falls. DOMA-infused specialty drinks like the Red Eye (featuring salted caramel and cinnamon sprinkles) and the Milkyway (chocolate sauce, sweet vanilla and caramel) top the list of favorite drink orders.
Savannah, left, celebrates Pilot’s one-year anniversary with Julia, a team member since day one.
THE TIME WHEN …
Savannah looked forward to Pilot’s one-year anniversary as a real milestone for the business. To celebrate, she planned giveaways and a dollar-coffee promotion, but then an unimaginable obstacle surfaced to threaten everything.
“In business, you have super-high highs and super-low lows, but we definitely didn’t anticipate an outbreak of COVID to happen right around a year of opening,” she said. “We didn’t know what would happen with business; we didn’t know if people were going to stop coming. We had no clue, and we still wanted to do this dollar anniversary day, just for us. Even if nothing happened after that, just to celebrate all we had done in the past year.”
As it turns out, they didn’t celebrate alone.
“We were slammed all day,” she said. “We had so many people that, one, were excited to get out of the house, and, two, were there for the dollar coffee and to come out and support us.”
From gift card purchases to the unending flow of cars through the parking lot, Savannah said the community support meant so much during a time of true uncertainty.
“With all the negative that was going on and not knowing what was going to happen next, it was such a cool feeling getting to celebrate with people of the community and our friends and family who were there,” she said. “I think that was a day we will always look back on.”
My thanks to Savannah Rutter for sharing the Pilot’s Coffee House story — and for providing so many glorious opportunities for aviation puns. While writing this post, it was more difficult than usual to stay grounded.
— Josh Johnson (soccer jersey: Seattle Sounders FC)
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