May 13, 2021

Trailblazing coffee business hits the road

WALNUT, Ill. — What do you do when you can’t find the tool you need at a livestock show? Improvise and make do — but make sure the tool is in your trailer for the next show, right?

That’s exactly what Katlyn Sanden, the founder of COWs Coffee, has done.

“I love coffee, I love cows and there’s a need for coffee at cattle shows,” she said.

The coffee trailer also came about as the Sandens grew their family. Katlyn married Brian Sanden in 2015. Brian farms full time, and Katlyn was working for AgriEnergy Resources and 815 Media.

She said she loved her work, but wanted to find a way to spend more time with her daughters, while still contributing to the farm’s income.

“I like it because it’s flexible. I can work in the mornings and be at home with my girls and not have to work every single day and I can bring them to my work,” she said.

Even as she decided to try to make her coffee dream a reality, she had doubts about whether it would really happen. But there were signs along the way that she took as direction to keep working toward her goal. The search for the perfect coffee trailer was one of those.

“When I first had the idea, I wanted one of those cute, vintage Airstreams. I was scouring the internet for one of those that I could renovate. I wasn’t having any luck, I had a long day at the office, I was on my way to pick up my daughter and I was battling all that stuff and praying, something needs to change. On my way to pick her up from the babysitter, I saw an old camper in somebody’s yard that was for sale. I bought it and we gutted it, but it ended up being too small,” Sanden said.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

“We sold that one and this trailer fell into our lap the next week,” Sanden said.

The trailer that now houses a professional espresso machine, the drip coffeemaker and all the fixings for lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, teas and more was a former food trailer, so it came already set up with a food-grade sink, water tank and cabinets that lock.

“The only thing we had to do was add the espresso machine,” Sanden said.

The only thing left to do was for the consumer of coffee to learn how to prepare the drinks she loved.

“I never, in a million years, thought I would be a barista. I was the one who liked to say, ‘Here’s my money, make me something good.’ The people I work with for the espresso machine have been great to help me and teach me things,” she said.

There was just one other skill Sanden had to master.

“Another big learning curve was pulling this trailer. Growing up showing cattle, you’d think I would be so confident pulling a trailer. When I realized I was going to have to drive this and not rely on my husband to go to every stop with me, that was a big learning curve. I can now back it up by myself so that was a big thing,” she said.

After obtaining her food handling certification and the appropriate health department licenses, Sanden started up in August 2019 and, appropriately, one of her first stops was the 2019 Bureau County Fair in Princeton.

“It was great. We parked back by the livestock barns because that’s where I wanted to be, I wanted to cater to the livestock show families. I know how crazy it is on show day and I wanted to make it super easy for everyone to get their coffee or tea. When the parents came up, they told us this is great, there’s never been anything like this, right here, for us. It was phenomenal,” she said.

Sanden also started visiting local communities as they invited her.

“I always go where I’m invited, my towns pick me, I never just park anywhere. A month after I started, Citizens First State Bank in Walnut invited me and ever since, Wednesday has been our day and it’s just been great,” she said.

That is, until March 2020.

“We were off for the winter of 2019 and we went out for two weeks in March 2020 and then, COVID hit. And then, I cried,” Sanden said.

But with her dream realized, Sanden wasn’t going to quit.

“I was very angry and then, I just felt like I had to keep going and keep one foot in front of the other and figure it out,” she said.

Sanden delivered “essential coffee,” coffees that she made in the trailer and delivered to hospitals and schools. She developed gift certificates, which proved to be a popular item.

She worked with local vendors to come up with COWs Coffee mugs and even a candle. For Valentine’s Day, she worked with Buttercream Bake Shop in Princeton to come up with a sweet way to celebrate.

“She did hot cocoa bombs, so we did a mug with two hot cocoa bombs and people went crazy for those,” she said.

COWs Coffee also offers traditional brewed coffee. Sanden worked with local coffee roasters to come up with her Trailblazer blend.

“It’s our house blend and people love it and it’s been really popular for people to buy and take home,” she said. The blend is now available in local grocery stores.

Her menu includes a variety of specialty coffees, from espresso, cappuccino and lattes, available hot and iced and in different flavor combinations. Sanden said that each of the communities on her regular rotation seems to have a flavor favorite.

“There are different specialties by town. In Walnut, it’s raspberry mocha. In Sheffield, their favorite is the iced grasshopper latte,” she said.

Sanden adjusts the menu to make room for seasonal items and some of those seasonal favorites become permanent. She hosts tastings with friends to vet different flavor combinations. One favorite no matter where she goes is the miel latte, a mix of espresso, local honey and cinnamon.

“My iced pomegranate green tea has been, by far, the most popular. People love it as a non-coffee drink. It was just a seasonal drink and people begged for it to come back, so it’s now on our seasonal menu,” she said.

Sanden posts her weekly schedule, along with product updates, on the COWs Coffee Facebook and Instagram pages.

“I think another key to our success is that social media is so big right now and so many people are using it to stay connected,” she said.

Sanden said the weather is her biggest challenge, from rain forecasts that might prevent people from coming out for their weekly COWs Coffee, to wind, which can add danger when driving with the trailer.

Sanden has helpers in her trailer and one of her regular helpers is her mother-in-law, Nancy Sanden.

“I’m super proud of her. When she said she was going to do this, I thought okay. I had no idea it would be like this,” Nancy said.

Katlyn said she is hoping to get into more livestock shows this year along with town festivals and even weddings. With her first full season in front of her, she said she’s looking forward to the next stops on the COWs Coffee journey.

“Fingers crossed. I am so excited,” she said.

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor