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It Started With The Beans

Just as some people have a home away from home, coffeehouses have become the office away from the office, the study spot away from school and a place for meetings away from the conference room.

After nearly 14 years in the coffee business, Sandi Luck—the founder and owner of four Bully Brew Coffee Houses in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Fargo—knows the trends and the territory. Her slogan is a cheery, “Stay caffeinated!” Her establishments cater to the coffeehouse crowd of work-from-anywhere types to college students seeking a friendly, relaxed atmosphere in which to study, brainstorm and socialize. At Bully Brew, they can enjoy sandwiches, soups and baked goods while staying caffeinated.

“Something very common with millennials and young professionals is that a lot of them are saying, ‘I want good coffee; I know the difference,’” Luck notes. To satisfy them, Bully Brew receives several 150-pound bags of green coffee beans each week from an importer in Minneapolis. The beans come from Costa Rica, Columbia, Ethiopia, Kenya and other countries.

The Canine Connection

Luck’s two English bulldogs—Elvis and Izzy—are not only the company’s namesakes, but also symbolize her vision for Bully Brew. “My thought is that bulldogs are warm, welcoming, kind of silly and just cozy and comfortable,” she explains. “And that’s how I want the coffee houses to be. I want this to be a welcoming environment where people can walk in and be comfortable and cozy. It feels like a family—like you’re sitting on your couch.”

A longtime University of North Dakota employee who’s currently a marketing instructor at the school, Luck was a coffee lover well before she got into the coffee business. Factoring into Bully Brew’s family atmosphere is Luck’s penchant for recognizing and recruiting talent from the students she taught at UND and from other colleges in the area. “Whether they’re baristas who have been here for many years or they’re just here during their school years, they become part of the family, and we do family things all the time,” she says.

Luck became a fan of the coffee once served at the green and white Mountain Mudd kiosks scattered around Grand Forks parking lots. One day in 2005 when Luck pulled in for her morning coffee, she noticed a for sale sign on the kiosk. When she expressed concern about her favorite source of coffee disappearing, the barista suggested that Luck buy the four kiosks—and she did.

The venture lasted more than two years before Luck decided to liquidate. About a year later, she was approached by the Valley Eldercare Center in Grand Forks about opening a coffee bar co-located with the facility’s deli. Hesitant at first, Luck realized that she missed the coffee business. Thus, in 2010, Bully Brew came into existence at Valley Eldercare, a location still in operation and managed by McKenzie Gier. Luck became friends with Sarah Sand, owner of the Coffee Co. at 2100 South Columbia Road, who roasted beans for Bully Brew. Luck bought Coffee Co.’s former Columbia Mall location and later purchased Coffee Co. and its roasting operation in the strip mall on South Columbia Road.

“Everybody loved Coffee Co. because it’s actually the oldest coffeehouse in the state of North Dakota,” Luck says. “It’s the very first one ever. It’s so nostalgic. You think about how many students have been through there. They studied in these booths while finishing their Ph.D.’s and master’s degrees. We wanted to keep this location as something very special to a lot of people when they come back to Grand Forks.”

Bully Brew On The Grow

Although the mall location lasted just a few years, Luck was presented with new opportunities to grow. She bought a coffeehouse in Fargo and opened it as a Bully Brew—today managed by Kassie Senstrom. Next was the purchase of the Dunn Bros. coffeehouse at 4571 South Washington Street, now a Bully Brew managed by Becca Nelson. That was followed by the purchase of the Coffee Corner in East Grand Forks at 321 Demers Avenue East. This Bully Brew location is managed by Jordyn Weber. And there’s a Bully Brew kiosk in the Alerus Center run by Courtney Walters.

Owning the Bully Brew Coffee Co. roastery location—managed by Kendra Rhonemus—has created wholesale business-to-business opportunities for Luck to roast coffee beans and sell them to other establishments in the area. “My goal is 10 stores and a roastery,” she relates. “I love the sales aspect of the roastery—working with other coffeehouses and small businesses that need coffee.”

With 40 total employees, Luck continues to recruit and add members to Bully Brew’s team that include Kelly Winters, general manager of all stores; Rihanna Davidson, marketing and sales director; Jessica Stroh, office manager; and Hannah Tinkler, Bully Brew baker. “I think what’s cool about our story is that it’s a bunch of young women—young, strong leaders—who have worked hard together and connected as a team,” Luck says. “I see this group of young ladies who feel empowered to continue to grow. They encourage me every day and I learn from them all the time.”

Staying ahead of the coffee curve is a never-ending challenge. “I take our leadership team to a coffee conference every year,” Luck explains. “We’ve gone to New York and Chicago. Last summer it was Denver. We work with other roasters to see if there’s anything we can do differently to make our coffee better.”

Even when Luck is on vacation, she’s trying the coffee at coffeehouses around the country. In Washington, D.C., she happened upon a coffee she enjoyed so much that she tracked down the roaster to find out where the beans came from. Now Bully Brew’s menu features the light roast coffee made with beans imported from Papua New Guinea. “The fun part is that we can create new things and see the development of two beans from two different countries or two different regions put together and have this incredible taste,” Luck says.

Keeping up with new technological and marketing developments is also part of the coffee business. This ranges from using the web and social media to promote the Bully Brew band to adding a machine that produces individual K-cups made in small batches from freshly roasted beans for Keurig-style coffee brewers. This past summer, a new computerized roaster was installed at the Coffee Co. location.

Luck touts Bully Brew’s cold brew made from steeping beans for a day in five-gallon batches. Usually served over ice, she says cold brew gives a smooth taste that’s not bitter or acidic. “We experimented for a long time to find the perfect formula, the right bean and how long to steep it.” Another recent product addition came from a collaboration with Half Brothers Brewing Co. in downtown Grand Forks, which now offers Bully Brew Coffee Brown Ale.

A Fresh Roast Difference

Bully Brew also constantly works to educate the public on the difference between its coffee and store-bought coffee. “It’s extremely noticeable when you make the comparison,” Luck says. “The fresh roast is so easy to distinguish with a good cup of coffee. Our espresso blend is so wonderful. That’s what we put into all the fluffy drinks. If you get a caramel macchiato or a latte, we make those drinks with our espresso blend. The fresh bean makes the drink even better.”

Luck credits Starbucks with creating America’s coffee craze and turning its business into a global empire. “I think we can all learn from companies that have created something and are able to develop a taste by pushing their brand,” she says. “After Starbucks started, other people began saying, ‘I think I can do better.’” It’s what continues to motivate Luck to make Bully Brew even better.

Every now and then, she experiences a reminder of why she got into the coffee business. “My favorite thing is to see two people come in for our coffee with no computers or anything in front of them; they’re just talking,” Luck relates. “It makes me think, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s why I did this!’ It’s that vision of two people actually connecting over a wonderful taste and enjoying friendship while they’re having a great conversation.” G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here


From Issue 1, 2019


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