Barn Happy has been a favorite destination for anyone wanting to go out with their family and enjoy a home cooked meal, shop for antiques, and purchase Iowa goods. Tim and Kris Boettger own Barn Happy, and I interviewed Kris to ask her about the growth of their business.
In what year did your family move here?
We moved to Cedar Falls in 1994, when I was pregnant with our son, Ike. We moved here to the farm in 1997.
Whose Idea was it to start Barn Happy?
God’s. I prayed for over a year and a half, and finally He gave me an idea one night as I was in bed falling asleep. We had asked God for something that would make money for our family, where I could be home to get the kids on and off the school bus.
When this idea came into my head I knew it was his idea, because the barn was full of pigs and everything that comes with pigs. The loft had hay and straw for bedding and it was just a really dirty stinky barn. So when the idea popped into my head to make the barn for people and food, I knew it had to be a God idea because I never would have thought of that.
The original barn was built in 1925. What were the barn and other outbuildings like when you moved here? As your neighbors, our family recalls Tim’s huge efforts in power-washing and sanitizing the main floor of the big barn, which was originally a dairy barn and for years had been used as a hog house.
True story. The Henderson family whom we bought the acreage from took really good care of their buildings. So they always had the roof in good repair; they had sided most all of the buildings as well. So the buildings were structurally in great shape. They were just really dirty from animal use.
What goals did you have in mind as you thought about launching Barn Happy just over 20 years ago? What was your whole family’s original reaction to the idea?
The goals I had were pretty simple. I needed to make $500 a month to make our house payment because that’s what Tim was making with hogs: 250 hogs in Barn Happy and 250 hogs out behind the crib. I wanted a part time job for myself. I wasn’t that interested in employees or making it a big thing. Just someplace where I could have my craft table and make old windows into pretty things for people, and serve coffee. I had very low expectations and very attainable goals. It’s been an absolute miracle how this thing has exploded.
You’ve become a “destination” for local people and bus tour groups from all over the Midwest. What are the key ingredients to your appeal?
The comments I hear the most are: “We really, really like the homemade food.” and “We really, really like how we feel when we come here. It’s such a happy place.” People say that all the time.
I think people are just looking for a place to come and relax and enjoy time with friends and family. It feels very welcoming to people, and I think that’s huge. Also, people love that we really focus on things made in Iowa. A lot of people really like to support local businesses. So I’d say that’s the combination I hear the most.
You have a wide range of customers, but how would you describe your main local client base?
We have a lot of repeat customers, a lot of locals and we know their names. Although it’s very eclectic in terms of ages; my hours are nine to three which make it a little harder for working people to come except on a Saturday. So I would say the average age of someone who comes here is maybe fifty to sixty. And we also have a fair amount of moms that come with kids. So, it’s a mixture.
When your children, Isaac and Adrienne, were in their teens, how did they benefit from sharing the huge workload during startup and early growth of Barn Happy?
That would be a good question to ask them, but I’m guessing that they just saw their parents work towards a dream or a goal and accomplish it. So I think it probably inspired them to work hard too. And if you want something that might be hard you gotta put in the work to get it. I’ve seen both of them kind of do that as they become young adults. And so maybe that’s it I don’t know. That might be a better question to ask them.
(Ike is a lineman for the Buffalo Bills. Adrienne is a Development Director, teacher, and coach at the Christian school in Waterloo.)
The two of you have been involved in Christian marriage counseling and other ministries before and during the growth of Barn Happy. Now, Tim is executive director of Inspired Life, “a ministry working to help men and women, marriages, parents, children, leaders, teachers, givers, and business owners live truly God inspired lives.” How does the Barn Happy enterprise help empower the Inspired Life mission? (https://www.inspired-life.org)
Well, what’s fun is when people say: ‘how did you get this idea?’ and ‘did you come up with this’ and ‘was this always a dream of yours when you were younger?’ and I would say no, I never would have dreamt in a million years that this would happen. But by praying and asking God for an idea for over a year, what I learned is that if you’re patient in prayer; and that’s really kudos to my husband he’s very patient in prayer. When I was getting antcy I said: “I don’t think God cares what I do with my job’ and he goes: ‘yeah babe he does. We’re gonna wait for a God idea, cause your good ideas make me real tired.” So I’ve learned a lot from my husband which is nice about waiting and listening and being tuned in to the Holy Spirit’s still small voice because that’s really the only way to win.
So with Inspired Life, I feel like in a sense the Barn is a slice of inspired living and practical that people can see and feel and experience. What Tim’s doing with his ministry is a whole different side of being inspired in terms of trying to turn the cultural tide back to Christian and family values from the way it’s being pulled right now. And it’s a lot longer game, a little bit more invisible to see, but hugely important right now. So I would say Barn Happy is a visible piece of Inspired Life living. What Tim’s doing now will get more visible. He’s doing a lot of meetings, he’s traveling around the state. He’s inspiring people in how to create a culture for our children and our families where they can thrive and live free and not be controlled by big government—or evil agendas. So it’s a long game that he’s in. But he’s really feeling pleased with the doors that God has opened for him.
Barn Happy’s shelves and sales floor offers hundreds of unique items consigned to you from Iowa-based arts and crafts individuals. As well as antiques up in the hayloft. And lately, specialty gift baskets and boxes. What’s your guesstimate of your total inventory’s retail value? How many items do you have?
No idea. You can ask Tim that, he does the books. I try to think about that stuff as little as possible. If we’re making money I’m happy. I’m an art major, not an accountant. That’s what I always tell my husband. My husband is actually a business major that God called into ministry, so he loves the business side. Well, I don’t know if he loves it, but he’s really good at it and likes it. I just keep the business rollin’ and he handles the rest. It’s a great team.
Who was your first vendor?
I believe my first vendor brought us the caramels and chocolates from the Trappistire monastery in Dubuque, Iowa. I was put on to them by some ladies that were (on the board of) Taste of Iowa. The ladies sold soup mixes and spices that one of them made from their garden and the other gal did salsas and pepper jellies.
How many individual vendors do you work with, and what’s your business arrangement with them? How many items do you have?
We have a hundred vendors from Iowa who sell products here, and then four different people have inventory upstairs. How many different items? A thousand? I don’t know.
How many part-time staff members work at Barn Happy — and how do they convey such an obviously high level of enthusiasm to every customer?
Twenty part timers; fifteen of us that are most consistently on the schedule and then five people that just help out on Saturdays. I would say the joy of the Lord is our strength. It’s about the Lord and it’s all about finding things every day to be thankful for. As a leader here I really press that idea.
We’re just blessed to be able to be here to do fun things. We can have a coffee break anytime we want, we might have to stand up to have it, but we can get a treat, we can share enthusiasm and joy because it’s in our hearts, and I believe we are called as believers to shine.
To be in the world but not of the world. This is a great environment to do that, and I think my staff feels that too. Just an enthusiasm for life and the blessings that we have. I really believe that there might be four or five really great ways to run the lunch counter, but whoever is running the lunch counter that day gets to pick their favorite way. At the end of the day we need customers to have a great lunch and a smile. How they construct the lunch is up to them. I do not micromanage my people. I don’t like to be micromanaged, and I treat people like I feel I would want to be treated if I was working for them. So there’s a lot of freedom here. Probably the most particular I get is about attitude. And what we’re giving off to customers. But how the actual work gets done—there’s a lot of flexibility in that. So I think that does help the energy in here to stay more positive.
People who work here sense a real ownership, which is amazing for me, I feel like my passion is multiplied times ten with all my staff, so I don’t have to be everywhere all of the time. Several years ago people would say; “Who’s the owner? Who’s the owner?” And I would hear my girls say; “Oh, she’s back doing coffee, or she’s doing this or that.” I said, “Don’t tell them who the owner is, unless they ask.” But sometimes they were saying “Oh, you wanna know about our owner?” I like that we all have ownership. I’m fine to be the owner but I don’t really get off on that either. I feel like ultimately God’s the owner and I’m just trying to work and do my part. So, anyway we don’t have a huge owner-employee vibe here. I feel like we want a team vibe here.
You offer a simple, tasty lunch menu Wednesday through Saturday. Is lunch integral with the huge array of merchandise, or could a similar enterprise thrive as only a “gift shop?”
We started out with just pastries, desserts, and coffee for the first year and a half.
A lot of people asked for lunch, so we added homemade soups.That’s a real passion: Things have to be made from scratch here. You can’t just be pushing soup out of the bag and calling it homemade. You have to get out the butter, the spices, and the vegetables to make the soup. Our lunch menu has stayed small—just soup, sandwiches and Quiches and side dishes. Most of it is made off-site, we make probably 25% of it in our very small kitchen. It was never a dream to be a lunch place, but I do feel like because it is a lunch place that’s why it’s grown so much. Because everybody has to eat lunch, and while they eat lunch they shop. So it’s been a treat to have both. Probably 85% of my labor and costs are in the lunch. It takes a lot of people to serve the lunch and clean up. So if we didn’t have lunch, I would probably have three employees. As it is we have fifteen. So it’s great! I don’t think the business would be thriving like it is without lunch.
If you’re out on main street and there’s restaurants every third door down you don’t need a lunch, people just want to shop gifts because they can go to the restaurant; but this is little more of a destination. Once people get out here it’s nice that they can eat lunch and shop but I don’t think it’s necessary for every business to add a lunch.
So it just depends on their location and what their business is?
Yeah, what their business model is, what they’re trying to do.
Tim told us your Open House celebration in November attracted roughly 2,000 visitors . Do you advertise this through Iowa, or do your regular clientele just know about it and flock to Barn Happy that day?
2,000? Maybe like 500, 400 to 500. It just feels like more when you’re parking cars!
We advertise Mostly with word of mouth. We do some on Facebook. I try to do a Facebook post every week. I’ll do a little coupon and dynamite coupon flyer; That’s probably the most consistent printed thing I do. Where you get seven dollars off if you spend 35. People like the coupons, and I’ll do some free coffee coupons in the Cedar Valley Saver. But other than that I would say 80% of my business is word of mouth.
Do you have a mailing list?
No mailing list. We thought about that, but then I would have to send it to a computer and type in mailing addresses and that’s really not gonna happen.
At your Open House, many vendors staff their individual booths to sell their products. How do you manage the sales of each vendor, so customers can pay at a central point?
We take all the money at the registers; there are three registers; one in each of the three barns. We collect all the money and pay all the tax on it. Vendors keep their own inventory. So If they tell me that they brought sixty jars of pickle sauce and they sold fifty, I believe them. I subtract 35% from their total which is how much I would mark it up, then I write them a check for fifty jars of pickle sauce at the end of the open house. I just run around and pay every vendor for what they said they sold that day, minus my commission. It’s a total trust system. I have a lot of trust in my people that bring me things because I’m not doubling back and recounting what they said they sold. If they said they sold fifty I’m believing they sold fifty.
If a farm family should come to you from another state and ask, “What does it take to build a venture like this?” — what would you tell them?
Pray, pray, pray. Don’t do it on your own because you think it’s cool or fun, ‘cause you won’t last. If it’s a God idea, go for it, make it your own. God made you in unique ways, so put your own special touches on it. As my husband Tim always says, it’s better to be two steps behind the Lord than one step ahead of Him. He who lights his own fires lies down in torment. Human ambition can accomplish a lot; you see it every day. But if something is going to be sustained by the Lord, it has to be more than human ambition, because human ambition only goes so far. And if it’s really God’s business He has to empower it, give you new ideas, help you find the right staff; It’s God’s work that keeps a business going.
So I would say if somebody wants to start a business — and I have had a number of people come to me with this question — I say, “How did God make you? What are your passions? What are your values?” When they tell me, I’ll say “That sounds great! Now just pray for God to show you the right way to get your business going because he cares about this stuff.”
So people have asked that kind of question?
A lot over the years, a whole bunch of people; and some people have gone out and tried to do their own miniature Barn Happy and sometimes it works. A couple people are still doing that, and it’s working decent for them. A lot of people have decided not to do anything or do their own total different thing. It’s fun to help people and discover something that they can do which fits how they’re wired and is an asset to our community.