By Dave Leder
It started small and snowballed from there. Eventually, Dave Fergus and his buddies were buried.
That, in short, is how Avalanche Distributing was born.
Fergus started the Zillah-based espresso stand supply company out of his garage in 1995, delivering flavored syrups and other wholesale items to businesses around the Yakima Valley.
A few years later, when the espresso craze started taking hold, Avalanche started roasting coffee and launched the Valanga Gourmet Coffee brand out of its River Road warehouse in Yakima.
“It really was the coffee culture that drove our growth,” said Wanda Fergus, who has run the company with Dave’s brothers, Dick and Don, since Dave died in 2008. “We brought in the roaster in 1999 and things kind of went nuts from there.”
After a successful merge into the coffee arena, Valanga Gourmet expanded into baked goods in 2000. That move put Avalanche Distributing on the path toward becoming a mainstay in the Eastern Washington espresso industry.
Now the company provides everything but dairy products to 130 drive-thru stands in eastern Washington and northern Oregon.
“We used to be mostly in Yakima, but nowadays it’s only about a third of our business,” Dick Fergus said. “The Tri-Cities market really expanded a lot, and we also have a lot of clients in Wenatchee, Moses Lake and northern Oregon. But we’re not trying to take over the state. We have no desire to go to the Seattle area.”
After a highly successful first 10 years, business really took off in 2005 when a third Fergus brother, Don, joined the operation as a coffee roasting specialist.
That was also the year Avalanche moved its operations from Yakima to a 42,000-square-foot facility in Zillah, the former El Ranchito warehouse on First Avenue.
Today, Avalanche is the largest espresso stand supplier in the region, distributing coffee, baked goods and supplies from the Tri-Cities to Ellensburg; Moses Lake to The Dalles.
Their fleet of three vans and a box truck covers a 100-square-mile radius from their Zillah warehouse, traveling as far west as Hood River and as far east as Walla Walla.
With annual gross sales estimated at $4 million and more espresso stands coming on line all the time, the owners believe they’ve found a sweet spot in a competitive industry.
“One of our vendors tells us we’re an anomaly because there aren’t many companies left who do what we do,” Wanda Fergus said. “But we’ve had to work at it. We are working all the time because we’re competing against places like Costco and Cash & Carry as a wholesale distributor.”
Building Up Small Businesses
Avalanche and Valanga Gourmet products can be found all over the Yakima Valley, in varying capacities. Some places stock up on coffee, syrups, cups and baked goods, while other stands use one product or another.
For example, Sundance Espresso in Selah uses Valanga baked goods but offers a different brand of coffee.
Other recognizable Avalanche clients in Yakima are Tom Tom Espresso, Lincoln Avenue Espresso, Double Shot Espresso, Rush, The Mocha Tree, Manhattan Station, Stop N Go and the Coffee Shack. The company’s delivery route also includes Highway Coffee and Camo Coffee in Naches, plus Grinders, Karlee’s Coffee and River Canyon Espresso in Selah.
Each of Avalanche Distributing’s clients knows it is in good hands.
“Our level of service is what sets us apart,” Wanda Fergus said. “Our clients like that we come to them, and that we listen to their needs. We like being here to make their jobs easier for them.”
Exceptional customer service was a primary pillar upon which the Avalanche brand was built.
Dave Fergus believed in going the extra mile for his clients and his employees, and that was his motivation, even more than making a profit.
His mantra: “Too many companies let the bottom line control the way people are treated; I know it can be done better.”
One way the Avalanche team goes out of its way for its customers is to provide individualized service for each of the 130 espresso stands.
Unlike the large national distributors like Food Services of America, Avalanche Distributing will accommodate special orders and even make a special delivery or two.
“The best way to keep your customers happy is to do what you say you’re going to do and then follow up,” said Dick Fergus, whose wife Bernie also works at Avalanche. (All of the children in the family also have worked for Avalanche at some point in their lives.)
“After you’ve done this for a while, you get a pretty good feel for people. You’re able to build trust, and those relationships are what have made us successful.”
Avalanche isn’t actively looking to expand its cache of coffee kiosk clients. But at the same time, the owners are always looking for ways to help small businesses grow.
“We feel like we’ve been able to help a lot of other businesses over the years,” Wanda Fergus said. “Being a reliable partner for these people is why we’re still here, and we plan to keep doing it for a long time.”