Barn Happy business built from faith

SOFIA LEGASPI, Campus Life Editor

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Kris Boettger may work in the retail and food industry, but in her mind, her main job is to be a blessing to others.

“I love the people,” Boettger said, sitting at a table enjoying a cup of homemade vegetable soup at her business Barn Happy: a gift shop, lunch stop and coffee bar all rolled into one.

Less than a five-minute drive from UNI’s campus, a sign along University Ave points to a big white dairy barn built in 1925 on the Boettger’s acreage. The building has been transformed into a unique business that “works to preserve the agricultural heritage and values of the heartland,” according to its website.

The public loves Barn Happy, too. Boettger recalled running into a customer at the grocery store who gushed about the business.

“She said, ‘The desserts are amazing and I love shopping there, but my favorite thing about Barn Happy is when I come there, I’m always happier when I leave,’” Boettger said. “And it made my whole day. That’s what I love about it. You can just be a little ray of sunshine for people; that’s probably my favorite part of it.”

Those in need of a ray of sunshine can find it at Barn Happy on Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. All who enter the building will be greeted with warm smiles and the aroma of coffee, soup, sandwiches and baked goods — all of which are homemade with local ingredients.

Amidst the chatter emanating from families, groups of friends and Cedar Valley tourists alike, Barn Happy guests may even hear a bell ringing as Boettger announces the presence of a birthday celebrant. As per tradition, the guest of honor dances to a birthday song while everyone else claps.

Bodies and merchandise pack the building to the rafters, literally, but this only makes its atmosphere all the more cozy. Barn Happy is loved not only for its fare, but also for the plethora of wares available for purchase. Guests enjoy their food surrounded by products that are uniquely Iowan — everything from wine from a family-owned winery in Fredericksburg to handmade jewelry and toilet paper printed with the Iowa flag. Boettger supports over 100 vendors from across the state.

In the barn’s loft, where wooden beams soar across the vast roof, customers can embark on a treasure hunt among an assortment of upcycled furniture, antiques and collectibles from four different vendors.

The idea for Barn Happy struck Boettger late at night nearly two decades ago. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom searching for a job to supplement her husband’s income as a minister, preferably one with flexible hours that would allow her time home with her two school-aged children.

She and her husband agreed to pray about it. They did so for over a year. Boettger grew impatient, but her husband encouraged her to wait. Eventually, the waiting paid off.

“I was falling asleep one night and the idea came to turn this building into a store,” she said.

Boettger said she knew the idea was divinely conceived because of the current state of the building: lower level packed with hogs and caked with six inches of manure, upper level filled with straw.

“It was all just a nasty and dirty and filthy and stinky barn,” she said. “I would never in a million years go near this barn and think about eating in it. And that was weird enough; that was a God idea.”

Before this idea came about, Boettger — who holds degrees in art and communication — maintained a craft table in her home where she worked on old windows to take to craft shows. She didn’t enjoy hauling bulky windows around the state, however, and instead planned to sell her crafts out of her barn, among other products.

“I love to bake, and I love coffee, and I love people, so it worked out — have a coffee shop and bake goodies and sell things made in Iowa,” she said.

It took a year and a half to clean and renovate the building with insulation, ventilation, plumbing and other necessities. The cleaning process involved a power-washer, a skid-steer loader and lots of bleach. All the wood beams and floors seen in the building today are original.

Boettger had intended to start small and stay small, but Barn Happy took off. She originally planned on serving simply coffee and desserts, but eventually decided to offer a full meal and had to hire employees. Boettger also maintains a small event space about 40 feet north of Barn Happy: a renovated corn crib dubbed “The Crib” with capacity for 50 people, rentable for parties, weddings and other events.

“It’s been a really fun adventure that’s exceeded all of my expectations — I thought I was gonna have a part-time job just for myself,” she said.

In 2017, Barn happy received the Iowa Tourism Award for Outstanding Retail Experience.

“That was pretty awesome because I haven’t done a great deal of marketing or advertising,” Boettger said. “So the fact that we won that award felt really encouraging.”

Most of Barn Happy’s business comes via regular customers and word of mouth. For Boettger, one of the most challenging aspects of maintaining her business is technology and social media. She barely used a cell phone when it first opened, and today, Barn Happy’s only online presence is its website and Facebook page. Despite this, Barn Happy has developed a healthy online reputation, receiving generous reviews and ratings on many websites as well as encouraging comments from loyal Facebook followers.

Boettger’s children often laugh at her technological ineptitude, she said. Although her children are now adults at 22 and 24 years old, the “mom hours” with which the business started have remained the same. When faced with the question of why, Boettger had a ready response.

“Fine — I’m old and I’m tired,” she said with a laugh. “We’re not adding hours.”

Although she did concede to adding a few extra hours about six years ago — evening meals on Thursdays during the fall season in order to serve customers working during the day — Boettger is otherwise content with Barn Happy’s limited hours, citing it as an important factor in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

“I think that’s partly why it’s still fun for me, because I’ve got a little bit of a balance in my life,” she said. “I feel like with small businesses, either they close because they’re broke […] or they close because they’re burnt out. They just can’t sustain it.”

Although Barn Happy has evolved in many ways, one thing has remained constant in the last 17 years: Boettger’s Christian faith and its continuing guidance in the way she manages her business. Boettger called her faith “everything.”

“God has shown me so many things about myself through this business,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to trust Him so much more with things. When I order thousands of dollars worth of inventory every year, I just say, ‘Lord, I can’t make people come and buy this stuff. I can’t do anything; this is all you.’”

One concrete illustration of this truth, Boettger recalled, occurred about five or six years into Barn Happy as it was beginning to gain momentum. She admitted to growing prideful, even though it wasn’t evident on the outside.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘I am awesome,’” she said. “And then, literally not one human walked in the barn for like two hours. And the little Spirit of the Lord said, ‘Who’s awesome?’ And I went, ‘Not me; I’m nothing. You’re awesome; I’m not awesome.’”

While some may find it strange for a business owner to forfeit credit for her success, Boettger said she has found it to be liberating.

“As I’ve gotten ahold of that more and more over the years, it makes it more and more fun because I’m like, the pressure’s off me,” she said. “I’m going to do my best to make this great, but at the end of the day, I don’t control it. God controls it.”

It’s a strategy that seems to be effective. Nearly two decades after praying for an idea, Boettger now finds herself with a well-loved local business perfect for her passions that shows no signs of slowing down.

“I think that’s the only reason I’ve been here 17 years is because he’s just sustained it by his strength,” she said. “And it is so how I am wired; this business is so me. But I would have never thought of it. People are like, ‘Was this a dream of yours?’ I’m like, ‘No!’ I never would have thought of this, you know?”

Barn Happy is open all year except for January and February. Its website can be accessed at barnhappy.net.

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