HELENA — I’ve lived in Helena for over 40 years, yet, I had never stepped inside Fire Tower Coffee House & Roasters on Last Chance Gulch until late December. This is what I discovered.
You might swing by to grab a gourmet coffee. You might pay a visit because you’re hungry for breakfast or lunch, both served all day. But the best reason to stop by, in my opinion, is to enjoy the enthusiasm of owner Nord Johnson, which brings a smile to every customer. He is a one-man show for dispensing goodwill generated from his jovial disposition. He loves coming to work every day for the simple fact he loves people.
Born in Florida, Nord migrated to Colorado for college, where he met his wife, Kim. Seeking a better place to raise their family, they moved to Montana, landing first in Butte, then later in Helena. Nord is a familiar face around town, having managed properties in Helena for 30 years, including the Montana Club, Park Plaza Hotel (now the Double Tree by Hilton), and the Hardware Café. He has also put in time as a fly fishing guide. He told me Kim called him one day and said, "I have a new job for you. The Fire Tower Coffee House is for sale, and you can buy it."
And he did, back in 2012. The former owner was a fireman, so the interior was filled with fireman-related memorabilia, which that former owner took with him. That freed up the coffee house interior for Nord’s collectibles.
It didn’t take long for Nord to fill the walls with his extensive music collections. I’m talking album covers, posters, and guitars, with many of his treasures signed by the various artists.
“Secretly, I think my wife wanted me to buy the coffee house so I could move my stuff out of our house. Kim thinks I’m a hoarder, but I’m not. I’m a collector. Everything I have in this coffee house is very valuable,” Nord said, his words accompanied by expressive hand gestures.
Nord cracked me up. Some of his treasures are gifts from customers, making them priceless in his eyes.
I had to ask about his love of music, and Nord launched into a string of stories. In junior high, a friend turned Nord on to the Beatles, and like wildfire, his interest in rock 'n' roll took off. His first concert was in 1981, featuring the group Rush. Nord has attended hundreds of concerts in his lifetime. One friend is a freelance journalist for music magazines and often gets free tickets to concerts, along with backstage passes. Nord tags along — he has met some giants in the music industry, and he has the autographs to prove it.
“You know how people hang out around the tour bus after a concert, hoping to get an autograph? Well, I’m that guy. I can stand there for hours.”
For eats at Fire Tower, the breakfast choices include burritos, scrambled eggs with the customer’s choice of meat, and a breakfast sandwich with eggs, cheese, and bacon, ham or sausage. On the lighter side, granola or oatmeal are available. A glass case full of pastries, cookies and rolls from Helena’s Dive Bakery are options for those with a sweet tooth.
The signature sandwich at the Fire Tower has smoked turkey on cranberry walnut bread, loaded with provolone, tomato, lettuce, and house-made apricot mayo. The Club, BLT and Garden Patch sandwiches are served on Grains of Montana bread. Salads include turkey, Caesar and garden. Nord makes a daily trip to Van’s Thriftway for produce, ensuring freshness with all that he sells.
If you’re up for a hot sandwich, choices include grilled ham and cheese, chicken quesadilla or a Tuscan chicken wrap with grilled chicken, pesto cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, green peppers, black olives and cheddar jack, wrapped and grilled in a flour tortilla. Whatever you’re hungry for, it’s a good chance you can find it at Fire Tower Coffee House.
The Barista Bar is the place to order a latte, macchiato, cappuccino, breve or mocha (served hot or cold over ice). Fire Tower creates custom lattes, such as The Big Sky (huckleberry mocha), The Last Chance (dark chocolate and orange), Peppermint Patty (dark chocolate and mint), and the best seller, Heaven In A Cup (Ghirardelli white chocolate and caramel). Non-coffee options include steamers, Italian sodas and smoothies. A serve-yourself coffee bar (drip brew) with free refills is centrally located in the coffee house.
The Fire Tower’s reputation for outstanding coffee comes from its artisan approach to roasting the coffee beans in-house in small batches. Most of the coffee served at Fire Tower is certified organic and fair trade. Fair trade ensures that coffee farmers receive a fair, living wage for their work. Some tempting choices include the medium roast Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, described as wild and pure with a fruity after-taste. The coffee tree was first discovered in Ethiopia. The Mount Helena Blend (dark roast) is the best seller, a blend of South American beans yielding a smooth, nutty and smoky flavor.
Customers can purchase coffee in 12 oz. bags, either whole beans or ground. The complete list of gourmet coffee blends can be found on the website. Not only does the Fire Tower cater to its customers, but Nord does a robust wholesale business with his coffee. Some of his customers include the Dive Bakery, Lucca’s, and the Wassweiler Dinner House.
Before I left, I had to pin Nord down on his all-time favorite concert.
Without hesitation, he said, “Missoula, Paul McCartney, August 2014 in the Griz Stadium. It was magical. There was a full moon, and the weather was perfect. I’ve seen him in concert four times.”
I asked, “Did you get to meet him?”
“No,” Nord replied. “But at his Spokane concert in 2021, I had gone around the backstage, and no one was around, so I climbed up on this catwalk. When the band was done playing, they passed 6 feet below me, right under my feet on their way out. Then came Paul. I yelled down at him and said I loved the concert. He looked up at me, blew me a kiss, and gave me the peace sign, just 6 feet below my feet.”
Once again, Nord had me smiling, with his animated gestures doing much of his talking.
It has been my loss waiting for so long to discover Fire Tower Coffee House. It will be my go-to place when I’m feeling a bit blue, as I know Nord can cheer me up.