Coffee needn’t be melancholy or monochromatic, said Thou Mayest founder Bo Nelson, bathed in warm sunlight at Cafe Equinox.
“We have to wake people up,” said Nelson. “We’re trying to celebrate the diversity of life — humanity, plants, music, art — so many collisions. It’s not a distraction. It’s not a means to an end. It is the end itself.”
With near-freezing rain pouring outside, Nelson and his brother, Jesse, stood amid tropical plants in the greenhouse of Family Tree Nursery in Shawnee — the site of the latest concept from Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters.
A grand opening for Cafe Equinox is planned for Saturday at 7036 Nieman Rd., nestled amid the city’s suburban landscape.
Click here to check out Cafe Equinox’s Instagram.
“It’s all plants. Coffee is a plant. We’re selling plants. It’s more than just providing a complete shopping experience. To me, it’s creating an environment where people feel inspired and appreciated,” said Jesse Nelson, who runs the family nursery business with his brother, Jonah, and father, Eric. “By providing coffee and pastries, it just softens the greenhouse even more. It makes people feel like they’re at home, like they can just relax, hang out and soak in the environment.”
Cafe Equinox is a store within a store, owned by the Nelson family at Family Tree but operated by Thou Mayest. The idea is simple: caffeine and chlorophyll.
“Being able to make people happy, it’s a science — with plants and people,” Bo Nelson said. “Putting the two together seems like a natural thing to do. Kind of like it seems natural to put a bar and a coffee shop together.”
“They’re two separate industries, and you kind of have to bend the rules in order to make it work,” he added.
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Thou Mayest’s flagship store in the East Crossroads closed in December, as Nelson explored ways to take the business in new directions. Along with shoring up the roaster’s wholesale operations, Cafe Equinox is the first public sign of what’s to come for the iconic Kansas City startup.
Reaction to a soft opening last weekend surprised the brothers who, despite ongoing interest in the Thou Mayest brand, didn’t expect such an immediately enthusiastic response in a space so far removed from the Crossroads.
“A lot of people have just been waiting to hear what we’re going to do next. We’ve been taking the entire month and a half to recalibrate, reset,” Bo Nelson said. “I’m trying to look farther into the future of cafes and how we can add value to what we do and to the people who we work with.”
Surrounded by greenery, the Shawnee spot has the potential for coworking, meetings and corporate retreats in an atmosphere unlike nearby downtown or office park vibes, he said.
“It gets people out of a glass, concrete and metal jungle that’s not very primal. It’s not who we are. It’s not what gives us life,” Nelson said. “It’s fun to be around the energy of the city, but it gets real hard, real quick to stand up against those materials.”
Click here to read more about how coffee culture fuels Kansas City’s startup ecosystem.
Grown in the family greenhouse
Cafe Equinox — a brew of coffee shop and greenhouse spaces — is an outgrowth not only of Thou Mayest, but of roots in the family business and its values, Nelson said.
“Some concepts never get off the ground because they’re over-analyzed and people are watching the numbers too closely,” he said. “Numbers are really important, but you also have to focus on creating a feeling with people.”
“Family Tree already does that. And I didn’t fall too far from that apple tree,” Nelson added. “The three big pieces to creating a unique shopping environment are already here: product, service, environment.”
It’s a mantra the coffee roaster learned from a young age, working alongside his brothers and father in the now-third-generation business.
“Something that’s been hammered into us: Humans, plants, environmental spaces, products or service … We are capable of so much more,” Nelson said, emphasizing the need to keep pushing amid both complacency and adversity.
It would have been easy for his grandfather, Ron Nelson, who founded Family Tree Nursery in 1965, to give up decades ago, for example. The first year the business was expected to prove profitable, it burned down, Nelson said.
His grandfather persevered. A bank took a risk and gave Family Tree a loan, planting the seeds for what now is three retail locations across the metro and a production facility that supplies most of the business’s annuals, perennials, succulents and tropicals, Nelson said.
Click here for more on the story of Family Tree Nursery.
“We were raised with these stories shared around the dinner table, but you’re so far removed from it yourself until you go out and do your own thing, take your own risks,” he said. “You have to have grit and just get punched, and punched, and punched. It takes problem-solving, tenacity and stubbornness to get a business moving.”
Nelson only left the family nursery when Thou Mayest took off and he could no longer do both, he said.
“A lot of people look at entrepreneurship as some kind of escape. They’re like, ‘I want freedom. I’m going to work for myself.’ But you’re not going to work for yourself. You’re going work for everybody at that point,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, I can make all of this money.’ But even if you’re doing it right, you’re probably not going to be making money for quite awhile, especially in a brick-and-mortar situation. It’s tough and it’s celebrated in a lot of people, but we took a leap with Thou Mayest without really knowing what we were getting into.”
Nature boys at heart
The Nelson brothers’ love of nature rubbed off on them from their father, they said, likening the process to childhood indoctrination that now causes them to see the world from a unique perspective.
“We’re all in the plant business to a degree — whether you’re writing on paper or wearing clothing or drinking it. It’s all plants,” Bo Nelson said.
“Plants rule the world,” added Jesse Nelson, laughing.
Their father frequently cites a documentary based on “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan to explore the relationship between people and plants, they said.
“We think we’re in charge. We think we’re the apex of evolution, but maybe we’re not so smart. Maybe plants are. Maybe we’re doing the plants’ bidding,” Bo Nelson said. “That’s the world that we’re trying to reflect in Thou Mayest: We give a damn. We care about this world. We care about people. We care about the spaces that we’re in.”
Cafe Equinox is another expression of that perspective, said Jesse Nelson.
“We grew up in nature on property, without TV and without distraction … We found so much joy and inspiration in that,” he said. “As we grew older, we realized other people desired that too, but they don’t know what they’re desiring. They want a place where they can be inspired by a space with beautiful plants, where they can get away from the distractions of the world.”
The name of the new concept hints at the prime time to be in a greenhouse — between the fall and spring equinoxes, Nelson continued.
“In the fall, as everything is going dormant, as the trees are shedding their leaves, everything is turning brown and people are starting to go into hibernation mode because it’s getting cold. But within the greenhouse, that is the most magical time — September through March — because everything outside is awful and cold and dead,” he said. “You come in here, and there’s this humidity. You’re surrounded by tropicals and light and life. There’s just nothing like it.”
Thou Mayest get weird
Because of the seasonal nature of greenhouses, the look and feel of Cafe Equinox will shift as the spring and summer arrive and temperatures rise, Bo Nelson said. Seating then will be focused in the space’s more traditional coffee shop area, which also is expected to feature outdoor seating and a walk-up window.
It’s an experiment in progress, the brothers agreed.
“I have a huge interest with how this thing works,” Bo Nelson added. “Because if I can’t do it with him, I can’t do it with anybody.”
As the Nelsons perfect operations at Cafe Equinox, plans move forward for a new Thou Mayest flagship store in the East Crossroads, Bo Nelson confirmed, noting intense interest since the closing of the staple coffee shop location on East 18th Street.
“People have been busting down our door the past month and a half,” he said. “I’ve been really quiet, taking a break from social media. I was just exhausted. Man, that was a crazy five years.”
A series of smaller, lower-risk concepts also are planned, Nelson said, with each piece exploring the varied archetypes of Thou Mayest’s roasts, such as “Smooth Operator” and “Wild Child.”
“We’re going to look more like a restaurant group where we have a bunch of siblings — they’re all in the same family but they can express themselves differently,” Nelson said.
The previous flagship location, for example, focused on the aesthetic of “Boldly Go,” he added.
“It was very masculine, heavy on the lumbersexual. It felt like a lodge … but we didn’t have trouble getting women in there,” Nelson said, noting the new Crossroads flagship will take on a more edgy feel.
“We want to get really weird,” he said.
Collaboration — as with Family Tree Nursery — is a critical piece of Thou Mayest’s strategy for the coming months and years, Nelson said.
“There’s some great stuff coming out of Kansas City. If we’re going to be more heads up about it, we need to start working together more to make Kansas City a magnetic destination for people to live,” he said. “Otherwise, other cities are going to take all of our friends and eventually us. Kansas City is in a spot right now where we have to be careful. Other cities are going to come in and eat our lunch if we’re just looking at today.”
Retail must also evolve in the face of online threats, the brothers said — a process that requires “a harder touch on people’s experience and dunking them inside the brand,” Bo Nelson said.
One customer who braved the weekend’s wintry mix for Cafe Equinox’s soft opening already was bought into the concept, Nelson explained.
“He came in here and said, ‘Man I want to just come in here and work until my computer dies.’”
“I want to work in here until I die,” Jesse Nelson laughed.