Bo Nelson might’ve already perfected the roasts at Thou Mayest, but he’s still percolating on what the coffee experience of the 21st Century will look, feel and taste like, he said.
The roaster retailer closed its Crossroads coffee shop June 30 — just a year after reopening Thou Mayest at a new home in the arts district, where the brand originally gained favor in the mid- to late 2010s as an intersection for creatives, startup founders, tech workers and thirsty consumers of all flavors.
“We’re here to provide a safe, inclusive space for people to exchange ideas and enjoy delicious beverages in a community setting. I call that ‘next gen community spaces,’” said Nelson, founder of Thou Mayest. “I don’t know how that’s going to look with COVID — and that’s what I’m working on now.”
A new tenant for the coffee shop space within 519 E. 18th St. is expected to be announced soon.
Thou Mayest’s brick-and-mortar spots at River Quay and Cafe Equinox — a hybrid coffee concept within Family Tree Nursery in Shawnee — remain open, while a shop at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is temporarily closed until the pandemic-shuttered museum resumes operations in early September.
The months-long, COVID-induced shutdown spelled the end for the Crossroads location, which sat inside a space shared with Collective Ex — a collaborative for artisans and designers — and was crafted as an experimental concept for the future of coffee, Nelson said.
Small. Stocked with top sellers and exciting surprises on tap. Built with CNC-cut materials that could easily be flat-packed and shipped to a site.
A truly scalable coffee shop.
“The idea is an outpost — like a kiosk, a grab-and-go,” Nelson said, noting early interest from developments in other cities and far-flung locations across Kansas City. “It could be a drive thru. It could be a typical brick-and-mortar that you walk into, like a traditional coffee shop. Or it could be in a residential space, the airport or a myriad of other places.”
The now-former Crossroads location even debuted in 2019 with the markings of “Thee Outpost” before brand confusion among consumers led Nelson to pivot back to the well-known Thou Mayest name.
Click here to read more about the launch of Thee Outpost.
“There was a whole system behind the bar that was built for speed, to get people moving quickly,” he said of the outpost design. “It answered all our questions, and things were going fine … but then COVID took all the wind out of our sails. Ultimately, we were just like ‘Let’s be done with it.’ It just wasn’t doing what anybody needed it to be doing.”
Quarantine alter ego
From Nelson’s point of view — now removed from behind the counter — he still sees a lot of beans coming into Thou Mayest’s production space. He’s been self-quarantined for months, interacting with as few people as possible so he can keep the warehouse — which supplies retail locations and wholesale business — running like a smooth operator through the pandemic.
“Wholesale is cranking. It carries a lot of the weight for us,” Nelson said, mentioning critical business with Whole Foods, Shatto Milk home delivery and the MistoBox coffee subscription service.
Click here to check out Thou Mayest’s online ordering options, including a five-pound bag for $50, shipped anywhere in the U.S.
“I basically have a warehouse all to myself,” he continued. “It’s kind of my dream. I can do all the things I’ve wanted to do now. If I have an idea, I can manifest it. I’ve got the space — well, now we’re having to bring in so much coffee that it’s getting a little crowded.”
Click here to read more of Nelson’s pandemic perspective from earlier in the COVID-19 shutdown.
With wholesale orders helping to pick up the slack from closed or partially reopened retail locations, Thou Mayest has fared better than some in the industry, Nelson said.
“Because we’re a roaster retailer, we’re able to control some of our costs tighter,” he said. “I can’t imagine what some of the coffee shops who can’t control that are facing. They’re still trying to serve coffee, and the margins have to have them running on fumes.”
But Thou Mayest is far from alone in the roaster retailer game, Nelson said, adding that Kansas City has an unusually high number of the ventures — counting such operations as The Roasterie, Broadway Roasting, Messenger Coffee Company, Oddly Correct and Parisi Coffee.
“There are like 62 roasters in the city — some of them people who want to do it all,” he said. “They want to sell their own beans, they want to make their own coffee the way they like roasting it; putting a little bit more control on it.”
Boldly go forward
Of course, some things are out of an entrepreneur’s control, Nelson said.
“COVID has been kind of crazy across the board. We’ve obviously had to pivot and adapt just like everybody,” he said, highlighting a commitment to service that he believes keeps the brand approachable and far from off-putting.
It’s a key component of whatever the next gen community space looks like moving forward, he said.
“Who are we? How do we treat people? And how do we guide them through this crazy world of coffee in a personable way that says ‘Hey, I got you’ — not ‘Hey, let me tell you a lot of stuff you don’t need to know,’” Nelson said. “Sometimes people just want a cup of coffee.”
An emphasis on plants at the nursery-embedded Cafe Equinox — as well as added greenery at River Quay — provides glimpses into Nelson’s frequently-iterating concept.
“With my background in architecture and plants, I’m always interested in creating easy and affordable ways to do comfy, cozy spaces — and to be able to show people it’s possible,” he said. “You don’t have to do these million-dollar buildouts for a cafe that will maybe start turning a profit in seven to 10 years.”
Even a pricey design is useless if it doesn’t take into account the new pandemic realities of the coffee shop industry. Nelson sees a possible alternative in a variation of the Thee Outpost concept, he said.
“How do we start protecting ourselves from COVID? How do we build these modular units — that are maybe on casters — to reconfigure a space? It doesn’t have to be permanent,” Nelson mused. “How do we rethink it with plants, the light, the air quality, water quality? There are so many environmental touches that we’ve gotten to experience that we can now make more accessible to people on a daily basis.”
Imagine the potential, for example, of using CNC machines and other available tools and technology to craft a compact, flexible and adaptable coffee kiosk that brings people together in spaces and scenarios not otherwise possible, he challenged.
“So you print these cafes and then ship them all over the place. Then if you have the coffee ready to plug in, it’s like ‘Who’s ready to go? Here are your products,’” Nelson said. “We’re going to keep it small. We’re going to keep it gritty. And we’re just going to grow with it.”
And if it doesn’t work? Well that’s fine too, he said. Thou Mayest will pivot again.
“Listen, I don’t have an agenda here. I just want to know if we can do coffee better.”