Thomas Coffee Reinvented in The Grove: Aims to Capture Local Market, Make St. Louis a Roasting Haven

St. Louis was once a national leader in many things: beer, shoes, airplanes and more. If Bob Betz, President and CEO of Thomas Coffee has his way St. Louis will once again become a coffee town with dozens of roasters. In 1905 St. Louis was home to 75 coffee roasters, approximately 10 exist today. Bob already refers to his corner of The Grove as “the Coffee District” (both Ronnoco and Kaldi’s roasting facilities are nearby). But his first task is to make Thomas Coffee a top brand in St. Louis. It’s what he calls the “big backyard” theory.

He’s been the President and CEO of Thomas Coffee for just 15 months and everywhere one looks is change, from the new logo, to new packaging, to the completely renovated manufacturing facility to the wet paint and finishing touches that were still being applied less than 48 hours before Friday’s open house and ribbon cutting. Mayor Slay will attend, another stop in what has become routine, criss-crossing the city to highlight and welcome investment.

{Thomas Coffee aims to be a premium brand in their own backyard}

In many ways Thomas Coffee Co. and Bob tell the tale of St. Louis. He was raised in University City in the 1950’s and 60’s. He attended St. Louis University. He settled and raised his family in Wildwood. If you’re not familiar, from Thomas Coffee Wildwood is past Clayton, past Frontenac, past Town and County, past Manchester, past Ballwin and past Ellisville, a 45-minute commute each way.

Bob clearly didn’t believe that University City, or St. Louis City was a place to raise a family in the 1970’s and 80’s. Today, even with his substantial investment in and newfound knowledge of the city, he believes that it is a place for a different generation than his own. His oldest son is a city resident and Bob recognizes that if St. Louis wants to keep bright young talent in the region, the city is going to have to appeal to young professionals.

The urban, city life is what many want. So while Bob will likely never be a city resident, he does see it as a wise place to invest. It’s clear when speaking with Bob that this investment goes beyond his financial stake in Thomas Coffee. “The city has to make it or the county will die,” he said more than once. “I want a better city for my children and grandchildren.”

“There’s not much culture in Wildwood,” Bob says, as he laughs at his own understatement. He believes that the things people want to do, the events, the attractions, the “culture” is in the city. Of course the cultural institutions have always been in the city, but recent redevelopment and the renaissance of downtown in particular led Bob to believe the city was coming back.

“I took my 90 year old mother to Washington Avenue for lunch, she thinks it’s the coolest place,” Bob said. “And the new Schnuck’s store is awesome.” While some urbanists can spend hours arguing the finer points of lamppost design, parking meters and historically accurate cornices, a future city business owner (and his 90 year old mother) simply saw a transformation.

The acquisition of Thomas Coffee by the new owners was a 2 ½ year process. Once acquired, there was plenty of work to do. The facility, which began roasting coffee as Rose’s in 1905, needed a little bit of everything, and a lot of cleaning. And Bob got to know the city inspectors. He says that initially inspectors and others were skeptical, but once they realized that a real investment was being made and that the company was making an honest effort to navigate the myriad of requirements and inspections required that the relationship was good. The facility is now HACCP certified and all without the use of tax credits according to Bob.

{coffee beans stacked and stored waiting to be roasted}

Asked if he had considered buying the company and moving to a new location, Bob said that the building itself was attractive. At 30,000 sq. ft., the facility has enough room for future growth. Currently, about 15,000 sq. ft. is used for offices and packaging while 7,500 sq. ft. serve as warehouse space and another 7,500 sq. ft. is empty. If he would have moved the business, a likely location would have been O’Fallon, MO, where a new light manufacturing facility could have been easily and cheaply built. But it wouldn’t have been in the city and the building wouldn’t have been “indestructible,” to use Bob’s word. And most of the equipment appears indestructible as well. The roaster, packaging and labeling machines are all vintage and were all dismantled, refurbished and rebuilt.

{a single roaster is used to prepare batches of Thomas Coffee}

As for the location on Boyle Avenue in The Grove neighborhood, Bob was genuinely surprised at the friendly and accommodating people he’s met. He’s had to ask some neighbors to not park on the company lot. “No problem,” was the response. Police on patrol routinely check to ensure the building is secure and even set off the alarm system themselves once after an employee left an outer door unlocked. Bob feared neighbors would complain about construction noise, as they would in Wildwood, but no, neighbors have welcomed them and the work they’re doing.

{the Thomas Coffee facility is very much a physical part of The Grove neighborhood}

Bob hasn’t spent his career in the coffee business, but he’s clearly enthusiastic and a quick study. Several years ago, as I learned to love my coffee addiction, I bought the book “Uncommon Grounds, The History of Coffee and How It Transformed our World.” Bob is the only person I’ve met who has also read the book. He travelled to Costa Rica and Columbia to see the coffee haciendas first-hand.

So what are his plans for Thomas Coffee? There are currently 12 employees, many serving in multiple responsibilities as the company grows. Over the coming 3-5 years Bob stated he plans to add 30-50 additional employees, all at the Boyle Avenue location. He expects company sales to grow three-fold with current efforts and says he’s close to securing agreements that would multiple sales well beyond this growth rate.

Key to this effort is establishing Thomas Coffee as a marquee local brand, establishing that “big backyard”. When asked if local brewer Schlafly offered a good business model, Bob cracked a smile and said that he’s taken a long, close look at how Schlafly operates.

Although they have been approached to consider a retail location, the current focus is on grocery store shelves, food service and direct sales. Moving from four scattered shelf slots to 24 together in the gourmet coffee section at local Dierberg’s is one indication of early success.

Internet sales currently account for roughly 10% of sales, Bob hopes that number reaches 30%. Thomas Coffee will soon have a new website and a presence on Facebook and Twitter. “We need to build a coffee community,” Bob says. Free samples will soon be available on-line by request, customers will be able to design their own blend and free tastings can be scheduled. In addition, Thomas Coffee will be asking coffee drinkers in St. Louis to give unfiltered reviews.

{a close up of the Thomas Coffee tasting room}

This is all new and a big leap from where the company was 15 months ago. “When we bought the company the fastest computer in the building had 256K of RAM,” Bob said. The new systems installed track production batches to aid in shipping and identifying any problems. Such inventory control measures and more were necessary for Thomas Coffee to be awarded HACCP certification. Bob is also focused on sustainability issues, from recycling packaging material to purchasing beans from only certified growers such as Hacienda La Minita in Costa Rica. Thomas Coffee will soon introduce an antioxidant rich coffee, where the fruit flesh from the berries is incorporated into the roasted beans.

{more beans ready to roast}

While Thomas Coffee may currently lack retail locations, Bob wanted to make sure the public felt welcome to come by 922 S. Boyle for a free cup of coffee any time after 7:00 am Monday through Friday. And what about the St. Louis Coffee District? It may not be the next development in the fast-moving Grove, but, as Bob says, before you can do something, “First you have to start thinking about it.”

Thomas Coffee can be found on-line at

{look for the 922 awning and stop in for a free coffee – tell them urbanSTL sent you!}