It’s not every day you come across an 18-year-old who has been brewing and cupping coffee since the age of three, but that’s exactly who we have with us today. Keely Thomas is a University of South Carolina student and the co-founder of Grand Strand Coffee. Like many others, Keely’s family is deeply rooted in coffee, but her active involvement from such a young age makes her Next Gen story one that you cannot miss! Bent Dietrich, Next Gen Council Member, and Trader at American Coffee Corp. sat down with Keely to learn more.
Let’s start at the beginning of what is a truly “Next Gen” story! Tell us a little bit about who you are.
My name is Keely Thomas, and I recently turned 18. I was born in Gastonia, NC, but I have lived in Salt Spring Island, BC, Vancouver, BC, Seattle, WA, and Fairfax, VA. I am a co-founder/barista of Grand Strand Coffee in Myrtle Beach, SC, and a full-time student at the University of South Carolina, majoring in International Business and Operations and Supply Chain. I am also heavily involved in the University of South Carolina’s School of Music where I play music in the Bassoon Studio and University band.
Some of us may be familiar with your story due to the Barista Magazine highlight, but for those who are not, how did you get started in coffee? And what are you up to these days?
Due to my parent’s long coffee history, it is practically in my blood. I’ve grown up in coffee shops, coffee roasting plants, and QC labs. I started cupping around age 3, but mostly just tasting the coffee. By age 6, I had learned how to make great coffees on V-60 pour-overs and made my parents coffee in bed for years (that stopped when I became a full-time barista). When I was around 10, my father started teaching me to roast samples on Probat sample roasters, and at that point, I began to learn how to cup for defects and descriptions. This came in handy during the pandemic.
When I was 13, I wanted a job, but I was too young to begin working as a barista, so I decided to open a small cold brew stand at the farmers market with the help of my mother. We ran the cold brew booth for two years before we got the opportunity to have an actual brick-and-mortar store. We opened our first store in March 2020 (right at the beginning of the pandemic). It was a challenge opening in that environment, but we had a significant following already. Plus, we were so specialty-focused that we didn’t have much competition. There were other coffee shops in the area, but no one was focused on specialty coffee like we were. Customers quickly understood that we were a coffee family, and we were focused on high-end specialty and telling the story of the coffee all the way back to the farmers that grew it.
How is the transition going from being in high school and working at Grand Strand Coffee to being a full-time college student? Have you scoped out your favorite coffee spots at the University of South Carolina yet?
Transitioning from high school to college is very different from what I expected. In high school, Covid allowed me to go virtual and work full-time at Grand Strand Coffee. After going back in person for my senior year, I had enough credits to go to school for only half the day, which also allowed me to work at the store. Now that I’m in school three hours away from home, I cannot go in and pick up barista shifts, but I still help with social media and special projects for GSC. During our holidays, I am lucky enough to drive home to work at Grand Strand Coffee! Thankfully, I have found a great coffee shop in Columbia. They are a small, quality-focused, family-owned coffee roastery in Cottontown, Columbia, called Indah Coffee Co., and I enjoy a cortado from them every weekend.
You’ve helped your father out with samples and seen his work at home. As an importer for Intercontinental Coffee Trading, he helps connect roasters to coffee producers all over the world. Despite your young age, you’ve actually had a lot of exposure to various parts of the business. Between the roasting side and importing side, what are your favorite aspects of the industry?
Currently, I enjoy being a barista. I enjoy creating classic and new drink combinations to serve my customers, such as the sweet and spicy latte, a blend of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and allspice. I also enjoy educating people about specialty coffee. These traits are some of which make working at Grand Strand Coffee a lot of fun. Since moving to Columbia for school, I have been attending barista competitions and would eventually like to compete in the US Barista Championship.
As you mentioned, I have spent much time helping my father since he works from home. We have a Probat sample roaster here, so during the pandemic, when the ICT office in San Diego was closed, my father and I had to help with QC. Most of the samples from Origin would come to us to cup and we would then let the team know the results. I would roast the samples, set up the tables, and cup five days a week with my father. As much as I love cupping and roasting, I would still prefer to go into trading at some point.
Are you planning on staying in the coffee industry after you graduate from college?
I definitely plan on staying in the coffee industry after I graduate. I want to become a Specialty Coffee Trader and eventually start my own importing company.
For the industry as a whole, how do you view the future of the industry?
As a whole, I feel that the coffee industry will continue to see a shift toward specialty. We’ve been seeing this trend in the US for a while, and after talking to my father about some of the next-generation coffee producers, I feel origin is moving in that direction. In Myrtle Beach, real specialty coffee is a bit new; most coffee shops are still trying to copy Starbucks by selling sweet and milky drinks. We’ve noticed that at our store, people will drive across town and pass dozens of coffee shops to come to GSC to get classic-style espresso drinks and nice specialty coffee from us. Knowing how far people drive to get a cup of coffee from us is the best compliment we could receive. I genuinely believe this is the future of coffee.
What kind of change or progress do you see the Next Generation of coffee bringing to the industry?
I think technology and social media will play a significant role in the next generation. Social media is already a great way to teach people about coffee and the whole process from seed to cup. You’ve got amazing baristas like Morgan Ekroth (Morgan Drinks Coffee) and next-generation coffee growers like Sara Corrales (Finca Los Pinos) putting out great content. This content shows younger people that coffee is more than just a way to get “cheap energy” to help them study all night; coffee has history and lots of passion behind it.
What advice would you share with your fellow Next Gen-ers or people looking to get involved in the coffee industry?
I want to share some advice with people trying to get into the coffee industry: just go for it! If you enjoy a favorite coffee shop/roastery, submit an application. There are so many opportunities in the coffee industry and so many amazing people and cultures; there is something for everyone to enjoy.
The future is certainly looking bright with passionate coffee lovers like Keely coming up in the industry! On behalf of the Next Gen Council, thank you to Keely for her time and involvement.