When he turned a big idea into Tiny House Coffee, Blake Thomas wasn’t looking for fame or fortune but rather for purpose. He says he’s found it in a line of work that brings out a passion he never felt in any previous job.
In 2012, Thomas received a master’s degree in agricultural and resource economics from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. He researched and wrote his thesis on the effects of population and employment growth on urban water use. After graduation, he left for Nicaragua and an assignment with the Peace Corps.
“Graduation, for me, was a brief pit stop in what should be a lifelong journey of hard work and continued learning,” Thomas says. “It’s also a time to start seeking what you want for your life.
“Walking into and ultimately away from UT Knoxville, the answer to that question became more clear. I’d had various jobs, traveled and pursued higher education. I realized my fulfilment would not be met simply through monetary gain but with something I could be proud of and say, in earnest, did good for the world.”
Initially, he worked on a water sanitation project in the small mountain town of El Jícaro, Nueva Segovia, near the Nicaraguan border with Honduras. While helping a small co-op of farmers, most of whom grew corn and beans, Thomas reached a figurative fork in the road. A few of the farmers grew coffee, and as he learned of their numerous challenges, Thomas wanted to put his UT-fueled knowledge of agricultural economics into helping the farmers.
“I was able to visit several coffee farms and mills where the beans were processed after harvest. I learned about the incredibly long and complex process of bringing coffee from farm to market,” Thomas says. “However, the main topic of conversation revolved around low market prices and the coffee fungus ‘la roya’ that has been disrupting the coffee-producing world. The farmers were facing increasingly strong head winds, and the market didn’t seem to be responding appropriately.”
Six months into his service, he met fellow Peace Corps volunteer Helen Schafer, who shared Thomas’ newly piqued coffee interest. Schafer’s best friend was the daughter of Donaldo Cuadra, a well-established Nicaraguan coffee farmer who played a pivotal role in educating and collaborating with Thomas and Schafer on the coffee industry. Cuadra ultimately asked Thomas and Schafer to consider starting a business importing and selling coffee in the U.S.
Upon their return to this country, they began to evaluate the market. Cuadra continued to send coffee so Thomas could develop his bean-roasting craft.
Months later, Thomas and Schafer launched Tiny House Coffee in Austin, Texas. The business uses a unique, revenue-sharing model in which it takes coffee from Nicaraguan growers on consignment and compensates farmers with a percentage of their sales.
“The end result will be a final price of $3.25 per pound for the farmers, whereas the normal market price would be closer to $1.25,” Thomas says.
Theoretically, eliminating the middle man enables this doubling of profits for the coffee growers, which would, in turn, help them weather the financial hit from “la roya” faced by many coffee growers.
“It is yet to be determined if Tiny House will succeed or if our model will ultimately help the farmers, but we are all very excited to find out,” Thomas says.
In January, he traveled to Nicaragua to negotiate Tiny House’s next coffee buy.
“Our first purchase, in 2015, was for 2,700 pounds. This round, we increased that number to 11,000 pounds,” Thomas says. “We have seen consistent month-over-month growth since the start of the business and have been able to procure new equipment needed to continue this expansion.”
The biggest project on the to-do list now, Thomas adds, is finding a new facility to allow for expected growth of the business.
His former major professor at the UT Institute of Agriculture, Chris Clark, says Thomas’ work highlights two focus areas of the university and the department: entrepreneurship and the pursuit of other international opportunities.
“His work to improve the lives of others through Peace Corps service and now his efforts to improve the market opportunities for smallholder coffee growers in Nicaragua are a source of pride for the department and all who have worked with Blake,” Clark says.
“And what’s rare is that you have someone like Blake who is aware of opportunities and in a position to do something about them. That’s part of the two things that make his story exciting: A, it’s entrepreneurial; and B, it’s social activism. He’s putting knowledge he has to use in this rather unique model with potential for broad benefit.”
Thomas, who received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Texas in 2008, says he’s grateful for every academic and work experience that led him to Tiny House. He says he’s also grateful for Clark challenging him to do more and go further.
“With every role, I picked up something—knowledge or a skill—that allows me to do be where I am today,” Thomas says. “Having this clarity and living in an impoverished setting in Nicaragua, I found what I had been looking for. Looking back on all those years, the greatest value for me was always in the skills and knowledge I acquired.”
More about Tiny House Coffee, including how to order online, is at: tinyhousecoffeeroasters.com