A passer-by might think that Bo Nelson is smuggling a small jungle in the back of his Honda Element. On a hazy July afternoon, the longleaf plants disappear one by one into the Utilitarian Workshop - the design shop that has been bringing makers to the West Side for the past several months. An enticing, almost silky coffee scent lingers near his SUV.
The smell follows Nelson, 27, into the shop as he sets down the black planters from Family Tree Nursery, which has been in his family for three generations. Nelson, with a jet-black curled mustache and hair blown back by constant motion, sets a trio of half-pound bags filled with whole beans from Guatemala, Indonesia and Ethiopia on a table made from a rectangle of cardboard.
"This is about learning the language of something that doesn't use the English vocabulary," Nelson says, gesturing to the plants by the front door and the bags in front of him. "But everything around us is always speaking to our senses. It's a question of 'Are you listening? What does a [coffee] bean want to be? How can I roast that and get out of the way, so the person on the other end of this can have a beautiful moment with that bean?' "
Kansas Citians may not yet be picking up everything the bean is putting down, but their taste buds seem to be responding. Since Nelson and Bill Holzhueter launched Thou Mayest Coffee in October 2012, their beans have been snatched up by Aixois, the Upper Crust Bakery, and the Johnson County Sheriff's Office. All of this, Nelson says, has happened without a formal sales push. He suggests it could be Thou Mayest's lighter roast, which caramelizes the sugars in the beans less and doesn't burn off as much caffeine.
"This is not about being the best," Nelson says. "This is about art. It's about letting people decide what they think is good."
The message of choice, which Nelson asserts is an "American battle cry for freedom," is central to his company, as well as his life. Thou Mayest is named for a quote in John Steinbeck's East of Eden and is meant to convey the idea that "the way is open." And Nelson believes that his own path is just opening up because he has finally found a calling without a bottom.
"I don't know my limits," Nelson says. "I don't know if I have any limits. When my body says I can't do more, or I can't give more, that's false. It's what, in the days of old, manliness was all about."
Nelson, an affable storyteller, who's as likely to mix a quote from Gandhi as a line from a summer blockbuster into conversation, says this with earnestness, not bravado. He has searched for those limits in Zimbabwe, where a childhood friend runs a humanitarian ministry. Closer to home, he has done so as a production manager on his family's 10-acre plant farm in Wyandotte County. But Nelson, who once considered playing basketball and studying for the ministry at MidAmerica Nazarene University, couldn't find a way to challenge his mind and body in a way that would conquer his restlessness.
Then in 2010 he met Holzhueter. The other half of Thou Mayest was new to Kansas City and hoping to find someone interested in roasting coffee. What Holzhueter found, through a family friend, was a horticulturalist and future partner. The men discovered a shared love of brewing and a desire to question the world around them.
Nelson's garage turned into a coffee salon, where the pair would drink their brew and talk politics, music and faith. The caffeine that fueled their discussions inspired Holzhueter to suggest they open the conversation to the community, one cup at a time. Their first business plan was a series of pictures and ideas scrawled on an 8-foot-sheet of trace paper left over from Nelson's stint as an architecture student at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. The business solidified when the pair invested in a used 10-pound roaster listed on eBay. In the process of designing their logo and brand, Nelson tapped into the area's burgeoning community of artists and designers.
"I'm hearing a lot from the younger generation that they want something made in KCMO," Nelson says. "And so I'm looking at how I can help build that. This is not just coffee. It's the third industrial revolution."
Nelson hasn't decided if that means having a wholesale operation, retail operation or opening a drink boutique, founded in the same spirit as the Utilitarian Workshop and focused on selling locally made coffee, tea and beer. His phone often glows with text messages from realtors about potential spaces or orders placed through the Internet. Earlier this month, Thou Mayest received a shipment of 1,500 pounds of coffee, including beans from Zimbabwe, that Nelson will cup and have graded.
"I can connect people to great coffee and still be doing the right thing half a world away," Nelson says. "We just want to make it easy for people to get our coffee. I want millionaires and college students sipping it."