What happens when Craft Coffee Nerd meets Personable Drive Through Barista?
Like many husband-and-wife owned businesses, the Spokane Valley business’ identity is a true marriage of Shane and Alicia Thompson. He is the bean-roasting, third-waving, coffee-mad scientist whose Christmas list features brewing devices that appear straight out of a chemistry lab. She is the on-the-go, service-centric schoolteacher and mom with a background in drive-through coffee.
Together, they opened Swell Coffee to be a people-first drive-through experience whose star is the craft coffee Shane roasts himself. A year and a half after opening on Sullivan and 16th, the Thompsons recently debuted a second Swell location at 14505 E. Trent Ave. in conjunction with a major announcement: They purchased longtime drive-through Grinders Coffee and its on-site roaster, Bumper Crop Coffee, from Spokane coffee pioneer Malcolm Wicks. Grinders’ transition to Swell was celebrated with a grand opening special March 14.
When Malcolm first called Shane with the idea last summer, “I wasn’t in a place where my mind could comprehend it.” On one hand, it was his dream scenario. On the other, Swell was less than a year in business. After months of discussion, an agreement was reached.
“I got really lucky, because we could have inherited a business where I’m not a fan of the coffee, but Malcolm to be honest is one of the best roasters in Spokane and understands coffee better than anyone I’ve ever met,” Shane said.
I got really lucky, because we could have inherited a business where I’m not a fan of the coffee, but Malcolm to be honest is one of the best roasters in Spokane and understands coffee better than anyone I’ve ever met.Shane Thompson, Swell Coffee
The overlap between the two business models didn’t hurt matters. Both center on drive-through. Both feature coffee sourced and roasted by the owners. Both Malcolm and Shane are coffee-centric, but neither are pretentious about it.
“The reality is there are so many people who aren’t there for coffee,” Malcolm said of the drive-through business. “You’re meeting a relational need, maybe an emotional need, maybe a quick fix, maybe an ‘I don’t have anybody to celebrate my birthday with.’ So coffee is just an avenue to do that. In order to break down those walls on a personal level, you have to be inclusive and not seclusive. Why are we trying to be seclusive in a customer-service based industry?”
At the same time, both agree their house-roasted, excellent coffee is a key differentiator in the drive-through model, and one of the reasons Malcolm saw the Thompsons as ideal successors.
“We’ve been able to educate people about putting less stuff into their coffee,” Shane said. “By nature of roasting coffee a little bit lighter than normal and allowing flavor to come out allows people who might have been heavy syrup coffee drinkers into maybe more traditional latte drinkers. So I celebrate those really small victories, even if you could look at us as a gateway into specialty coffee.”
Shane said he doesn’t plan changes with Bumper Crop and has been roasting with Malcolm for a while. Roasting full time — as opposed to just enough for one coffee stand — has been a long-held dream, however, so he is excited about pursuing an entire side of the business he had previously viewed as closed off to him.
“Wholesaling wasn’t part of my vision (originally),” Shane said. “I really didn’t want to because there are already so many great multi-roasters in Spokane that the thought of developing another multi-roaster from the ground up just seemed like excess.”
Eventually, Shane would love to see the Bumper Crop building — a customized wonder that Malcolm designed and built himself — double as a specialty café, “if we can figure out the zoning and parking.”
“I see people here,” Shane said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I know if I had a cafe in here it could probably do pretty well.”
None of this is something Shane thought he and Alicia would be talking about so quickly, given that “Swell Coffee 1.0” opened only 18 months ago. The location just south of Alicia’s alma mater, Central Valley High School, was a spot they had thought about for years. While the couple live in Millwood, they have family nearby, and Alicia teaches down the street at Sunrise Elementary School.
Meanwhile, Shane came to a point of transition with his longtime job at Youth For Christ Spokane. By this time, Shane had spent years as a coffee hobbyist, even founding the Artisan Coffee Alliance in 2014 to spotlight and grow specialty coffee culture in Spokane. Deep down through it all, a long-held entrepreneurial dream was waiting to be realized.
“Everything in life was pushing toward one day being in the coffee industry,” Shane said. “I knew I wanted to start a business some day, and coffee was the dream.”
Shane and Alicia love the ocean, so their shop was named long before there was ever any actual momentum behind starting the business.
“Swell was a name we had for a long time, and that is kind of driving this idea that we just love surfing and ocean culture,” Shane said. “We thought it would be fun to create a little drive-through that has this element that’s a little different than what you see in Spokane, like this place kind of belongs on the ocean.”
While the surfer vibe reflects Shane’s long-held passion for board sports, the heart behind Swell actually goes deeper than an ocean feel or an excellent cup of coffee. It’s something Alicia knew from experience but that Shane wasn’t able to completely appreciate until Swell took off, and that was the opportunity for the business to be based upon relationships. As Christians who care first and foremost about people over product, Shane said he’s been blessed by the opportunities for human connection.
“I’ve got to pray with people; I’ve got to cry with people,” Shane said. “The same day somebody comes through who just lost their grandma, that very same day there’s a woman whose about to give birth. You see it all, this wide spectrum of normal people.”
And, typically, you see them over and over again.
“The loyalty in drive through is insane,” Shane said. “In drive-through culture, people are like, ‘This is my drive through,” and that’s because of relationship. I’ve fallen in love with drive-through culture and the relationships that are built because of it.”
THE TOP PICK
When Swell Coffee became a reality in September 2018, a community of support was quick to follow with steady traffic and stellar online ratings.
From the beginning, the standout menu item has been the craft coffee itself.
“If someone wants like a correct cappuccino or a well-extracted drip coffee with an origin tied to it, a lightly roasted coffee, we have (options) a little bit outside the norm. It’s taking craft coffee but putting it in a drive through setting.”
THE CULT FAVORITE
What is a Swell Coffee product that has attracted an enthusiastic following, even if it’s not the core of Swell’s business? Rather than name a specific drink, Shane pointed to the way his business attracts a loyal following of health-conscious individuals, whether that’s ordering a specialty coffee without pumping it full of added flavors or returning regularly for a delicious green tea.
“We really care about people’s health, so we have stuff like Kombucha or Matcha or other healthy options,” he said.
A key component of the Thompsons’ entrepreneurial dream is employing others.
“One thing that’s really important to me and Alicia is that we want to create an environment of work and work culture where our employees may be with us a long time or a little time, but when they leave, they say, ‘That’s how I deserve to be treated,’” Shane said. “So I want people to have this expectation that they deserve to be treated with respect and honor. Whether a drive-through stand or a corporate high-rise job, people deserve to be treated well.”
While the Swell Coffee family has grown with the new location, the Thompsons also keep busy with their own family, which includes children Jude (6), Sailer (4) and Oakley (2).
THE TIME WHEN
The Thompsons love nothing better than being able to care for the people in their community, something Shane said is inspired by their faith. On two occasions, they’ve been able to raise money for families with kids battling cancer, including earlier this year for friends whose 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with kidney cancer. After a day of fundraising at the Sullivan Swell Coffee stand, $3,100 was raised for the family.
“I think the thing for me is the beauty that you can be a small, ma-and-pa business and make a big difference in someone’s life; it doesn’t matter how big you are,” Shane said. “We get so excited to see how our business can make a difference beyond just a product in someone’s hand. It can actually physically make a difference, a monetary difference. Obviously we’re not going to solve any issues, but we might help pay a bill. We might help be an encouragement just to say, ‘You’re not alone.’”
1604 S. Sullivan Road and 14505 E. Trent Ave., Spokane Valley
@swellcoffeelife on Instagram
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