Managing Organic Growth: Earl Thompson and Galena Roasters
Earl Thompson, head roaster for Galena Roasters in Galena, Illinois, roasts on an MCR-10 in a converted apartment building. The space is adjacent to his wife Kimberly’s artisan cooking store, The Grateful Gourmet. In the roastery, he cups on a huge table built by a friend from a lightning-struck Sycamore tree, the centerpiece of the room.
Setting the Scene
At The Grateful Gourmet in Galena, Illinois, customers can peruse the selection of artisan and novelty kitchenware as part of their Main Street shopping experience.
The shop has been open for over twenty-four years. It carried a selection of locally-roasted coffee, but when sourcing that coffee became more difficult in 2018, Kimberly turned to her husband, Earl Thompson, and suggested he learn how to roast in order to keep The Grateful Gourmet stocked in fresh neighborhood coffee.
At home, the Thompsons always kept good coffee in the cabinet. Earl himself was interested in specialty coffee, and supplying his wife’s shop was an opportunity for him to expand that casual interest into a profession with a built-in first customer.
That year, Earl attended Coffee Fest in Baltimore and signed up for every seminar. Then he bought as many books as he could, and attended Roasting 101 at Mill City Roasters. With an arsenal of training and resources, he ordered an MCR-2 and officially started roasting in June of 2018.
The Way Up
The Grateful Gourmet was Galena Roasters’ first customer, but it was by no means the last. Immediately after launching Galena Roasters, Earl began contacting other companies in the area and making the connections he’d need to land other wholesale accounts.
“When I got into it, I knew it was something I wanted to transition into full-time,” he says. Earl’s goal has always been to roast the best coffee possible: a goal that changes depending on who’s drinking the coffee. While his own preference is for medium and lighter roasts, in the early days Galena Roasters saw a big local demand for dark roasts.
While locals preferred darker flavors, the tourist population of Galena was, and is, often more willing to try lighter roasts and coffees that seemed otherwise out-of-the-box. Galena is a small town with a population under four thousand, and it depends on seasonal and weekendering tourists to fuel its local economy. In response, Earl has had to adapt his menu to offer something so both kinds of customer can come away happy.
Catering to both tourists and locals benefited the company greatly, and aided in its scaling. In late 2019, Earl invested in an MCR-10 to meet growing demand.
In May of 2021, Galena Roasters expanded from a roastery into a cafe space, which helped Earl summit the challenge of brand building and attracting new customers. With the expansion of the business, the Galena Roasters team also grew to include cafe staff, managers, and an assistant roaster.
After adding to and tweaking his menu, Earl believes that Galena Roasters has nailed down exactly what its market wants. While experimental coffees interest him, he knows that his customers have a much more consistent and reliable interest in easy and daily coffees that can be gifted or brought home, whether by locals or tourists. And with his offerings distributed via the cafe, online store, and wholesale partnerships, Earl is content that the menu he’s crafted will only continue to attract more business. In short, he’s met his original goal of roasting the best coffee possible.
The Galena Roasters Menu
Galena Roasters sells a generous menu, offering coffees from fourteen different origins, as well as several different blends.
Semiannually, Earl will also create and sell seasonal blends through the eshop and the cafe. He has also created several custom blends for Galena Roasters’ wholesale partners, including one for Kimberly’s shop The Grateful Gourmet and a local friend who runs a goat yoga class.
The cafe menu is similarly large, offering a full spectrum of traditional drinks, seasonal beverages, cold brew and nitro, and “booster juices:” juice-based drinks with a green coffee concentrate for customers who come in wanting caffeine without classic coffee flavor. They also offer a breakfast and lunch menu and pastries.
In response to both groups of coffee-drinkers frequenting his cafe, Earl has kept his menu balanced between dark and light. It’s his medium roasts, like the Costa Rica, that sell the best now.
He also sells coffees in collaboration with the local Galena Brewing Company and Blaum Brother Distillery, with products like cold brew beers and barrel aged coffees becoming big sellers on both novelty and quality. “The bourbon barrel sells like hotcakes,” he says. These products cut across demographic lines and are beloved by both tourists and locals alike.
Oftentimes, the tourists who come in are less likely to spend longer stretches of time in the cafe. They come in for drinks or retail bags and leave, whereas the locals are more likely to linger. If he had more customers interested in a more extended experience, Earl would love to open a cafe with a sit-down atmosphere and a fuller food menu. But as it is, his hands are full with both the cafe and roastery: and his plans for future growth are solidified based on what his market does, and will, respond best to.
Since attending Roaster’s Guild again in 2022, Earl’s next move will be a return to the drawing board to refine some aspects of his business and roasting career. “It’s a requirement to move forward that you occasionally doubt yourself,” he says. And attendance at coffee events is one main way that Earl keeps current with the industry, experiences new and great coffees, and questions his own methods to keep from stagnating.
As the brand grows, Earl will also be drilling further into the bedrock of wholesale accounts, so that customers can find his coffee in a variety of places. This will include roasting new custom blends and throwing new ideas at the roaster to see what comes out and what’s salable. Earl is looking towards making the new growth intentional, versus the often-organic growth that’s happened in the past few years.
In the cafe, he plans to start running a second espresso on bar: a medium, Honduras, lighter than the current offer. It’s his compromise to the dream of opening a pour-over bar, which he believes Galena may not be ready for yet. A second espresso, he believes, will help customers realize their options in specialty coffee and come around on lighter flavor profiles.
Bring Galena Roasters Home
You can find Galena Roasters coffee at Lucky Cow, Sweet Alice’s Chocolates, and Bros Hous Brew Hous, among others. The Galena Roasters cafe is open every day of the week, and you can attend both public and private cuppings on-site.