The owner of Zeke's Coffee is Thomas Rhodes, the fellow with the tattoos, ear piercings and gray goatee. He might still look the part of a rock 'n' roll roadie, but that career was years ago, before he found a life in coffee.
He was a barista at the Daily Grind in Fells Point, then went to work for the coffee shop's then-owner in the Key Coffee roastery. He took the leap into his own company in 2005, dubbed with the nickname his father gave him and all four of his siblings.
A one-pound roaster turned out the first coffee he sold at Baltimore farmers' markets, leading to larger and larger roasters. Zeke's has branched out in the past four years. opening retail coffee shops in Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood, Pittsburgh and Washington, and Rhodes is now scouting locations for a larger roastery.
He's not sure how many pounds of coffee he sells a week retail and wholesale, but sums it up simply as "a lot."
What did you have in mind when you started the business in the fall of 2005?
What I had in mind was to sell a locally roasted pound of fresh coffee. That was my goal. … there wasn't anyone with a fluid-bed roaster in the city, which I feel is one of the best ways to make coffee. And I figured that was our edge. … It's an accurate roaster; it allows you to have a consistent product. You're able to get a bean temperature. You're able to roast by bean temperature, not time and weight. So there's less room for human error. Our very first roaster was a one-pound roaster. Then it was an increment to eight, then to 12 pounds, then to two 12-pound roasters, then to our current 30, 32 pounds.
What were your expectations at the start?
My expectation was that we were going to do well. I had not a clue of how well received we were going to be. I have farmers' markets to thank for that. And just our outstanding product, our consistent product that we constantly put out there. It's rewarding to know we can offer that and the consumer has taken on the responsibility of being a loyal customer, passing the word. I didn't have an idea. I had some hopes and we surpassed them pretty quick as far as our growth. We consistently grow every year. I hadn't a clue I'd be where I'm at right now.
You recently introduced ice cream at the coffee shop made at the Prigel Family Creamery in Baltimore County. Why?
We decided to do it 'cause last year we experimented with milkshakes. We have a wonderful coffee milkshake. We have a top-secret recipe for it and we really did well. We just pulled our belts a little tighter to figure out how to rearrange the space. Once again engineering, ergonomics and all that stuff. We added an eight-ice-cream chest in there. The reason I did it is it's really hard to get good ice cream around here. And Prigel is right up the street. … Can't get much more local than that, really.
What keeps you interested?
I love coffee. I'm really excited about the growth potential for the business … just what's next. The building. Thinking about another space to roast. Something a little bit more. It's not set up proper. It's set up based on how we got the space available. ... And at some point, my next big growth down here is another roaster. ... I just want to be able to get in in the morning, open the garage door up and start roasting. 'Cause that's what we do. I've looked [for a new space], I've stopped looking, I'm getting ready to look again. I don't want to jinx anything. It's hard to find the right space. And it's hard, for me, it's hard for me to … compromise.
How do you make coffee at home?
I have a grind and brew, Cuisinart. I got it for the timer. You put the coffee beans in the grinder that sits inside the brewer… I would have that set to go off at 3 a.m. to go to the farmers' market. I didn't have to worry about making a pot of coffee. And it's a good tool. I drink drip coffee because 90 percent of my business is drip coffee.
Title: Owner, Zeke's Coffee
Residence: Baltimore City
Family: Married with two children
Hobbies: Being a dad; motorcycles