Tween baristas keep it all in the family with their mobile coffee start-up.
Baseball caps cover their close-cropped hair, PowerAde stained lips stretch into bright blue smiles, and feet swing in the air, dangling off the edge of a chair. These are businessmen, in a business meeting. And they can’t even drive yet.
Eli and Abe Whitesell, the brothers behind Runaway Coffee Co., are pursuing the kind of career goals their peers haven’t even daydreamed about yet. At only 14 and 12, respectively, the brothers are building a budding empire, one cup of coffee at a time.
“I remember seeing latte art in a cup, like a picture painted in it and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is incredible!’“ says Eli, recalling a fateful trip to Tandem Crêperie and Coffeehouse where he saw latte art of the first time. A YouTube search quickly followed, as did an attempt to recreate what he had seen using the family’s $15 espresso machine.
The art was forgotten once the theory was introduced and studied, Eli learning more and more about origins, blends, and tasting notes.
“Floral notes!” Abe mimics in a singsong voice, an obvious inside joke between the brothers and business partners, eliciting laughter from Eli in a way only siblings can, a connection not all coworkers are lucky enough to share.
After accepting that a commercial machine wasn’t in his near future, Eli toyed with the idea of making and selling cold brew, something that was easier than it appeared but not often done by the average coffee drinker.
“It’s easy, so easy! It’s just about ratios of water and grounds but it takes. So. Long.” Eli says, punctuating every word of the time-consuming process. Luckily, the brothers, along with the rest of their siblings, are home-schooled and able to devote more time to brewing the perfect cup.
“When someone asked me if I wanted to start a coffee business, I never thought I’d sell more than one cup,” Eli says. “I remember I made only one gallon of cold brew for my first event. But, I ended up selling 22 cups!” Luckily, Abe was there to man the register. The boys use the Square app on their phones, picture-perfect millennial moguls in the making.
“A week later he had all these envelopes separated with all the money I had made. He had basically done accounting and money managing,” Eli says.
“Budgeting,” corrects Abe.
“Yeah, right, budgeting.”
“From there, it morphed from an employment to a partnership. Now we’re business partners,” Abe says, more composed and capable with money than most people twice his age, with skill he credits to his father’s guidance.
In fact, Runaway Coffee Co. (“we named it that because kids run away!”), is a family operation through and through. The family, in the midst of a kitchen renovation, will be getting an in-house coffee bar so the boys can continue to hone their craft. Until then, there’s a temporary setup in the brothers’ shared bedroom.
“Abe has been there every day, every step of the way,” Eli says. “I’ll ask him five times a day, ‘Do you want a decaf cappuccino?’ and he’ll sigh at me and say, ‘It’s four in the morning, why would I want this?’“
The early wake-up calls don’t stop Abe from being there, morning, noon, and night, working with Eli at every site, every event, slinging cold brews and pour overs, erring on the side of oversharing.
“At every site, Abe will over-explain cold brew to people,” laughs Eli.
“I didn’t know anything about coffee so I figured no one else did!”
“I could not have done any of this without Abe. I do a lot of the coffee side of things, but Abe, the way he manages money, he is smart. And my dad and mom and all of my siblings have given up so much for this business,” Eli says.
And this is only the start.
“It all started because I had a strong passion for coffee in a way I’ve never felt before,” admits Eli, noting a passing love for sports and video games. “I thought I may leave coffee, but that was a year ago. I didn’t have the equipment, I didn’t have any experiences, I didn’t know what I was doing. But, I remember that feeling I had when I poured my first shot of espresso, that didn’t even have any crema, it was that bad, but I remember that feeling.”
That feeling sparked a desire to create better coffee and serve a better product. Subsequently, it pushed him to reach out to local coffee shop and roastery Methodical, hoping to get quality beans to use in his brews. From there, a business partnership and friendship quickly formed, due in large part to a shared passion for all aspects of coffee.
“One of the things I love most about coffee is how it goes from hand to hand,” Eli says. “From the farmers to the roasters and it ends with me making a pour over. We’re trying to bring a great cup of coffee to people that haven’t had it before.”
And so far, Abe and Eli’s coffee seems to be a runaway hit.