As Army veteran 25-year-old Andrew Thornton talked nonstop about one of his many ventures, he bustled around the 1960s-era wood-paneled Commerce Bank lobby in Shawnee that he has turned into the Downtown Coffee House.
He was searching for a quiet place to talk where regulars wouldn’t find him and ask, “Hey, what’s up, Drew? What’s new?”
Thornton has shaped his seven-month-old Shawnee coffeehouse into the setting and centerpiece of a life of service to veterans. Inspired by his own deployment to Afghanistan, Thornton uses his entrepreneurial zeal — his ventures include roasting coffee for sale and stocking coffee stations at local businesses — to raise money for veterans’ causes.
His coffee shop offers a safe place for veterans to be honored and just be. The first thing a visitor to the bank-turned-coffeehouse sees upon entering is Thornton’s “Wall of Heroes.” Thornton encourages local vets to bring in patches and other military memorabilia to leave on permanent display.
“It’s not only to share local heroes’ names and stories but also to remind the community that there’s a very heavy (veteran) presence in Shawnee,” Thornton said.
The Wall of Heroes is a focal point both physically and philosophically for Thornton’s mission of community-building and lending a hand to vets.
Thornton spent 410 days in in southern Afghanistan, moving supplies and running checkpoints at remote forward-operating bases. “We had a rough tour. It was a long tour. Everyone has their own story coming home. Some are a lot worse than others,” he said.
Knowing how much worse a lot of his colleagues had it — his unit never sustained casualties — left him with survivors guilt that he has tried to allay since his switch from active duty to the reserves in 2011.
The coffee seems to be helping — both him and the other veterans who have become his customers.
“When you leave the service you don’t just leave a job, you leave a lifestyle,” he said. “This is an opportunity for people to reconnect with that lifestyle, within that same community they left.”
When he sees other veterans facing each other over cups of coffee, he knows that they’re reconnecting to that past life.
The first contributors to his Wall of Heroes were his employees. The four shareholders who own the shop with him are veterans or close to someone who is. “The cool part about partners that are vets is that they get to participate and push forward with what we all want to do,” Thornton said.
For instance, Dan Hullman owns 20 percent of the shop and works behind the counter. Others, like veterans Travis David Gunn and Joe Lusby, who each own 5 percent, have full-time jobs elsewhere but still fit in 10 or so hours a week helping out.
Hullman’s mother was an Air Force major and it’s her memorabilia he has put on display. Hullman had known Thornton for a few years and seen what a hard worker he was. When Thornton mentioned his plan for the shop in December, Hullman wanted to be part of it.
“It’s cool just to see the progression of the shop,” he said, turning to a full array of coffee-related machinery. “All we had was this three-burner Bunn (coffeemaker) when we started. It’s pretty cool to see the evolution of the store and how quickly things changed.”
What’s different now is the momentum. It’s as if Thornton’s initial ideas are changing so fast they’ve caught fire, both in terms of the number of off-shoot projects he’s involved with and the number of organizations he’s contributing to.
“You know what, we just exploded. It’s really been fantastic,” Thornton said, smiling boyishly but with all the self-assurance of a seasoned business owner.
Thornton’s grandmother, Carol Rubsam, whose paintings are displayed in the shop, said he had always been entrepreneurial. Now, he is able to channel those skills to a cause close to him.
“He has a huge heart and, having been deployed and knowing how hard it is on veterans, he wanted this place to be a warm and inviting place for the community, particularly for veterans to gather,” Rubsam said.
At 17, Thornton wanted to serve his country in the military. His father, Marine veteran Reeder Thornton, encouraged him and signed his Army enlistment —Thornton was too young to enlist without his dad’s signature — while he was still in high school. He deferred his date of departure until just after graduation from Shawnee Mission North in 2008 and immediately shipped out for basic training.
First he worked as an 88N, a Transportation Management Coordinator, but later reclassified as an 88M, or Motor Transport Operator. For more than a year, he was deployed to Afghanistan. He ran convoy security and checkpoints at 19 forward-operating bases — the lonely, dangerous outposts far removed from the bulk of the 17,000 troops from 48 coalition countries.
He ran checkpoints, he provided security for host national truckers, and he moved equipment. He worked with the 101st Airborne unit to move 5,297 pieces of wartime equipment — according to a medal he later received, this was the largest through-put of equipment in the history of the Afghan conflict.
His Army service ended when he came home in 2011.
“The unit that replaced us — they lost five guys right off the bat during check rides,” he said.
“When I first got home I had a lot of survivor’s guilt. I was there over a year and that never happened to us. Other units suffered casualties but we never did and we’d traveled that same road 100 times,” he said.
Back home, a sergeant told him to drink it off. He tried that for a while and realized that was not the appropriate solution. Finding what was an appropriate solution was challenging.
He realized almost immediately that leaving active duty was a mistake.
“I loved the military,” he says. He wanted back in.
“They were doing the big drawback, all the budget cuts,” he said. “So, they weren’t taking prior service, so I was like, now I’ve got to figure out what I want to do.”
He worked for a few different companies but his need to do his own thing kept showing itself and he realized he wouldn’t be satisfied until he started his own business.
Then one day last December he took his father, who has Parkinson’s, for a haircut. While Thornton waited, he wandered into the old bank building at the corner of Nieman and Johnson Drive in Shawnee to visit Dodge City Beef. He hadn’t been in the building since its conversion.
“I walked in and all the lights were off right here,” he says and gestures toward the front of the store. “I was like, what are they going to do with all this space?” And it hit him that it was his space. “I wanted that ma and pa restaurant — something that would allow me to interact with the community — and it was perfect.”
So around Christmas he wrote up his business plan for the coffee house, which he sometimes refers to as a shop, sometimes a restaurant. In January he remodeled and decorated a little. He opened on April 5.
From the very beginning, he knew he wanted to use his coffeehouse as a way to honor veterans. He started the Wall of Heroes. And he decided to display and sell art by local artists with the idea that proceeds would go to a veterans charity of the buyer’s choosing.
His grandmother, Rubsam, who has shown her work at Buttonwood in the Crossroads Art District and First Gallery in Olathe, donated some of her art.
“He had this long empty wall and offered it for art display. I was more than glad to have him home safe, so if I can help out those who also served, I am glad to do so,” Rubsam says.
Thornton’s wife, Claire Silvius, works at Thermo Fisher Scientific but is also a photographer. She offered to donate some of her military-themed photographs.
Matt Flickner of Shawnee, who is not a veteran, is a regular customer. “The military connections are obvious from the pictures on display,” he said. “Occasionally you see a veteran come through and the conversation shifts toward military things. You can see they really understand each other and it’s neat to get a glimpse of that.”
Amber Hartford, the shop’s baker, said the shop’s customers are primarily veterans and Shawnee locals. “It doesn’t take long for them to all become friends that I love seeing every day,” she said of their loyal customers.
Hartford was introduced to the business as a customer.
“When I came into the shop the first time and saw the Wall of Heroes and had an iced latte, I knew I had found my new coffee shop,” said Hartford, whose husband was an Army infantryman with the 82nd Airborne for five years.
When Hartford realized Thornton was outsourcing his baking she started bringing in cookies and other baked goods for him to sample. “Her cookie was her resume,” he said.
Hartford has not only gotten to fulfill the personal dream of baking professionally, but she’s found a group of people whose thinking aligns with her own.
“There are times that being here feels like hanging with the neighborhood friends you had as a kid,” she said. “We just so happen to have common goals and are willing to do what it takes to achieve those goals.”
Thornton and Hartford both think of their co-workers as family.
“I think the biggest surprise I’ve had so far is how much of a family we are and how many of our customers are included in that,” she said.
Thornton’s wife is thrilled to see that his plan worked.
“I knew Drew would throw all his energy and dedication into making the company successful but sometimes even the most determined don’t succeed,” Silvius said.
“It’s amazing how things have aligned to make this business so successful.”
Part of that alignment is Thornton’s foray into roasting his own beans. This is the endeavor he had been bursting to talk about. It’s an undertaking that ties together the shop, the community and his effort to help vets.
The expense and the learning involved with roasting beans were daunting. But one day, almost as if in answer to Thornton’s thoughts, local businessman Bill Cowden came in to check them out.
Cowden owned Toto’s Coffee and Don Chilito’s in Mission for years. He also happens to have a coffee roasting facility in the way-back of Don Chilito’s, now owned by his son.
The roasting took off under Cowden’s tutelage and in late spring, Thornton approached a Hy-Vee store at 119th Street and Ridgeview Road in Olathe, where he attends the annual free Veterans Day breakfast with his grandfather, about stocking his new merchandise.
Now, months later, Thornton and his employees, three of whom are full-time, package 5,000 to 6,000 bags a week. That translates to four weekly deliveries to 17 area Hy-Vees. Sometimes it takes half the night to fill the orders. The skills he learned in the Army were heavy on logistics and have helped him build Downtown Coffee and handle the heavy influx of orders.
His new dark roast coffee flavor, “A Sniper’s Dream,” will reach area Hy-Vee store beginning around Veterans’ Day.
By having Downtown Coffee for sale in grocery stores, he’s reaching further into the community than he otherwise would be able to. He hopes that his Hy-Vee customers who haven’t visited the shop will.
And, he has a QR code on each bag that links to a charity of his choice. Right now, he is sending a percentage to local VFW Post 10552. He also aids veterans organizations like The Few; Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; Salvation Army’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families; and Red, White, and Blue.
Thornton has added breakroom-stocking at businesses to his ventures. Downtown Coffee stocks the breakrooms of 34 local businesses with coffee and coffee-related equipment.
He even has a contract with Shawnee Mayor Michelle Distler to supply coffee at her monthly “Coffee with the Mayor” event.
Distler says that almost as soon as he was open for business Thornton asked to meet with her about what was working for small businesses in Shawnee and what was not.
“He is very willing to give feedback, which is what I am always looking for in an effort to make Shawnee a better place,” Distler said.
Thornton, who’s lived in the area since age 13, is happy to give back.
“I caused enough trouble as a kid; I owe the city something,” he said, not quite joking. “I … am willing to say I was not the most pleasant kid, probably one of the reasons why we are so education-orientated and youth-orientated as well as being veteran-focused.”
He recalls spending a lot of time running around Hartman’s Hardware, across the street from Downtown Coffee, with the owners’ children. Now he counts Hartman’s owner, Mike Unterreiner, as a colleague. Thornton has felt embraced by fellow business owners who’ve helped him when he’s needed advice.
He’s teaming up with BBQ champion James Laurie of Shawnee to create a coffee rub. Laurie’s business, Me-Me K’s, won third place for best specialty sauce at the American Royal in 2012 and second place for specialty sauce at the 2014 World Hot Sauce Awards.
Thornton has so much enjoyed working with other local businesses that he envisions hosting classes for teenagers to learn about entrepreneurship and leadership. He has a message for the younger generation: “Don’t give up, you always have the potential to contribute in a positive manner.”
He said he thinks practical skills such as how to apply to college and for a loan aren’t taught to kids in school and that local leaders should have a forum to teach to these concerns.
The importance Thornton places on family has steered him toward heavily supporting VFW Post 10552. Thornton likes that Doug Simms, the post’s leader, promotes a family friendly atmosphere.
“I think it’s healthy for the reintegration process to be able to take your family somewhere, and VFWs and Legions have not always had family friendly atmospheres,” Thornton said. “It’s mainly alcohol-oriented and smoky old bars.”
The big fund-raising push for Simms’ post is currently to support the creation of a veterans’ museum at Downtown Coffee. To help, Thornton is hosting a dinner and auction Friday, as well linking those QR scan codes on his coffee to a donation page.
Thornton hopes to eventually end his role as a middleman for the charities he supports. “I just want to introduce people to the charities and want them to interact directly with the charities. We give anyone a 10 percent discount if they come in with a receipt from donating to one of our approved charities,” he said.
He’s also very interested in identifying organizations that want donations of time as much as, or more than, monetary donations: He pays his employees to take a day off now and then for the purpose of doing volunteer work.
He’s inspiring enough that others follow his lead. Lenexa’s Crossroads Hospice was looking for young, male veterans to volunteer to spend time with ailing older vets. Thornton rounded up enough of them to warrant closing the shop for certification training.
Any group, like Crossroads Hospice, that’s looking for time is worth helping, he said. “It’s refreshing. It’s kind of a new outtake on giving.”
Reach Anne Kniggendorf, a Navy veteran, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fund-raising dinner and auction
A barbecue dinner at Downtown Coffee House, 11101 Johnson Drive, Shawnee, is from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and costs $8 for adults and $6 for children. The event includes live music, a raffle, kids’ games, and an auction.
Normal hours for the coffee shop are Monday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 6 to 6; Saturday, 8 to 4; and Sunday, 8 to noon.