Photos by DP Jolly
A few coworkers and I were sitting in my office discussing passion projects and things that we do outside of work. As I was talking about people I interviewed for Brooklyn Magazine, one of my coworkers said, “You should meet my friend Thi.” “We went to USC [University of South Carolina] together, and he has this sparkling coffee company called Keepers that he started in Brooklyn,” she added. My coworker Devin was born in ’92, so I figured that he must’ve been around her age. And so the first thing that I thought was, “Wow, he has a coffee company at 25.” At 25, the only thing that I was opening were six-figure student loan notices from Navient that basically said, “you owe us for the rest of your life.”
Later that evening, I called him and we chatted for quite a bit. Thi (pronounced “tea”) Lam, who was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, shared with me that in 1986, his parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in an attempt to escape communism. They also fought to come to the U.S. in order to give their children greater opportunities, much like the crisis we’re witnessing today with parents risking their lives, coming to the States seeking asylum.
Thi, the child of immigrants, created a coffee company at just 23 years old. Imagine the potential of the nearly 2,000 immigrant children who were separated from their parents during six weeks in April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Luckily for Thi, his parents were fortunate enough to come over legally.
While Thi grew up in South Carolina, Brooklyn is where he discovered his passion, and it’s the first place that has truly felt like home to him.
His arrival in Brooklyn was not easy, as he spent much of his early days trying to find himself, but the hustle and “never quit spirit” of his parents and most immigrants is what he found in Brooklyn, and fell in love with.
A few weeks after our call, we planned to meet in Bed-Stuy at Pilotworks Brooklyn— think coworking space for Brooklyn food and beverage startups complete with full-sized kitchen spaces where entrepreneurs don’t have to worry about buying expensive equipment and turning their home kitchens into their workspace. Just two years ago, this is where Keepers got its start, and in addition to having access to a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, members have access to a diverse roster of industry experts.
Thi’s business partner Brent Lagerman, who is 15 years his senior and married with kids, had family business to handle so he could not join us. As Thi and I sat in the kitchen, I had my first sip of Keepers while learning how a playful day in the office break room led them to creating a product that many people are falling in love with. From receiving calls from Starbucks execs to stocking the shelves of stores like Whole Foods, in just two short years, Keepers is proving to be playing for keeps.
To get relaxed, we sat down and started with what I call, Rapid Fire.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear:
Starbucks: Hate it.
The 90’s: Barely was in it. (He’s 25)
Keepers: Going to blow up. God willing.
How did you and Brent meet?
We met two summers ago at condensed.io, a brand and design agency for start-ups, that him and his wife started. So, I was there working for them on some designs and stuff, and we became close.
So if he owned it, he was your boss. How did you start a sparkling company with your boss?
We were in the lunchroom together one day, and there was a soda stream. We started goofing around at the soda stream, and that’s kind of how Keepers all happened.
So, you just started playing on the soda stream and decided to make random drinks?
Exactly, there was no plan in mind. We made this coffee drink with old tangerines, Splenda packets and Bostello coffee, like really crappy dark roast coffee, and started giving it to people in the office. Surprisingly, people ended up liking it. Brent’s wife runs this little market called the Brooklyn Holiday Bazaar, so that gave us a little platform to go out and really see if people were interested. We got a little table inside of a small booth, and we packaged the drinks in little glass bottles. People really liked it, and from that point, restaurants and cafes would approach us and ask, “How do we get Keepers?”
So, after this experience, you and Brent officially became business partners. Did you think that you would have ever started a business with your boss?
It’s just funny because Brent is married, and they have two kids. He owns the branding agency with his wife, and they live in Windsor Terrace, which is a residential neighborhood in an area known historically as South Brooklyn between Park Slope and Prospect Park. His life was pretty much set. And then here comes little old me messing things up saying, “We should do this thing.” And he was down to do it, and it just totally threw off his life’s trajectory. His life was already set. He’s older— he’s forty, and I’m in my mid-twenties.. So, obviously both of us never thought we would be in business together.
Had you ever thought about being an entrepreneur before this?
No. I didn’t have the dream of becoming an entrepreneur, and I definitely didn’t think I would own a beverage company. It was really random. But, I needed something to focus on because I was too involved in a lot of little things. I was in photography, videography, branding, web development, graphic design, and I just couldn’t pick a direction. So, for a couple of years, I was completely lost as a human being. I wasn’t horrible at any of those things, but I wasn’t an expert either, and I definitely did not think that I could pursue a whole career out of those things.
While you were trying to figure things out, were you at Brent’s branding agency?
It’s funny because the year before all of this I was working at Wediko Children’s Services, a non-profit agency that focuses on school counseling and mental health services for children and families. I would work in high schools in the Bronx, doing home visits with the kids, and it was a little traumatic for me. I dealt with everything from breaking up fights to hearing traumatic stories from the kids and seeing how they were living. Some kids didn’t have parents and were basically homeless, going in and out of foster care. I dealt with this everyday, and it was hard to try and get kids to worry about school work and their future when they didn’t even know the next time they would eat or where they would sleep at night.
So, a lot of that just weighed on me, and I left because I was so stressed out. But, after I left, I found myself at the brand agency.
I’m sure you learned some valuable lessons while working with the kids that help you tremendously in your current business. Can you talk a bit about that?
I would say absolutely. I never thought that it would help, but I think one of the key things that came from that experience was learning the importance and power of effective communication. I also learned how important it is to create clear strategies to get things done.
When you are working with troubled kids and they’re going through a meltdown, there’s a process to helping them through that, and the two main things for me was knowing how to communicate with them and having a strategy to calm them down to help them find a resolution.
When my co-founder and I are going through some rough ups and downs and we’re clashing or simply disagreeing, my experience there taught me to take a step back, process it all, and then be straightforward and just tell him how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling this way. The kids taught me that.
I know he’s not here, but can you share a little bit about Brent’s journey before Keepers?
Brent lived in Florida, and then moved to upstate New York. He was already an entrepreneur with multiple businesses before Keepers, so he was definitely able to bring a perspective to the table that I didn’t have and we needed. Him and his wife Teresa run a coworking space called Founder’s Workspace in Windsor Terrace. In addition to the coworking space, they own Condensed, a branding agency, which is mainly for small start-up companies. They handle everything branding: visual identity, packaging, messaging, brand naming, video production, content creation, and everything in between.
So I imagine that you and Brent didn’t have to go far for support when you were getting started.
It’s like a little family over there. When we created Keepers, we had access to amazingly talented people like designer Sam Zhao, who designed our cans.
Everyone there knows the ins and outs of our company. They were the first ones to taste it, and they were the first ones to give feedback. They help us to make all of our branding decisions, and have been there from the beginning. We couldn’t have done any of this without them.
So, once you said, “Okay, we’re going to really do this,” what did you do first?
The first thing that we did was look for a commercial kitchen space, which led us to where we are now with Pilotworks Brooklyn. When we approached this food incubator program for food entrepreneurs with our drink, they were in little glass bottles, nothing official at all. They drank it and they loved it. Immediately, they said that we had a lot of promise.
They kind of had this trademarking deal, so, the moment that we signed up for Brooklyn Pilotworks is when everything became more legitimate because we got legitimate help. So, we got into the kitchen and started making Keepers, and that made us legal to sell because we were in the commercial kitchen space.
Once we got our 20-C license, a food and drink processing license, we were all set.
In addition to the space, did Pilotworks Brooklyn offer anything else?
Yes, the most important thing for us was mentorship. Once we started there, we had access to executives who used to work for Pepsi. We even had lunch with the former VP of Marketing for Coke. People who had over ten years of experience in branding, marketing, and sales began giving us advice. They even have people who can give legal advice, which was a big help to us.
What was the first store that sold your product, and who carries it now?
I used to live in Sunset Park, and there was this cafe called Parlay near my house, and they were the first location to ever sell our stuff. They don’t carry us anymore because they don’t have an open fridge where consumers can just grab it and go. Since they don’t have open fridge space, they would put an empty glass bottle on the counter and hide the rest. It just wasn’t working because no one really knew it was there.
Today, a lot of various cafes and restaurants around Brooklyn and Manhattan carry our drink, and then we’re in Whole Foods Northeast. And we have online distribution with Food Kick and Our Harvest.
We’re in some places in D.C. Laoban Dumplings in D.C. is a restaurant that has been really supportive of us. A Zagat writer tried Keepers there, loved it, and wrote a little about us, which was very exciting.
Pemberton Farms Marketplace, a fruit and vegetable shop in Boston that opened in 1930, carries our drink.
Because our roaster lives in Tampa, Florida and he has some good connections with Publix and other stores, we are trying really hard [to expand to the rest of the country]. It’s a refrigerated product, which is annoying at times because you can’t just put it under a cabinet. The reason for that is because it’s a completely fresh product, it’s fresh fruit, coffee and water. It will get sour if you just leave it out.
So, if I bought a case, I would have to put it in the refrigerator immediately?
Yes. That’s a big discussion and battle among people at beverage companies who want their drink to be the freshest that it can possibly be have. The downside of that is that you have to be in a fridge at all times. You even have to ship it cold. You have to put it in a cold refrigerated truck, and that’s a ton of money. And companies are like, “If only we put preservatives or weird chemicals in there, then we could just put it in ambient temperature and cut cost in half.” Once you do that you could scale nationwide immediately. That’s how Coke and Pepsi are everywhere. Their product can last for years on the shelf. People can buy cases of Coke and Pepsi and not worry about it going bad, which is like a relief for some people.
We want to scale out too, but we can’t afford to go across the country with a cold truck.
This is where you get into deciding what you are willing or not willing to compromise for money.
Very true, and we don’t want to compromise our product for money. There’s a lot of scientific components to this. There’s a way to get this can to be shelf stable, as in we can get this can to remain a fresh product while staying in room temperature. To do that would involve different types of pasteurization processes, and the facilities and equipment needed would be hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, that’s not a good option for us right now.
Is this your biggest challenge?
I think the biggest challenge is that we’re such a small team with such a wide range.
It’s the two of us, and then we have another partner who is our roaster who sources our coffee from this specific country. He imports it in and then he gets the roasted specs on it, and then we roast it. And then we have a new COO who just joined us, who is pretty epic. He was the former COO of Sixpoint Brewery, which is pretty big in New York. So, he has tons of experience, but it’s just mainly Brent and I doing Keepers on the ground stuff. And that’s been our biggest struggle to date because if you’re in all these Whole Foods with a product that’s pretty unique like citrus and coffee, something that most people never could have imagined what it actually tastes like. There’s a lot of work that has to go into getting it to people. We need to demo the crap out it, like put it in people’s hands and have them drink it. And we do all of this on our own.
Has this been harder than you expected it to be?
Yeah, totally. I’m this single, twenty-five-year-old Brooklynite on this freelance schedule and it seems as if I have all the time in the world, but not really. I don’t have much of a savings account, and I have to feed myself and pay this New York rent and spend forty plus hours on this company that is taking all of my time and money.
Just to stay afloat, I have to go and try and find freelance work, and get creative on how to do that. It’s definitely been very rewarding, but it’s been a struggle that I never thought I would go through. Most of my friends work nine to five jobs, like pretty normal stuff, and it’s hard for them to really understand what I’m going through. I’ll be in the kitchen with Brent bottling and labeling until four o’clock in the morning super tired, and not have anyone else to explain that to who would understand it.
But, again, this has been an amazing experience, and I’m better because of it.
What has been the most rewarding part of this journey so far?
This entire journey has been an amazing learning experience for us, but after we developed Keepers and saw the can for the very first time, we were blown away. Seeing all of our hard work bottled up in that can made all of the hard times worth it.
What’s next for Keepers?
We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, which will help us launch a new product and new packaging. We’ve already surpassed our goal, which is very exciting. You can expect to see us using the momentum from our Kickstarter campaign to pound the pavement and take over New York City.
Our immediate goal is quite simple—get into more stores and get as many people as possible to try our product. This will include lots of street marketing, fun partnerships and curated pop ups all summer long. Our long-term goal is to go worldwide and be in every aesthetically pleasing cafe, restaurant, music hall and hotel on the planet!
We are going to continue pushing ourselves, and who knows where we can take Keepers.