Founders' Stories: Khanh Trang

Founders' Stories: Khanh Trang

One community for the Greater Good.
by Randy Miller | December 10, 2020

We're talking to the folks behind the coffee you love to find out how they got there. How they turned their individual passions for crafting the perfect cup of coffee into small businesses sharing their coffee within their communities and beyond. The road is long, often challenging, but always well worth it — this is how they made it happen, these are their Founders' Stories.

Roast Magazine's Roaster of the Year didn't start from the top — in fact, co-founder Khanh Trang had to work hard and hustle to realize her dream of opening a roastery in Austin, Texas. Today, Greater Goods Roasting Co. is proof positive that hard work, generosity (both given and received), and —  frankly — really good coffee, pays off. It's a message Khanh shares with the confidence and humility of having been there.

The one where Khanh gets a job

"I grew up watching Friends, just like a lot of other people, and it always took place in Central Perk. Fast forward and I’m in college, I needed a job and found one at Starbucks. That was actually my first gig in coffee and then I moved on to my career. One day I decided that I wanted to change my career, so I went and worked at a couple of coffee shops locally in Texas."

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A coffee breakthrough

Listen: Khanh connects with coffee

"The first experience that I really remember was from a tiny little husband-and-wife shop in Salt Lake City, and this was back in the early 2000s and maybe when specialty coffee wasn’t at Salt Lake City yet. And so I happened upon the shop and the owner sat me down. Prior to this I had been drinking darker roasts and I always had to put stuff in there. It was a phenomenal experience, more than actually remembering coffee notes, or anything else. But she really walked me through what the coffee was, and how I should enjoy it, just trying it as is — and it really tasted more like just a really nice, mild cup of tea; easy drinking, nice and sweet. And it was really just having a great conversation with the owner behind the counter.

It took a long time, but I was absolutely drawn to it and it has stuck with me until this day. And that’s how I try to lead our shops, with the approachability and the enthusiasm of coffee and being able to drink it without any sort of biases or anything, you know, just enjoying it really.

That was the moment! I had always loved coffee and loved visiting coffee shops, but that was the first moment that I went, 'OK, this is something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.'"

Where do we go from here?

"I’ve always had opening a roastery in mind, and it was a matter of trying to figure out how to get into it. So, when I couldn’t actually find an apprenticeship, or a roaster who had an opening at the time here in Texas, I sought out some schools, some training from out of state. And that’s how it came to be. I didn’t come from any big coffee background, so I had some roadblocks definitely. But it just helped to push me a little bit further and a little bit harder, because I had those challenges.

I think those roadblocks have hopefully been smoothed out, which is also why we decided that we would be part of opening up a campus, because we wanted to make coffee accessible. When I was looking, it was a lot harder to find classes and places who were willing to teach that information openly. So, I think it’s a lot easier now for people who want to get into the industry, to find the resources.

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Trey (Cobb) and I had always been involved in our community, he had actually sold a successful business prior to us starting Greater Goods, and we’ve always put back I guess what we were fortunate enough to have. I am a first-generation American from Vietnam, so we were grateful to have that help when we landed and we wanted to reciprocate it, that's honestly where that comes from."

A little help from friends

"Big challenges were learning how to roast, roasting good coffee, bringing in good coffee, and understanding what is good versus what isn't. At the time we were new and didn't quite understand, that's how green we were. This amazing person, named (Ever) Meister, from Cafe Imports reached out to us and just started sending us samples, without us feeling obligated to purchase. She really just held our hands and taught us what we should be looking for: what we think we might want, what we don’t — and there was absolutely no pressure to purchase.

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Listen: Khanh confronts the learning curve

And then also, finding the courses and learning how to cup coffees, understanding what to taste in certain regions I think was part of it. And it's all of the information that we didn’t know we needed to know, I think we were quickly aware of. So, it was definitely a little bit naive getting into it, but wow we had a steep learning curve! But I think we overcame those challenges and then we started pushing forward, and I think the biggest challenge after that was being virtually unknown."

Making a name

"Trey and I really didn’t have a reputation in the specialty coffee industry — we were virtual unknowns. I didn’t come from any big roaster, so when people were talking about our brand it was definitely a lot of awareness that we had to create and a reputation that we had to strive for — that was our big challenge.

We were virtually unknown to our community honestly until we opened the coffee shop. And as we started to gain that reputation, the community started to really embrace us and they started to really support us. It was a really great feeling. And it was very reciprocal, so it just feels good.

Once we started getting that positive feedback about coffee and being able to put a smile on our community’s faces, we knew, OK, we’re doing something right! And then also starting to get the accolades, I don't know how important this is to some people, but I think it just puts that challenge in front of us — it helps to strive for those goals, and it feels good when you hit those goals or accolades. You go to competitions and it’s scary, but you did it, and you may not have won, but you were there. And those are those moments that I think you overcome the fear and you start to gain that experience and confidence. I think everybody starts to come together and understands, we’re doing something good.

Listen: Khanh's advice on achieving goals

My advice for anyone starting out would be to learn, reach out, ask as many questions as possible, don’t ever feel that you don't have a community or don't have anybody to reach out to, don’t have any resources — because there are a lot of people in the coffee community who are willing to teach. But I think my biggest lesson is, and I see this a lot, willing to work hard. I think once people hit speed bumps they get a little discouraged, and there are those moments that I have as well, but I think understanding what your end goals are and just pushing forward step by step, I think is important. And you will get there for sure, if your heart and soul is in it, you will get there."

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And then everything changed…

"In 2020, we’ve had to move everything from in-person classes to the virtual, and it took us a little bit because we were a little hesitant at first, we were like, 'I don’t know how much people would get out of this?' You know, just being online. We do so many of our public cupping sessions in person, people were really, really missing that. But it’s honestly expanded our community since and created something that people have been needing the past few months.

We didn’t realize how big of an impact that actually made. Now, we’re able to reach out across the country whereas before we were doing in-person classes and we were only able to grasp our local community. I think that people are really excited, and it gets them even more excited that we’re able to adapt to this virtual teaching — they can actually get to see the instructor and talk to people again, it’s done wonders for us and the community.

We’ve definitely taken a hit like most coffee businesses, but having our team and the community really supporting us has really helped the cafés. Our web bean sales have skyrocketed, which is amazing. That has helped out a lot, to help us be able to keep our staff employed. What I would do, what I have learned, and what I would do differently moving forward — because we were talking about opening more cafés — I’m going to say, I would do it differently next time and I would open up a drive-thru.

Listen: Khanh reflects on 2020

But, as a whole, it’s reality brought us together as a team. We’ve learned to really rely on each other, we’ve learned what our values are, what our core values are really at the end of the day. What really is important, I think is the health of one another — mental and physical, emotionally. And making sure we’re all OK. Yea, 2020 can go suck it."

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