- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Between the two of them, Tom Hamilton and Rob Grass have been working for roughly a century. But retirement still isn’t on the horizon for either one - not necessarily because they need the money, but because they want to work.

“We are both the kind of guys that need something to do,” Hamilton said. “We always need to be doing something.”

At 71, the first cousins have launched a new endeavor that not only satisfies their taste buds, but allows them to work together, something they’ve talked about doing for decades.

In August, Hamilton and Grass opened Smoothie Stop, located inside the YMCA of Kanawha Valley. It offers a variety of fruit and vegetable smoothies and performance drinks.

The shop, which is open to the public, can’t be missed. Its walls are covered in a pineapple yellow. The whiteboard menu hanging on the wall at the order station is bordered in an acai purple. The countertops are orange. The shop’s orange, green, yellow and red logo is plastered on the wall behind the service counter. It’s a bright color palette that is representative of the fruit and other ingredients that go into the smoothies they serve.

“The colors look like a lot of the drinks we have,” Grass said.

“I think bright colors just make people happy (too),” Hamilton said.

A server usually wearing a lime green baseball cap greets guests at one end of the counter. Customers choose from four sizes of more than 18 smoothie varieties, including healthy, performance-boosting and treat-yourself options. For the youngest demographic, Hamilton said the Strawberry Splash - a blend of apple juice, strawberries, bananas and non-fat yogurt - is the favorite. Weightlifters love the Build smoothie which contains raspberry juice, pineapples, blueberries, bananas and raspberry sherbet with multi-vitamin, energy or whey protein boost options.

Customers can also grab a protein bar for a snack, and during winter, Smoothie Stop is offering soup for anyone who might prefer something warm. Since the closing of Subway inside the YMCA, the Smoothie Stop remains the only restaurant housed in the facility.

Prior to its Aug. 1 launch, Grass planned and helped build the shop in an area on the ground-level of the YMCA which once held a nursery. Inspiration for the menu came from the West Coast, where Hamilton lived before returning to West Virginia. The flavors he enjoyed in San Diego-based smoothie shops have found their way to the Mountain State, along with some of the cousins’ own unique concoctions like Peanut Power, Muscle Mango or Green TNT. Lessons in social media and hiring a staff also were parts of planning - something that gave them a chance to create an opportunity for the next generation.

“We hired 10 young people to work here,” Hamilton said. “For six of those, it was their first time ever getting a paycheck. That was one of the great days. I’ve enjoyed that more than just about anything. And then you saw their faces when they learned how much was taken out from taxes. It was a great learning thing for them.”

Together, the two manage the day-to-day running of Smoothie Stop. At least one of them is visible in the shop every day.

While some would argue that working with family is impossible and many wouldn’t recommend it, Hamilton said the partnership has been “exceedingly easy.”

“We’ve had a great relationship our entire lives,” Grass said.

Grass has a long career selling real estate and continues managing Donna Grass Realtors with his wife.

“My involvement in real estate kind of led me into developing real estate and building,” Grass said. “I guess once you start developing property, you start looking around always for the next project. I guess you might say this is the next project.”

“I would say it’s the last,” Hamilton joked. “I sure hope.”

Both men hold degrees that have been helpful in the business world. Hamilton has a degree in business and economics. Grass holds a degree in marketing and economics.

For 11 years, Hamilton flew jets off aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy, mostly in Pensacola, Florida, until he was transported to San Diego where he served in the reserves and started a commuter airline and transportation company, then handled business management for a church in the area. In June 2015, Hamilton and his wife, Carol, moved back to Charleston.

Although both men have siblings of their own, the cousins have a bond that is comparable to brothers, with family get-togethers multiple times a year that always seemed to include a brainstorming session for what great business they could launch together.

“We always sat around brainstorming about what would work and what wouldn’t work and ‘why hasn’t this been done’ and ‘you know, we could do that,’?” Grass said.

As long as they lived thousands of miles apart, it was just a dream. But when that changed, suddenly the dream seemed possible - and Smoothie Stop slowly took shape.

“It just sort of was a continuation of those conversations we had for 30 years and every time we got together,”said Grass.

It helped that for his last three years in San Diego, Hamilton visited local smoothie shops about three times a week, unknowingly educating himself on his future profession.

“I looked at it as sort-of a replacement meal,” he said. “I got a large smoothie and it had kale and spinach and a lot of stuff in it as well as apple juice and yogurt, bananas and strawberries. So all of those things were in it and it was just something that tasted good that was really nutritious.”

Hamilton and Grass now hope anyone who stops in the YMCA or are in the area will enjoy fresh drinks as they fulfill their desire to keep going.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘I’m 71 and I’m finished,’?” Grass said. “I wake up in the morning and think ‘Well, I wonder what we can do today.’ And that’s just the way I am. I like talking about things and saying ‘Why not?’ That doesn’t mean that I have plans to start selling franchises but on the other hand, maybe. Who knows?”

Smoothie Stop is located on the ground floor of the YMCA of Kanawha Valley at 100 YMCA Drive in Charleston. The drink stop is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. during winter months.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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