Friday, September 7, 2012

Turning dreams into caffeinated reality

Slingshot Coffee will be featured throughout this weekend's 2012 Hopscotch Music Festival and from 2-5 p.m. today during a special pop-up bar at The Longview Center, 118 S. Person St., Raleigh. Additionally, Capital Club 16, 16 W. Martin St., Raleigh, will spotlight a special cocktail - The Hot Shot, made from Slingshot Coffee and Fireball Whiskey.

A few years ago, Jenny Bonchak planned the perfect wedding, complete with a dream honeymoon in Hawaii.  But while most newlyweds return with souvenirs and sunburn, Jenny and her husband Jonathan surprised friends and family by coming home with an ambitious business plan.

Jenny Bonchak of Slingshot Coffee Company
“We hung out on the beach and thought about where we’d want to live and what we really wanted to do. We liked Pittsburgh, but we wanted to be close to the beach and the mountains, and Raleigh kept coming out of top,” she said. “Our families thought we were nuts.”

They don’t think so anymore. Jonathan, who became a coffee aficionado while working as a barista his senior year of college, is a sales manager at Counter Culture in Durham, one of the country’s best-known purveyors of sustainable, fair-trade coffee. And Jenny, whose marketing experience helped her land a communications job, has parlayed her own passion for coffee into Slingshot Coffee Company, a Raleigh-based, cold-brewed beverage business that launched on May 31.

Jenny favors a hands-on role to producing the smooth-sipping drink. This often means working long hours before and after her day job to single-handedly brew and bottle cases of product several days each week – in addition to constantly testing beans for ideal grind and steep combinations.

While reluctant to hand off the hard work to anyone less obsessed with the brewer’s art, Slingshot’s trajectory already has forced her to find a larger production facility. Currently, Slingshot is brewed in off-hours at Chef Chad McIntrye’s The Market Restaurant, 936 N. Blount Street. By October, it will relocate nearby in unused space at Oak City Cycling Project, 212 E. Franklin Street. While Slingshot will not have a storefront presence, the product will be sold in the bike shop.  

“I thought it could work, but never in a million years did I think it would be like this,” Jenny said from a bench at Escazu Artisan Chocolates, her first client, which sold out her first batch in just two days. Several area sellers stock both the 16-ounce ready-to-drink and concentrated versions – the only items in the current product line.

“I did a special syrup once with Escazu cocoa nibs and we’ll probably have T-shirts soon, but we are never going to have blueberry coffee or anything like that,” she said with a shudder. “Slingshot will never be flavored. To me, Slingshot has to be synonymous with the highest quality ingredients available.”

The self-taught coffee connoisseur has developed a keen palate for determining which beans are best suited to cold brewing, as well as a chemist’s clean sense of balance in developing the right recipe for Slingshot. While consumers may not notice, Jenny will be making subtle changes in the blend throughout the year to maximize the inherent qualities of seasonally available beans. Her current stock, grown in Ethiopia, provides “a floral, incredibly juicy Meyer lemon front that people really want this time of year.

“It’s such an honor that Counter Culture wanted to work with me, and I feel strongly about treating these beans with the respect they deserve,” added Jenny, who credits growing up on a family farm with her deep appreciation of seasonal ingredients.  “It’s not like wine, which might improve over a period of years. They work with growers from seed to cup, which allows me to extract all that fresh flavor.”

If you try to mimic her cold-brew methods at home with most commercial coffees  –  which may be freshly ground but likely roasted months earlier from warehoused beans  –  you may be be disappointed with a flat flavor that can be masked only with sugary syrups.

“The longer coffee sits, it loses all the beautiful things it could be,” Jenny said. “Honestly, the first time I had really amazing coffee, it changed my life. I became enthralled with it, and that just doesn’t happen if you don’t start with the very best ingredients. I want others to have that experience, too.”

Also delicious with a glug of milk.
The simplicity of fine ingredients, and the round-the-clock care she provides to produce Slingshot, accounts for its price of $5.99 for a bottle of ready-to-drink and $10.99 for the concentrate.

“The fact is, there’s a lot of bad, cheap coffee out there,” said Jenny, lamenting that American consumers tend to place higher value on a low price tag than the intense labor involved in growing, exporting and roasting truly exceptional beans. “When you taste really good coffee, you get it. It’s a lot like discovering what makes fine wine great.”

Not many people got to taste Slingshot before it hit shelves as its development was a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of friends and family knew what the novice entrepreneur was up to, including the graphic designers who helped transform her ideas into the brand’s distinctive package. When Slingshot debuted at a tasting party and quickly sold out, friends and colleagues were as stunned as she was.

“I felt it was important to keep it under wraps until I was certain it was the best it could be,” Jenny said, admiring a bottle with the sort of dreamy gaze some people reserve for beautiful babies. “It was essential for me that whoever tried it, someone with a great coffee palate or someone who was just curious, had a truly incredible experience.”

Jenny has added clients in and around Raleigh on a weekly basis ever since and recently picked up new accounts in Charlotte and Greensboro. This weekend, she is a sponsor of several events at the 2012 Hopscotch Music Festival, where her elixir will be available to bands that perform. She has prepped more than a dozen cases of ready-to-drink and gallons more to fill coolers for free samples – enough for a bona fide coffeepalooza.

Though stressed out in the days leading up to the festival, Jenny said, “It is so worth it. I love music and I love coffee, so bringing all this together is like the perfect marriage.”

1 comment:

  1. I think I'll have to order this! I tried to make cold-brew coffee at home once and I hated it. So cool that she turned her passon into a business.