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June 12, 2014

ZING Up to Scale Up: UEL ZING Cold Brew Coffee

UEL ZING coffee the cart tight crop
Sam and his bright yellow coffee cart, bootstrapped & DIY.

I caught up with my little brother this morning, who started his own coffee business just over a year ago in Bloomington, Indiana. Sam's business, UEL ZING Coffee, specializes in the niche of cold brew iced coffee. Selling it by the cup from a DIY coffee cart, now bottling and wholesaling in the local co-op grocery store, he's scaling up and figuring out how to distribute to the masses. It could be interesting for him to look into something like a coffee van hire as this could be a good way of expanding his business. And if he continues to grow and expand he might be able to buy a coffee shop for sale and have a shop standing on the corner for his patrons to come, sit down and enjoy his cold brew iced coffee.

UEL ZING coffee - bottles perspective
UEL ZING cold brew coffee, 12 oz ready-to-drink bottles

Sam got into coffee at a fancy “third wave specialty coffee” shop in New York City after graduating from Cornell University. He met a girl and eventually followed her to Bloomington, where he saw the opportunity to start his own business. Drawing on his passion and experience in the coffee world, he became an entrepreneur.

UEL ZING coffee cupping 117
Sam hosting a coffee “cupping” at a pop-up location last fall.
UEL ZING iced coffee closeup
UEL ZING cold brew iced coffee

He figured out that the cold brew method of making coffee worked really well for selling from a cart—it's tasty and refreshing, low-tech and inexpensive to make, and is very shelf stable (under refrigeration). Apparently, both food carts and cold brew are slowly sweeping the nation, so it seemed like a perfect combination. Plus, coffee is a thing people buy everyday, so Sam has earned a lot of returning customers—'regulars.'

UEL ZING bottles on the shelf at Bloomingfoods Co-op.

Without the overhead of a storefront (he rents an industrial kitchen by the hour), Sam bikes around with a bright yellow cart that he built himself. The town is laid out well for foot traffic, especially with Indiana University near downtown, so he rotates between a few different corners where he'll set up for an entire day. According to Sam, the cart really built the brand and gained a lot of attention in town.

UEL ZING coffee bottle case
A case of cold brew bottles headed to the local co-op.

Even without much overhead, it takes a lot of $3 cups of coffee to make any real money, and Sam realized early on that he had to scale up somehow. He told me about the possibility of bottling the brew at the end of his first summer and I thought it made the most sense and was most scalable. He spent the winter securing shelf space in the local co-op, working with the health department, and designing the actual bottle. Launched March 18, 2014, his 12 ounce ‘ready-to-drink' cold brew bottles have been flying off the shelves, with Bloomingfoods co-op ordering more and more cases each week.

In addition to the co-op, he has a few smaller accounts around town and recently expanded to Porter Road Butcher in Nashville, Tennessee. At this point, the bottling is entirely done by hand—washing the bottles, filling them, screwing on lids, sealing, and delivering. For his Tuesday night bottling sessions, he pays a few friends in coffee; a team of three can do about 100 bottles per hour.

Pour Over Bar at Landlocked
Sam making a pour-over coffee.

Sam's also gotten his coffee into a few local bars for them to make cocktails with, and is working on more restaurants. He also does a few catering gigs, selling big jugs of coffee, or making “pour-overs.”

After our talk this morning, he says the business is starting to bring in some cash, but we both agreed that a much larger distribution system (and bottling system) is the next step. I said, “when a million people drink your coffee, you'll make a million dollars!” So if any folks out there have experience in the beverage industry, distribution, or just some advice for Sam, we would love to hear from you!

UEL ZING coffee - ski mountain bottle
UEL ZING on the slopes at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, MT.

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