US based start-up Contra Coffee & Tea is set on re-inventing the coffee and tea sector. Partners Julie Nguyen and Paul Del Mundo started their company, based Santa Ana, California, in March 2015 and are already making a name for themselves with their innovative approach. Specialising in nitro cold-brew coffee and tea (on tap) their unusual flavour list includes Earl Grey Créme, Nitro Cascara Rose and Jasmine Matcha Green Tea. We spoke to Julie about their innovative beverages, their R&D process and their 21st century marketing methods.
What inspired you to start up a beverage company?
Both my partner and I were working typical “nine to five” jobs where we were doing R&D for food manufacturing companies. However, we didn’t see the complete gratification of creating for other companies. We were looking for full creative license, and we found it when we started Contra.
Additionally, the idea came about when we were actively looking for coffee shops to hang out at, but all of them had about the same menu and feel. We wanted to find something new, so after coming up short in our searches, we decided to create it. Our goal and focus has been to introduce an innovative and unique experience to the industry.
Tell us about your nitrogen-infused teas. What gave you the idea and what was your R&D process?
Our process of infusing nitrogen gas into any beverage is a process we like to keep within the company. However, we can tell you that it makes drinks take on a creamier mouthfeel and texture without the added cream. It comes out looking like Guinness Stout on tap, if you’re looking for an analogy. The idea came about after having a beer “on nitro” at a brewery we visited. As far as our R&D process, we find flavours that we like and use coffee and tea as a base to build upon our idea. We start off doing small batch experimentation, and then scale up after a formula is finalised.
How does adding nitrogen affect the flavour of the beverages? How have consumers reacted?
From a flavour standpoint, it is all about mouthfeel with the nitro. Also, depending on the ingredient, the nitrogen will dampen the harshness in acidity or bitterness in something like lemons or coffee. Consumers have been receptive to us and we’ve been fortunate enough to provide our customers a fresh outlook on the coffee and tea service industry. Colliding two worlds we enjoy, coffee and tea with a brewery tasting room feel, is what we’ve always wanted. We’re on our way to accomplishing that.
Part of your marketing strategy appears to be focused on doing pop-up events. What is the reason behind this and how does this give you an advantage over your competitors?
The main reason behind it is because we started with very little to almost no capital. It was just money we had saved up from our previous jobs. The pop-up is the easiest way for us to create a presence and get our vision across as best as possible. We feel Contra is something people need to experience themselves instead of just hearing about it.
Popping up has its advantages and disadvantages. For events, it’s mainly from a labour standpoint and a higher one-time vendor fee, pending the event. We would say that a main advantage of doing pop-ups is being able to maintain flexibility with our business without locking ourselves down to one spot for too long. Most of the time, small businesses make the mistake of committing too much to a location or concept without having any solid evidence that it will take off. Things like overhead costs put extra strain on a business. With pop-ups, we minimise the risk involved with starting a business. Another advantage is that popping up has its own built-in exclusivity to it. Consumers can only get it when they find us. For a sliver of time, we pop up, and then we leave like ghosts, like we were never there. It’s part of the fun of getting to come in contact with Contra.
Innovation in the tea sector is often influenced by the coffee sector. Why do you think this is? Is there space for the tea sector to develop on its own?
You’re absolutely right. There is a lot of crossing influences from the coffee industry. Coffee has such a wide array of flavours, but it’s the same commodity, the bean. Tea has its leaves, but the flavour profiles have a wider spectrum of variance than coffee. And just like in any industry, there is space for any sector to grow as long as it is created.
What’s next for the company?
Expansion and growth is definitely desired and being worked towards. We are always looking to explore a mobile option where we can pull up to a street corner with our tap system and dispense our drinks that way. Being mobile also allows us to make our drinks more accessible to a wider population. Eventually, we want to have a retail/distribution line to whatever capacity it presents itself in. Having a dedicated storefront is not in the works just yet, but we hope to get to that point in the future.
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