College and coffee go hand in hand, and Baruch is no exception. During midterms and finals, especially, students buzz around the Newman Vertical Campus between study sessions swigging Starbucks or nitro cold brews purchased from one of the food trucks or boutique coffee shops popping up throughout the neighborhood. It’s no surprise, then, that Baruch alumni continue their love affair with coffee long after graduation. But they’re not only drinking it—they’re selling it, as Baruch entrepreneurs are making their mark on what has become a $20 billion global industry. From running hip coffeehouses to supporting responsibly sourced beans, owning trendy cold-brew companies to innovating instant coffee, meet four alumni who are helping to shape this growing industry, one flavorful cup at a time.
“Technically speaking, coffee has more flavor profiles than wine,” says David Steingard (’99). The energetic Baruch alumnus reclines in his basement office in Tribeca, his voice brimming with excitement as he talks about his favorite beverage. A former criminal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Mr. Steingard co-founded Laughing Man Coffee Company in 2011 with his friend actor Hugh Jackman. Steingard gravitated toward the industry partly because his family had a history in the business— his parents owned the Cupping Room Café in SoHo—and partly because he saw it as the perfect platform to do good.
“The second wave of specialty coffee had hit its stride,” Steingard recalls, “and there were a lot of great socioeconomic issues that the industry was addressing: sustainability, transparency, responsible sourcing, and so forth. Hugh had just come back from a trip to Ethiopia, helping with humanitarian projects, and we felt it was the right time to get this off the ground.”
Since then, Laughing Man has grown into a major brand. The company has two New York City cafés, and Walmart, Target, and Amazon sell its ground coffee and Keurig cups nationally. Through it all, the company supports Mr. Jackman’s Laughing Man Foundation, which provides new homes and scholarships to the families of coffee farmers in Ethiopia.
“Coffee is a family and community business,” Steingard explains, “which is why it’s important to do things holistically, to raise the entire farming community up and make an impact.” Make no mistake, in addition to supporting a good cause, Laughing Man also knows how to brew a mean cup of coffee. Steingard’s eyes light up as he discusses the intricacies of roasting. “There are three components to making a good cup of coffee,” he explains. “The coffee itself, the grind, and the temperature. And that leads to more complexities: how you caramelize the sugars as they roast, the waves, the graphs, and so much more.”
While coffee may indeed be one of the most complex beverages around, Steingard recognizes that some customers just want a good caffeine fix. “Consumers understand that wine is a complex drink, but they haven’t quite reached that level of understanding with coffee,” he explains. Steingard predicts, though, that coffee consumers will get more sophisticated, and purveyors will reflect that growing understanding. “That’s why coffee remains such a growth industry.”
When Angela Austin (’07) moved in with her then boyfriend–now husband to Bushwick, Brooklyn, she faced a dilemma: “There were no good coffee places nearby!”
She had long fantasized about opening a coffee shop and decided that it was time to GROUNDS FOR SUCCESS take the plunge. After doing some research, she and her husband opened Milk & Pull— on top of their full-time day jobs. The shop made an immediate connection with the neighborhood. Since then, their enterprise has expanded to three locations across Queens and Brooklyn, each shop creating a welcoming environment with hip ambiance, friendly baristas, and cozy seating.
“In a sense, coffee runs in my family,” says Ms. Austin as she sits in a quaint corner of her most recent Milk & Pull location in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “My grandfather owned coffee farms in Colombia, before guerrillas took his land and my family was displaced. This is sort of my way of bringing my family back into this business.”
Running Milk & Pull is no easy feat. Austin also serves as director of Verizon Creative Marketing, an in-house ad agency within the telecommunications powerhouse, where she spends the bulk of her days working on complex marketing campaigns. Running a business on top of her corporate job makes for long days—and nights—but it’s worth it when she sees her coffeehouses filled with happy customers.
“Local coffee shops are making a huge comeback,” she explains. “Starbucks opened the door, but hyperlocal shops provide that quality, personal touch. Nowadays people get to know their barista, and it becomes a neighborhood connection.” Just like Steingard, Austin senses that consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about coffee and more eager to try new things. Her shops serve coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters—a popular roaster headquartered in Portland, Oregon—and feature adventurous blends. “Coffee is so much more than a fix,” she explains. “It’s how conversations start. You try a new blend, you chat with your barista about what makes it unique, and you learn more about the complexities of coffee.”
A corporate communications major at Baruch, Austin credits the College with instilling in her an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to take risks. Of the student experience, she says, “You’re in the middle of Manhattan—part of its bustling spirit—and that makes you want to build something.” Graduating with no debt also helped make her dream possible. “I was able to jumpstart my life without that crazy weight on my shoulders,” she explains.
The alumna hopes to continue to expand Milk & Pull in the near future, especially as business keeps booming. “We never intended for this to be a cash cow or anything,” she says. “It was just a passion project—our lifestyle, really—and it’s amazing that we’re having this impact on the local community.”
An Instant Upgrade
High-quality coffeehouses and exotic blends are great, but what about consumers looking for speed and convenience? Those who favor instant coffee have always had to settle for inferior quality, but those days will soon be over if David Kovalevski (’17) has anything to say about it.
Originally from Israel and currently living in Los Angeles, Mr. Kovalevski founded Waka Coffee last year to bring gourmet-quality instant coffee to the masses. “Insta
nt coffee is way more popular internationally than in the United States,” says Kovalevski, who initially planned to open a coffee shop until his market research redirected his thinking. “A lot of people don’t realize that instant coffee is a $2.2 billion industry in the states— and getting bigger year after year. So I knew there was tremendous growth here.”
According to Kovalevski, coffee aficionados look down on instant coffee because it typically uses Robusta beans, which are notorious for having a burnt taste. Waka has innovated the industry by using higher-quality Arabica beans in its instant coffee and a novel freeze-drying process. (There are over 100 coffee species.)
“Rather than applying heat like other instant coffee brands,” he explains, “we freeze-dry the Arabica beans, which sublimates the liquid and allows the beans to retain their taste. Instead of ruining the chemicals within the beans, we preserve them.”
Instant coffee is near and dear to Kovalveski’s heart, and it all began at Baruch. While taking night classes, he simultaneously worked a full-time job for the Israeli government. Coffee became a mainstay beverage. Also, given his studio apartment with little counter space, instant was the logical choice. “When you’re working full time and taking classes, you could drink at least four cups a day,” he says. “You can’t keep buying K-Cups or Starbucks all the time. It’s simply not economical. Instant coffee makes a lot of sense.”
Waka Coffee is currently sold nationwide on Amazon and in boutique coffee shops in California, with plans to start distributing to select grocery stores in the near future. Kovalevski credits his time at Baruch with providing him with real-life case studies that shaped his perspective on launching his own business. “Many of my classmates at Baruch started their own companies while they were students,” he says. “That entrepreneurial spirit has stuck with me, and my friends from Baruch inspired me.”
Some Like It Hot… and Some Don’t
Raymond Cole (MBA ’02) has had a front-row seat to the meteoric rise of coffee’s latest, trendiest development: cold brew.
“A lot of folks confuse it for regular iced coffee,” cautions the alumnus, “where you simply pour hot-brewed coffee over ice. But authentic cold brew is totally different because you steep the coffee grinds in cold water for 20 hours, resulting in an incredibly strong—and delicious—flavor.”
As co-owner, COO, and CFO of Lucky Jack Coffee, a national cold-brew brand, Mr. Cole has quickly become something of an authority on the subject, and he’s seen how cold brew can attract new audiences to coffee. “We find that health and wellness enthusiasts gravitate to cold brew,” he says. Cole, who previously spent a decade running fitness star Jillian Michaels’s brand, purchased Lucky Jack with Ms. Michaels and three other stakeholders. “It provides a great caffeine kick preworkout, and millennials are favoring it over Coke and Pepsi. It’s a space that’s growing by leaps and bounds.”
Lucky Jack also supplies kegs of cold brew to bars and restaurants to be used as an ingredient in unique coffee cocktails.
“We have espresso concentrate that a West Coast burger chain uses in its milkshakes,” he explains. “Coffee has become so versatile, and consumers really enjoy getting a caffeine boost in a variety of ways.”
Now living in Las Vegas, where Lucky Jack is headquartered, Cole looks back on his 15 years in Manhattan—as an investment banker and a Baruch MBA student—as a seminal moment in his life. In particular, he remembers how his classmates and professors made him feel that he could handle any challenges that came his way. “It’s a big school, but you really feel like you’re part of a family at Baruch,” Cole says. “A big family, of course, but one filled with camaraderie.”
The Last Drop
As new coffee variants continue to attract a wider audience, business experts predict that the coffee industry will continue to grow, especially on a global scale. “Much of the recent growth has been overseas, as the Chinese market has moved away from solely drinking tea toward coffee as well,” says Scott L. Newbert, PhD, academic director of the Lawrence N. Field Programs in Entrepreneurship at Baruch. “In response, Starbucks is now opening at least one new store in China every day, and in the United States, the trend toward working away from the office—in other words, entrepreneurs, gig-economy workers, etc.—has made coffeehouses very desirable destinations.”
No matter where the industry turns, Baruch alumni will surely be at the forefront, doing their part to innovate the daily grind.