Entrepreneur Profile: Founders of Birch Coffee

by Aidan Sakiri

Summer is here, and we are all making the transition from hot to iced coffee.  But what most people do not know is that iced coffee is not as simple as a hot brewed drink turned cold. The process is actually just as interesting as it is deliciously enjoyable.

Birch Coffee, a hip New York City coffee brewery, will teach you how to properly brew iced coffee, easily and simply, so you are not left drinking what is essentially hot coffee left out to freeze. And, riding almost 40 miles a week, they will deliver it to wherever you may be within in the city!

The founders, Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader, are two young guys who followed what has always been important to them: quality food and environmental sustainability. Then, they turned an idea based on those two tenets into an entrepreneurial venture: Birch Coffee. Most people use hot water to brew their coffee, and then cool it in their fridge, but this process leaves your drink with an acidic, unpleasant taste. However, Birch Coffee uses cold brewing – the process of steeping coffee grounds in cold water for an extended period – which reduces 65% of the coffee’s acidity and allows for a smoother, sweeter brew.

Jeremy cashed out a $6,000 bond he had from his Bar Mitzvah in order to fund the venture. And since then, Jeremy and Paul used due diligence to research the market in order to avoid industry conventions. They now have a landmark location at the Gershwin Hotel and are expanding to a spot on the Upper West Side.

Birch Coffee is renowned for its quality, fashionable growlers, commitment to the environment and its innovative delivery of coffee – you can sign up for a subscription and they will deliver their iced coffee to your door via bike.

We had the chance to talk with Jeremy and ask him about their endeavors into entrepreneurism:

Every entrepreneur has their roots, that initial idea that sparks an interest where he knows he can build a business of his own. What was yours?

I think the service industry is in my blood. I am not sure where it came from, though. I received a baccalaureate degree in economics and jumped straight from college to behind the bar. I immediately fell in love with it. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on what it is, but it was palpable. After years in the bar industry, I found myself enjoying spending more time in coffee shops simply doing the day’s crossword puzzle. I met tons of people and just enjoyed the environment. I was determined to figure out a way to be able to sit in a coffee shop, do a NY Times puzzle and manage to pay my rent by doing that! I figured out a way, although I don’t get to sit around doing crosswords too often.

With Starbucks, Greenmountain Coffee, Think Coffee and even Financier, there are hundreds of shops that serve coffee. What motivated you guys to think: we have a foothold in this market?

This is a great question, and one that is asked often. I think my answer changes frequently, so here is today's! Even with all the coffee shops in NY, there is a lot of room for everyone. We’re two blocks away from Stumptown and we both manage to do fairly well. Of course the product is important. But I think what is truly going to make or break one’s business is their intention behind it. Paul and my intention from the beginning was to create a place where people felt comfortable. The good coffee and the food were a, dare I say, a byproduct?  Chains and mom and pops can open more and more stores, but keeping that intention is the hard part.

Explain to us how "cold" brewing works? Is it more than an oxymoron?

Our iced coffee is probably my favorite product.  So much so that we decided to bottle it and sell it on a much larger scale. So, here it is: we take cold water and coarse coffee grinds, then put them together and let them sit for 24 hours. The process strips the coffee of about 65% of its acidity because the cold water doesn’t take on as many characteristics of the coffee, namely the acidity. You get a dense concentrate which you then dilute. And, voila. As for it being an oxymoron, I just wanted to write the word since I love it so much.

Not many businesses can launch with a $6,000 loan. How successful is Birch to you?

I cashed in a premature bond from my bar mitzvah and opened an account with that. It was less than $10k, but it was a good start. I think any business can get started for a small amount of money. It’s one of those situations where, if you are starting your own business and have no clue what you’re doing – like we had no idea – then it’s going to be hard to convince someone to give you $500k to start a restaurant. But with time and experience, raising capital gets easier. Birch is the most successful venture I’ve endeavored on. It is my first, but hopefully it was continue to thrive!

What do you define success as? A feeling like satisfaction, or a monetary goal that you strive to attain?

Another great question, one that I like to actually talk about, so thank you for asking. It definitely has nothing to do with any type of monetary goal. While money is crucial to the survival of every and any business, it is not, to me, what makes it successful. I sometimes measure my level of success by the amount of anxiety I experience in the morning. When I worked at a mortgage company, I woke up just not wanting to go to work. It was that gut feeling knowing that I was supposed to be doing something different, but wasn’t quite sure what that was or how to attain it. I’m happy to report that, while I’m not jumping for joy out of my bed in the morning, I get up, walk my dogs, head to work and feel pretty damn good about it all. That’s success to me.

How would you inspire others to acheive their own success or business venture? Starting a business takes risk, why should they take it?

Starting my own business has been the most rewarding thing I have experienced to date. It has taken me to so many different places I never would have thought I could go. I don’t mean all over the world – although we are planning a trip to origin in South America next year – I mean, I’ve spoken about starting a business at conventions, taught classes about being a business starter and taking risks and it is only because I did just that, took a risk. I was talking to a buddy who had lost his job and watched him spend days and hours looking for work. I tried to convince him to spend that time finding clients and to start his own consulting firm. He didn’t care to do that. So while I believe that everyone has it in them, not everyone has the desire to do it. I’d say to those who are looking to take the “plunge”, start small.  You don’t have to make research your full time job. You can work on a project for an hour a day, or even an hour a week. Before you know it, you’ve put in 50 hours of work and you have something.  Don’t expect immediate results as those usually end in disappointments. When you want to see tangible results, open a bank account, start your LLC, buy your url. These are all small things that people starting out can do to keep momentum going. It will be the greatest experience of your life. I promise.  Whether the business fails or thrives, as long as you put your heart and soul into it, you’re a success.

What is your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?

I’m not a huge fan of the word failure, so let’s just call it a "no-go." I would say we’ve had a number of “no-gos." I would say that a “no-go” is a rather humbling experience. It helps remind me that just because something makes sense to me and in my head means that everyone else in the world will think the same. In fact I may be the only one.  I was working on a side project with a friend, momentum was great and then a brick wall. I like to think of it as just being on hiatus but I think the biggest struggle is when people know about it and they ask, “Oh, how is such and such coming along?” I was always so afraid to answer honestly, but I find that when I can be open with people, I am able to see what are changes I can make and how to potential turn that “no-go” into a success. Does that make sense? Well, I thought it did!

50 years down the line, what goals do you want Birch to accomplish?  Where do you see yourselves if everything is successful?

I’d like to see Birch as a strong participant in the specialty coffee industry and staying at the forefront of developing new products, concepts, innovations, etc. More importantly, I want to see the force behind what started Birch to be ever present. Paul and I started the co. because we were just unsatisfied with where our paths had taken us. Going to work should be a wonderful experience. I would want it to still be a kickass place to work. As for myself, I would like to still be heavily involved with the daily operations, but I’ll be 82 in 50 years. While I don’t ever plan on stopping to work, I’d like to be spending the majority of my time at the dog sanctuary I hope to have opened by then!