Welcome to All In, where we sit down with some of the most inspiring people in the wellness industry to find out how they got their start, their successes and their struggles, and their top advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. Next up are the leaders of Toronto’s cold brew revolution, the founders of Station Cold Brew: Mitch Stern, Steve Ballantyne, and Mike Roy.
Headquartered in Toronto, Station Cold Brew runs Canada’s first coffee brewery. The team sources locally roasted direct trade coffee beans which they then brew for 18 hours in cold water – no heat. Call it the Slow Coffee movement. Call it a superior afternoon pick-me-up. Just don’t call it “iced coffee.” The trio behind Station Cold Brew tell us more in one of our most candid and engaging entrepreneur interviews.
Can you recall the first inspiration you had to start your own business?
Mitch Stern: To be quite honest with you, I hadn’t really thought about starting my own business. I worked for a marketing agency for years and when I realized I wasn’t happy, I left. I sort of fell into some consulting before Steve approached me about Station.
Steve Ballantyne: Whistler BC, 2005, I saw an ad for a recycle business on sale for $5000 including a pick up truck. I thought, you can’t buy a truck for that, let alone a whole business! After working for free alongside the owner as research, negotiating him down to $4000, convincing my dad to loan me the money, I bought the business. I repaid the $4000 in full 10 weeks later and still call my dad my business partner today.
Mike Roy: I constantly found myself imagining all of the ways I would do things at work differently, more efficiently and with a higher quality. Everything I do, whether it’s work or hobby, has to be perfect. I have a lot of friends who had started their own businesses at a young age, so when the opportunity presented itself it was a no brainer.
What were some of your early challenges?
MS: So many challenges! First off, finding a place to package our product that met Toronto Public Health standards. We ended up finding a commercial kitchen and renting a small amount of space. Next was figuring out how to put the recipe we created into a package, finding the package and making the package look great! Not at all easy when you’ve never built a beverage business before. Then, once we figured that out we needed to understand health and safety, shelf life etc… All very big challenges from early days.
SB: At first, no one knew what Station Cold Brew was doing or why we were doing it. “Is that beer?” is what we would hear often. So education was a big challenge. But once a person tastes the sweet slow brew for the first time a light usually switches on. So we’ve had to win over each customer one by one, day by day, growing each year.
MR: Work space, storage, time, and equipment. When we launched, we needed a cheap food and beverage (TPH) certified facility to operate out of. We rented a shared kitchen three days each week to produce and package everything by hand, and then deliver everything with a Zipcar on the fourth day.
While doing this I was also working four nights a week as a bartender, so my schedule was a little crazy. Once we really got some momentum we had to order thousands of bottles at a time and storage really became a challenge. On top of that we also had no idea where to source bottling equipment, labeling machines, bottle caps or larger brewing equipment.
What are some challenges you still face today?
MS: The biggest thing we face day to day is still education. We’ve now spent four years helping people understand why Cold Brew Coffee is not the same as Iced Coffee. Anytime there is a new product that changes consumer behaviour it takes time to help them understand why they need it in their life. Throw in the fact that COFFEE is something you should never mess with, and there in lies our biggest challenge.
SB: Believe it or not education is still our biggest challenge! The question: why cold brew? The answer: convenient, high quality coffee with low acidity that tastes amazing black or with some help.
MR: Working with national distributors can be challenging. We send product all over the place and it’s my team’s job to manage everything from quality control to freight issues, rush orders, product cycling and more. It can be a lot for a small team to juggle. We also produce in much larger batches than we used to, so our quality control systems have to be 100% all the time. If we need to recall product or address an issue, it’s my responsibility to be able to trace everything from step 1/day 0.
Budgets and projections can be tough for a business that is constantly growing as well. We need to try to understand what the next 12 months looks like from a production level in order to ensure we are able to produce what we are hoping to sell.
“Have a “baseline” income to keep the lights on while starting a new business as a side hustle. That way, if things don’t go as planned, you have a fall back.”
Were you also working a full time job when you launched your business (as a side hustle) or did you go full-force into the new business? Would you recommend the approach you took?
MS: For the first while, all three of us were working other jobs. I was consulting with a few other brands getting them off the ground. Once we realized this brand/product had some serious potential, we each shifted focus.
SB: I was working on another business (still am) when we launched Station Cold Brew. I used all the resources of this existing business to help Station grow (office, capital, connections). In the early days, we put everything into it; I didn’t pay myself a wage for three years!
I’d recommend this approach. Have a “baseline” income to keep the lights on while starting a new business as a side hustle. That way, if things don’t go as planned, you have a fall back. But, if things go great, you can always leave your main job and go full time into your new venture, as I did.
MR: I was working as a bartender when we started to plan our business, and had actually left an ongoing project for a similar business that wasn’t working out. Once we launched, I continued to work full time for close to a year before taking the plunge into daily entrepreneur life. The approach I took is not for everyone. It requires serious big picture dedication and spending all of your free time building what you hope to become a reality.
All three of us ran Station Cold Brew as a side hustle for as long as possible for financial reasons, so if you are trying to build your business on a budget then just know it takes time and effort. If you’ve got the money to dive right in, make sure you know exactly what you need to do to get there fast.
We’re always interested in the decision entrepreneurs make to go solo or have partners. Did you always know you would start the business with partners? How has the decision to go that route been both rewarding and challenging?
MS: For us, it just made sense and happened very organically. I am a HUGE believer of knowing what you are good at and surrounding yourself with those that compliment you. We could not be where we are today without each other. We each bring something very unique to the table that is/was necessary for Station to exist.
“The most important part of a partnership is finding equally passionate entrepreneurial spirits because that passion will fuel you through the tough times and keep the band together.”
SB: I knew I needed partners when I attempted to brew my own cold brew at home and didn’t grind the beans before putting them into a nut milk bag to soak overnight. Waking up in the morning and seeing the water still clear, when it should be very dark, I knew I needed help! Since then it has been a roller coaster of ups and downs but I was very fortunate to choose two great guys who weren’t afraid to sweat it out with me in the trenches. The most important part of a partnership is finding equally passionate entrepreneurial spirits because that passion will fuel you through the tough times and keep the band together.
MR: I hadn’t ever given much thought to having partners outside of financing a business, but Station wouldn’t be what it is without partners. I think each of us brings a very significant skill set to the table and we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the three of us. We all come from very different backgrounds both personally and professionally, and that can be challenging when trying to decide on direction. But eventually when we all land on something together it’s a much bigger win than if we had have gone with our individual ideas.
The biggest reward is having a support system to back each other up. I’m the operations and product side of the business, so I work on my own a bit more than Mitch and Steve. I rely on them to give me feedback so I know I’m moving our products in the right direction. We’ve also all become great friends since starting this business and always have a blast together at festivals, events and trade shows.
Did you seek outside investment and if so, how did you go about that process?
MS: In 2017, we decided to go onto Dragon’s Den – mainly for exposure and to continue to educate the Canadian public on Cold Brew. We weren’t in need of money but thought we’d give it a shot and it ended up going extremely well!
SB: We did want outside investment, but faced a challenge: How do you get the word out you want funding without looking desperate? Fortunately CBC had reached out a few times about Dragon’s Den so we thought now the time was right to audition for the show. After a successful filming, we were sworn to secrecy about the show but word got out in the investment community somehow that we had done well.
Calls started coming in from investors so we rode a wave of interest to find the right partners. Ultimately we found the right partners, but it wasn’t the Dragons (even though we took a “deal” on TV) that we signed with.
MR: We we’re self funded for the first three years of our business and looked into some options, but at the time it really didn’t make sense. We just kept the hustle strong and worked hard. Last year we made the decision to seek some proper funding to scale our business to the next level and found some really great partners to come aboard.
Launching – and then running – your own business can be overwhelming. How do you stay focused and on track on a day to day basis? What are some of your top tips?
MS: Overwhelming is an understatement. Especially for someone who admittedly suffers from anxiety – overwhelm is a real thing. Having partners and a great team to have real conversations helps tremendously. Our goal is to build a business that supports the human beings working on the team – myself included.
Having the opportunity to say something when you need some time to chill out is very important. Keeping open dialogue is very important to an environment where our team can thrive. For me personally, I use mindfulness practices to keep on track and focused. That includes breathing/meditation, community (friends & family) as well as exercise.
SB: Figure out what are the most important activities to grow your business, find a way to measure this success, and focus on that. For us, revenue is our most important indicator of success. Other numbers we track closely include: cost of goods sold, retail partner locations, and turns (sales) on shelf. Stay focused through accountability, by having other people (advisors, investors) also looking at these numbers.
“Prioritize what needs to be done, even if you don’t know how to tackle the hardest task.”
MR: Setting goals and making plans to achieve those goals is very important. I have staff that rely on me everyday to be a leader so that keeps me pretty motivated. My friends and family are very proud of what we have accomplished and to be honest, our customers are the biggest motivation to stay on track and keep moving forward.
My top tips are to prioritize what needs to be done, even if you don’t know how to tackle the hardest task. It’s easy to get caught up doing what you know how to, but sometimes taking leaps and asking for help is the best way to knock those complicated things off. I also try to do everything myself if possible to save money.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given as it relates to running your own business?
MS: I said it above but surround yourself with people who compliment your skill set and grow together.
SB: Find the win-win in any situation. Whether it’s a tough customer, challenging supplier, or business partner, if you dig deep enough you can find a scenario where everyone wins.
MR: Work the way most people won’t, to live the way most people can’t. That sentence to me really just means having freedom.
“When you are struggling or overwhelmed, trust that things will change again.”
What’s the best piece of advice you would give to a anyone interested in going out on their own?
MS: It’s worth it… it comes with some serious highs and some serious lows. To me, the former outweighs the latter. The key is to appreciate when you are in those moments and give yourself credit and when you are struggling or overwhelmed, trust that things will change again.
SB: I think today people tend to glamorize entrepreneurship. This is not glamourous. Consider what you are willing to give up. When the answer is pretty much everything, go for it!
MR: Spend time on your business plan, lot’s of time. Understand what it is you want to be. When you launch a business you are going to have ups and downs, wins and losses, but at the end of the day you are running your own business. It isn’t easy and it takes patience, but it is extremely rewarding.
“I think today people tend to glamorize entrepreneurship. This is not glamourous. Consider what you are willing to give up. When the answer is pretty much everything, go for it!”
About Your Company
One of the first things we learn about starting a successful business is that you have to relieve a pain point for the public. What was the problem you set out to solve with your company and how have you solved it?
MS: Our goal has always been to provide a craft quality coffee in a convenient way. For too long in coffee, quality and convenience have been separate, but we believe they don’t have to.
Do you ever have people asking “isn’t this just iced coffee”? How do you respond in terms of educating the consumer?
MS: I sit them down and say: “We need to have a chat.” We are working on a series of videos right now called “Ask the Brewmaster” which will help.
What’s up next for Station Cold Brew?
MS: Too many things! Just kidding, that’s what gets us excited. We are working on another flavoured product as well as a lineup of Iced Teas. That’s just the beginning too.
You can find Station Cold Brew, well, almost anywhere: your local fitness studio (RedLeaf for example), apparel stores (lululemon’s The Local), on shelves at your favourite restaurant (Impact Kitchen)… the list goes on. You can also find Station Cold Brew on their website here and on Instagram @stationcoldbrew
All photos courtesy of Station Cold Brew