RALEIGH  — When Jenny Bonchak sold her car in 2012, the $6,000 she got in return began her mission to change the way people drink coffee. Today, Slingshot Coffee Co.’s cold brew coffee is sold in over 1,100 retail and specialty locations across the U.S.

Bonchak said that growth has come because the company didn’t follow the trend, it was the trend.

“We are really one of the pioneers in the cold brew coffee movement throughout the country,” Bonchak said. “Being founded in 2012, it was really just something that was in its pre-infancy.”

While Slingshot was one the first companies on the cold brew train, plenty others have joined them since. A Boston Globe article from 2015 identified cold brew coffee as “rapidly spreading across the specialty coffee industry.” The article looked at six companies throughout the country, including Slingshot, to see which one made the best-tasting cold brew.

The Glove concluded that Slingshot was the best “by far,” with only one other company’s drink even coming close.

Bonchak, the company’s founder and CEO, and her husband, Jonathan, have been the driving force behind all of Slingshot’s operations. Jonathan Bonchak also serves as the company’s chief financial officer, though he did not join the company officially until 2015.

Bonchak believes that the difference between Slingshot and other cold brew companies is her and her husband’s experience in the coffee world.

“Something that makes us unique is that we are the only cold brew coffee company in the United States that is owned, run and founded by coffee professionals,” Bonchak said.

Starting from scratch

Bonchak said she and her husband began experimenting with cold brew around 10 years ago. As she came to love the taste and the process of making it, she saw it as a natural transition to start a company that could take the traditional idea of coffee and turn it on its head.

After selling her car established a small basis of cash to start Slingshot, Bonchak needed to get creative in how she would make the product and get it out to the people. Her best option at the time was to approach a local restaurant owner and ask to use their kitchen in the off-hours.

“He said yes,” Bonchak said. “So I started out in someone’s kitchen. Then, graduated to what I considered a mansion at the time, which was a 150-square foot kitchen that we built out of a bicycle shop here in downtown Raleigh.”

Tanya Andrews is an owner of Yellow Dog Bread Co. in Raleigh, one of the first locations to begin selling Slingshot products. She was able to see Bonchak’s “headquarters” first-hand during this time.

“I mean, her bicycle shop area was more like a closet,” Andrews said. “It was, like, microscopic. And yet, she was able to turn all this out from basically nothing.”

Andrews said today, Slingshot is one of her store’s primary revenue boosters.

In early-2015, Durham-based venture firm Bootstrap Advisors made an initial investment of $200,000 in Slingshot, one of numerous additional investments made by the firm since. Jay Mebane, a partner with Bootstrap Advisors, said that Slingshot was held back in years before the investment due to a lack of resources.

“At the time, it was just Jenny and Jonathan doing it part-time, desiring to do something larger but needing the capital to do it,” Mebane said.

In 2014, Slingshot was able to move to a 1,000-square-foot warehouse space, which allowed the company to improve its production and supply to more retailers.

Mebane said the uniqueness of Slingshot’s products at the time made the company a unique investment opportunity.

“We liked that it was in a niche market,” Mebane said. “You know, cold brew coffee really was just starting to get some consumer excitement. So we saw it as a way to get into that market really early.”

Slingshot began with only a handful of specialty locations selling its products. But within three months, the company was picked up by Whole Foods, and Mebane said the company has expanded rapidly since.

“It’s amazing what Slingshot has seen in terms of growth,” Mebane said. “I mean, Starbucks has cold brew coffee now, Dunkin’ Donuts has an off-the-shelf-option now. And I think one of the great things about Slingshot is, across the board, people see at the upper-end in terms of quality and branding.”

What is cold brew?

Slingshot’s cold brew bears little resemblance to the standard hot or iced coffee. It can be refrigerated, it’s good for six months, and the light, bright and juicy flavor of it differs greatly from the usual bitter, chocolatey taste people have come to expect.

Another difference Bonchak pointed to is that Slingshot’s cold brew doesn’t rely on additives or flavoring such as vanilla or mocha.

“That to us is not innovation,” Bonchak said. “That to us is just adding flavoring to something that, if it’s brewed well and it’s roasted well and it’s sourced well, it shouldn’t necessarily need all of those flavorings. Because you’re trying to just mask something that doesn’t taste good.”

Counter Culture Co., a coffee roasting company in Durham, N.C., is the exclusive brewer of Slingshot’s products.

Slingshot’s cold brew coffee is steeped for 16 hours at a low temperature. Bonchak said the company’s cold brew has a distinct flavor because it uses Ethiopian coffee beans, which is the result of the cold brew’s tangy taste. All of Slingshot’s products are also certified organic, direct-trade and Kosher.

The company also offers a cascara tea, which is tea brewed from the fruit and fruit skin surrounding a coffee bean. Bonchak said they were the first company to brew and bottle cascara in the United States.

“We were really the ones who got this idea of cascara out in the market place,” Bonchak said.

How has business grown, and where is it going?

Target, Publix and Whole Foods are the three largest retailers holding Slingshot products currently. Slingshot can also be found in Trader Joe’s and Earth Fare, mostly in the Southeast and East Coast.

The company’s products also are sold in various independent and specialty coffee locations, something Bonchak said she has a special connection to because of her memories of going to coffee bars in college.

In May 2017, Slingshot struck a deal with Target to have its products distributed at 250 of the retailer’s locations in the southern United States. When Target asked if Slingshot could be distributed in more than those 250 locations, Bonchak had to say no. The production demands were too much for the company to handle.

“They’ve somewhat had their hands tied behind their back in that they’ve really outgrown their current facility and need more space,” Mebane said.

Those production problems will be solved soon. At the beginning of last March, Slingshot announced it will be moving into a new, 13,000 square foot facility in downtown Raleigh.

“The new facility will no doubt increase the amount of product that they can produce, but more importantly, it will also drive the cost of producing those products down significantly,” Mebane said.

Last March, Slingshot debuted in 300 Publix stores throughout the Southeast. Bonchak said the company will be launching on Amazon in May 2018 for online customers, and it expects more retailers to be on board before 2018 is over.

Bonchak said Slingshot will be launching in Los Angeles around early-June, which will be the company’s debut on the West Coast.

In a busy year of finding new locations and new retailers, Slingshot also will be debuting two new products separate from its cold brew and cascara tea.

“What I can hint to you is that it’s two new products, and they’re really different than anything we’ve done before,” Bonchak said. “So they’re going to blow people’s minds. I’m excited.”

This story is from the North Carolina Business News Wire, a service of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism