Jenny Bonchak knows a thing or two or four about coffee. As Founder of the cold brew coffee brand, Slingshot Coffee Co., Jenny lives, breathes and brews coffee with integrity and passion. When she realized she could make better cold brew coffee than her favorite coffee bars, she decided to leave her “career” to offer stellar cold brew to the community in Raleigh, N.C. and the nation.
In an industry dominated by men, Jenny has carved her way through the specialty coffee world. She proves that not only does coffee unite a community, but also the women who brew coffee and drink coffee bring people together. Now, the two-time award winning barista, shares how she caffeinated her story with true grit and courage.
You started Slingshot Coffee Company in 2012, what were you doing before you jumped into the world of cold brew?
I started my career in the music industry, working for the highly-revered independent modern rock radio pioneers, 97X WOXY, out of Oxford, Ohio. It was truly my dream job right out of college. After 25 years, the owners decided it was time to retire and I subsequently found myself in the PR agency world, which is what I went to college to pursue. Through the years, I worked in both public and private public relations & communications.
Describe the moment you decided to launch a cold brew coffee company and the motivation behind that moment.
My (now) husband and I were very typical college students at the University of Pittsburgh… studying at local coffee bars and soaking up that culture. I’ve always been an iced coffee drinker – year-round, despite the weather. As I became more and more interested in specialty coffee, and subsequently enjoyed small part-time gigs here and there in the industry while I was working my full-time “career” job. I noticed that iced coffee was always an afterthought. Most coffee bars served sub-par, stale-tasting iced coffee and there wasn’t an option at a market or grocery store that I was even willing to put up to my nose, let alone to my lips. As I learned more and more about specialty coffee – from sourcing, to roasting, to properly brewing and as far as I was willing to go down that rabbit hole – I started brewing iced coffee at home that was far better than anything I could buy. After about 7 or 8 years, my entrepreneurial spirit got the best of me and I decided to dive into the coffee world and launched my first products for Slingshot Coffee Co. It was on a Thursday in 2012, and I’ll never forget it.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced owning and operating a startup coffee company and what have you learned about yourself?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is the struggle to run a start-up company that stays healthy without compromising quality. It would be the easiest thing in the world to source non-organic coffee, to source low-grade coffee, to do it on the cheap and see soaring margins. But that goes against everything I hold dear about specialty coffee and what I see as my absolute obligation to anyone who ever buys a bottle of Slingshot – that every drop of Slingshot will be as close to perfect as it can possibly be by always building on a foundation of quality, innovation knowledge and expertise.
You are obviously very passionate about coffee. What does coffee mean to you?
To me, coffee is the entirety of story. My first real experience with coffee was as a waitress at a local family-owned diner in my teeny tiny hometown. Old dudes would belly up to the counter, order a 25 cent cup of coffee and leave a ten cent tip. It was both adorable and frustrating.
My first date with Jonathan was over coffee and hash browns in the middle of the night at a 24-hour joint. People catch up with old friends over coffee. People talk about dreams and ideas over coffee. Maybe even break up with someone over coffee. So it’s certainly a relationally-driven beverage. But it’s also about the environment. It’s about politics. It’s about culture. It’s about generations. It’s about roasting, and sourcing and all of the people who make it happen before me. It’s my duty, then, to do justice to the exceptional care and practice that came before me by understanding and properly executing the final step… brewing it.
I’ve been in involved in the Specialty Coffee world for more than a decade, and the most exciting thing is that coffee never gets old for me; it actually becomes even more layered, more nuanced, more interesting and more complex. That’s what the journey is all about. And I love being able to share that evolution through Slingshot.
We know that you and your husband are national award winning baristas. Tell us more about what it means to be a female award winning barista.
Since 2012, I have been both a coach and competitor for a national barista competition called Brewers Cup, which is a coffee competition that evaluates the skills and knowledge of a barista in a manual coffee brewing (pour over) format. It’s an incredibly involved commitment that includes months of tasting and brewing coffees, practicing technical skill and generally preparing for competition. Between regional and national competitions, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to be practicing 8 months out of the year.
After 3 years of coaching Jonathan, I decided I wanted to compete. So in early 2015, I competed for the very first time at the National Brewers Cup in Long Beach, CA, and took home second place in the country. It was such an incredibly affirming and exciting win for me. Last month, I competed in the U.S. Brewers Cup National Qualifier competition held in Kansas City and I took home first place with the highest score of any Brewers Cup competitor in the country. This week, I’ll compete again on the National stage in Atlanta, and I’m working hard to bring home the gold!
On a daily basis, I’m swimming in an ocean that is very male dominated – both the specialty coffee industry and the specialty market & grocery industry. It can be intimidating at times. But I’m a very competitive person by nature – something I’ve had to learn is not a character flaw, but a part of who I am. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with some incredibly admirable women in coffee through competition, not to mention those women in the industry who have inspired me through competing. I’ve had strangers – both women and men – tell me how inspiring my competition performances have been. That’s an incredible honor that I feel obligated to try to live up to any way I can! But whether I place well or not, I see the Brewers Cup as a chance to challenge myself as a coffee professional and dive even deeper into my craft. That only translates into being a stronger leader for Slingshot, and ultimately crafting a coffee experience for others that stands alone in it’s pursuit of excellence.
Your husband recently joined you full-time at Slingshot. What is it like working as a husband and wife team?
It’s awesome to work with Jonathan every day. We have always known we would be good partners in life and business, and it really has worked out well. Do we have days where we need to step back and reassess? Sure. Days where one of us just has to take a walk to deescalate a situation? Of course. I was a one-woman show for the first 2.5-3 years of Slingshot’s existence and did everything my way. So to hire people – especially a spouse – can be strange. But we balance each other well. He respects me and what I’ve worked so hard to build. And I respect him, and the new views and ideas he brings. I’m thankful for that.
How do you strive to create community in Raleigh through Slingshot?
I can’t express how grateful I am to this community of people who make up Raleigh. They have embraced Slingshot from the very beginning and have been the best cheerleaders and supporters.
The idea of “creating community” is a very buzzy thing in coffee. To me, creating community is not just about having a gathering place. It’s about supporting people – all of them – who are already here doing good things, making an impact, envisioning and acting on ideas that continue to make Raleigh the best place to call home. We strive to be active as a company, as individuals and as business owners, hoping that our contributions are meaningful. At times, that means rallying around social justice issues such as the repeal of HB2 in North Carolina, at times that means opening our doors to the public and inviting them to have coffee with us, at times that means we just keep on brewing so Slingshot can be the fuel that keeps them all going. Any way you slice it, I’m into it.
At Clementine Daily, our mission is to live a simplified, authentic and intentional lifestyle. How do you incorporate these values into your everyday life?
As so many reading this can likely relate, owning a growing small business is anything but simple, especially when there is a lot at stake. It is full of hectic schedules and plenty of sleepless nights.
My parents were fruit & vegetable farmers for years on a 300 acre family farm in PA. After nearly two decades, they ended up taking different paths away from farming. And they are the hardest-working people I know. I think it’s in my blood to have to always accomplish something worthwhile with the hours I have in a day. But over the past six months, I’ve become more self-aware and willing to admit that I can’t do everything as well as I would like if I’m not nurturing myself and my relationships. I’ve tried to make more time for friends, more time for cocktails on the front porch, more time for yard work and other things where I can still step back and feel a sense of accomplishment.
Do you have any personal mottos or mantras?
“Rise Up and Greet the Day with Enthusiasm.”
p.s. If you want more inspiration from female entrepreneurs like Jenny, check out our interview with the woman behind ethical brand, Tribe Alive.