When Audrey Finocchiaro and Sam Lancaster graduated from college, they grew sick of the daily grind of working in a restaurant rather quickly. So instead they decided to grind coffee beans—Nitro cold brew to be exact. They quit their jobs, maxed out their credit cards and built a cart out of scrap wood Audrey’s father had given them, then stayed up until three in the morning to finish building the hand-made cart they planned to sell coffee out of.
“For us, it was either going to work or it wasn’t going to work, so we were going for broke!” Sam said. It’s safe to say their scrappy plan totally worked, and the caffeinated entrepreneurial duo now sling locally sourced, Nitro cold brew, a la The Nitro Cart, out of their three carts and dozens of taps installed from Providence to Boston. We got to chat with co-founder Audrey to learn about local sourcing, the team’s carefree vibe and what the heck Nitro coffee is anyway.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
A.F.: I went to school in NYC and Sam and I spent some time there going around to different coffee shops all over and seeing funky places in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. When I graduated from college, I moved to Rhode Island and thought the North Kingstown and Providence area was really lacking on the coffee scene. Sam and I were both working in the same restaurant, not loving life. We had the smallest credit cards we could ever have and said, “Let’s build this coffee cart and max out our credit cards!”
I was obsessed with small things and was living in a tiny home at the time. So Sam and I decided to build a coffee cart in my parent’s basement for a random sheep-sharing event in Jamestown we signed up for. We called all over different spots in Rhode Island and one of our friends owns Watson Farm in Jamestown and had a sheep-sharing event coming up so it was a pretty random, quirky start. We stayed up until three in the morning the day before to finish building our cart, but we did it!
R.K.: So what exactly is Nitro cold brew, anyway?
A.F.: We take our cold brew, where the coffee is seeped cold for 24 hours throughout the entire process so it brings more of the nutty, natural flavors out of coffee. We then infuse it with pure nitrogen so it’s completely natural. It’s poured on tap, which gives it that light, creamy color. Our coffee has a rich, nutty, chocolaty flavor and it allows people who don’t normally drink their coffee black to do that and enjoy it!
R.K.: Tell me a bit more about how it works. I know you have several carts and also taps in local businesses and restaurants!
A.F.: Initially when we started last summer, it was just the cart and we brought it every day to Providence. We had one of the owners of PVDonuts come up to the cart one day and they were like “Holy sh*t, this is the best Nitro coffee I ever had,” so that started the conversation of having it on tap throughout Providence and kicked off our first wholesale account. From there, the coffee was doing so well and we were able to pick up some more local accounts like Eli’s Kitchen, The Shanty and Crazy Burger. It kind of took off from there!
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
A.F.: One thing was figuring out where to bring the carts in the very beginning. We tested out five different locations before we found the right one. Sam and I would sit out in the rain because we quit our jobs and this was our livelihood! Then we found our target market was the younger, millennial crowd and the Brown University students have been really amazing too. That’s what we probably learned the most from!
R.K.: How do you source your ingredients?
A.F.: We worked with a local roaster in Southern Rhode Island to co-create our special Nitro Cart blend. It’s sourced from eight different origins and is a really unique flavor to us so that’s what goes into our cold brew!
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area?
A.F.: Definitely! I think the people of Providence have been incredibly nice and super encouraging. They lift us up, are happy to help and give their two cents, which has been huge. Providence is super small and we can test out different areas, and we’re also trying to expand within the Boston area. Starting in New England has definitely helped our success!
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
A.F.: I would love to see more women-led businesses starting up! Any time I see a woman starting her own thing, we love to be really encouraging and supportive.
R.K.: What other local food and beverage brands are you a fan of?
A.F.: PVDonuts is a big one that we really look up to as well as Rebelle Artisan Bagels in Providence; both are led by women and they’re doing amazing. Stock Culinary Goods is led by a woman business owner, and they really work on bringing local entrepreneurs together—from kitchenware to our Nitro cold brew to kombucha. We’ve gained so many new friends from starting our business!
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
A.F.: We really hope to develop more of a lifestyle focus, and expand our wholesale business to make it so anyone can get our coffee anywhere. We’re looking forward to becoming a socially driven business with a strong social mission, which is something we work on daily. Maybe opening up a retail shop or two, expanding our carts and bringing on more wholesale accounts!
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own local business?
A.F.: Don’t be afraid of failing and really embarrassing yourself. That’s just something we had to expect, like if we went out in the rain and served five people we were OK with that because we learned something. Putting yourself in awkward, uncomfortable positions is something we work on every day to get better at and be OK with it.
R.K.: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say, “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
A.F.: I would say our vibe is people who don’t care about breaking rules and doing things in a different way. We like to say we give a f*ck but don’t give a f*ck at the same time, and you can really see that through everyone on the team. We care but we’re also able to relax and care about the friendships we’re making too. We truly care about The Nitro Cart and the community we’ve built around it!
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