You could say Story and Soil Coffee Founder Michael Acosta lives and breathes coffee. The young entrepreneur was pursuing neuroscience at Trinity College when he became involved in the coffee scene. His coffee-related work experience began when he was a graduate assistant running The Underground Coffeehouse, which is a student-run shop on campus.
Michael spent some time traveling to shops around the United Stated and then working with coffee shops in Connecticut. “I found myself in a position where I became obsessed about coffee,” he admits. “I wanted to know everything about the supply chain and the culture and the more technical aspects of it. I made it my job to know as much as possible about the local coffee scene, as well as the national coffee scene—this is even before getting any formal training.”
Forming a Business Idea
“It’s always been a dream to have some sort of impact with the coffee industry,” says Michael.
Through a connection with J. René Coffee Roasters in West Hartford, he became involved with The Specialty Coffee Association of America. “That’s where I found a way to have an impact on coffee that involved events and community engagement” says Michael. “I wanted to take a more approachable and service-orientated approach to specialty coffee, which was something I feel has been missing within industry in general, but particularly within Connecticut.”
Michael traveled to Colombia, where he says he had “a fairly transformative experience.” When he returned, he knew he wanted to do something locally in his last year at Trinity.
Michael’s first startup venture was N2 Coffee, which he founded with business partners Jesus Gomez and Ted Do beck.
“When we launched N2 Coffee, it was the first mobile nitro cold brew in Connecticut,” he notes. “We started N2 as a way to pop up at fun events and bring coffee to people in an approachable way that added to the experience. The idea was to use coffee as conduit to combine media, art, events, and community engagement.”
reET Impact Accelerator Experience
To help get the startup off the ground, Michael tapped into more of his connections, namely with Christopher Mazziotto [former Program Director at reSET), who he had known for a while.
“I approached Chris with my idea for N2 a year before I even executed,” recalls Michael. “I told him about cold brew and how it was becoming interesting. A year later, cold brew and nitro brew were popping up in Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and available in cans. Chris took note of that and told me I should participate in the reSET Impact Accelerator.”
Michael is grateful for the suggestion. “It was a great experience,” he notes.
“I was able to put together a 40-page, a 25-page, and a 15-page business plan. It helped to put everything on paper, take all my observations, and create projections. I also enjoy public speaking, giving presentations, and communicating my business model,” he adds.
Michael’s original idea was to have short-run bottling of cold brew to expand the N2 brand and create a presence on grocery store shelves. “I had never really wanted to open up a coffee shop if I couldn’t do something interesting—this all happened very serendipitously,” he admits.
“I found myself in a position with N2 where I knew I needed to pivot—it’s why I signed up for the Accelerator. I needed to find a way to have more of an impact, get more revenue, and have a more sustainable business model. I needed to see what was possible and whether I was just spinning my wheels,” Michael explains.
“I remember telling Chris: I don’t see N2 having the same social impact as the coffee shop I’m working on can have. So, I started switching my focus completely onto opening a coffee shop,” he says. “I had originally signed up for the Accelerator as N2. My initial pitch was for N2. The last pitch I did was for Story and Soil.”
Funding the Startup
Michael worked with the team at reSET to help secure a Small Business Administration loan from Farmington bank.
“There’s a lot of coffee industry growth within Connecticut. Within the last six years, more than 20 stores have opened. Of those stores, a handful are hyper-specialty, like we are. So, there is still no proof of concept,” Michael explains. “It was surprising that Farmington Bank took this chance. It was awesome because that let us get to the point where we could outright buy a lot of our equipment. We also used the funding for licensing and doing the build out.”
Other forms of funding came from angel investors and family members. “We have no investors,” says Michael. “We have sole ownership of the business, so we got away unscathed.”
Finding a Place in Hartford
Story and Soil opened its doors on Capital Avenue in Hartford in July 27, 2017. With regard to location, Michael says, “It just made sense. If a coffee shop is going to go anywhere within Frog Hollow, it’s going to go here.”
Sarah McCoy, one of three partners including Michael McCoy, approached Michael at a local farmer’s market and introduced the idea of the space on Capital Avenue. “The building owners were interested in seeing a coffee shop come in because they knew the value it would add to the neighborhood,” Michael notes.
“I needed to pivot in some way. I saw an opportunity and jumped on it,” says Michael. “I went with my gut feeling. I think I had enough passion combined with the experience I have within the coffee industry, so that gut feeling was an interesting intuition.”
He adds, “It felt right. And it was something where I knew I could make a difference. There’s an opportunity here. We’re all anticipating the momentum that’s already been happening within the whole food scene in Hartford.”
Getting the word out about Story and Soil wasn’t too much of a stretch, since Michael had already made connections through N2 Coffee. “I had this contingency that was interested in N2, which encouraged them be interested in this coffee shop. It was an active effort.
Story and Soil popped up at different markets and events, including The KNOW Good Market, which is run by Breakfast Lunch & Dinner.
“I saw the value of being on the front lines and being able to tell our story. I had taken the lean model of: I’m going to do my research, see whether there’s a market for this, and see what the reactions are. I had done five years of that, so I had a good understanding,” he says.
An Innovative Coffee Shop Experience
One of Michael’s goals is to have Story and Soil be a staple within the neighborhood.
“We want to offer something unique—whether that’s with experience or by curating a space that’s welcoming,” he says. “What makes Story and Soil different is the approach we’re taking—we want to reflect the community we are in. We want to do more than just serve a cup of coffee. We want to be able to connect people and make an impact through media and events and by bringing people together.”
“If you’re intentional from the very beginning about your growth and what you value as a business, you can make it a sustainable place for your employees to grow as well. It’s very much an inward/outward focus. That’s always been valuable to us, emphasizes Michael.”
“We want to keep the team we have now. We want to allow our team to grow with us and give them more leadership opportunities and opportunities for growth to ideally make this a sustainable career for a lot of us,” he adds.
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