Coffee

Latest entrepreneurial Lunch & Learn: Coffee, community and resilience

From milkandpull | Instagram

On April 24, the Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship hosted the latest webinar in its Entrepreneurial Lunch & Learn series, guided by Programming Coordinator Gary Smalls, with Baruch Alumnus Angela Austin, the co-founder of a family-owned coffee shop, Milk & Pull, located in Brooklyn and Queens.

The pandemic had a major economic and community impact on small businesses across the country and the world. In the session, Austin discussed how the power of community building and resilience helped their team survive, thrive and have community impact after one of the most challenging periods in history.

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First,  Austin started off with the story of building Milk & Pull. She and her husband, Joe Austin, always shared their love for coffee and wanted to build a business around that passion. Her grandfather, who owned a coffee farm in Columbia, instilled in her a love for coffee and the importance of community spaces like the local coffee shop. So, the couple wanted to cultivate that vision in New York.

When building the company, they both kept up with their careers, with Angela Austin in marketing and Joe Austin in banking. In 2015, they opened their first location in Bushwick. 

The “grand slam,” as Angela described, was the quality of the product. They spent most of their initial investment on an Italian coffee machine and the best coffee beans in town. What they didn’t anticipate was the high prices for these items. In response, they had to compromise elsewhere. The first coffee shop turned out to be the smallest and was modest. While encountering a rocky start, the couple received news of their pregnancy during the second week of their buildout; however, this did not deter them from pursuing their vision.

The pandemic hit five years into their business venture. Despite the challenges, the couple continued to work at their day jobs, which ultimately provided them with the financial stability to weather the storm. Austin reflected on that time, saying it was a blessing in disguise. It gave them extra time to focus on elevating their business to the next level, and they learned how to roast their own coffee.

Austin said the community was also there for them throughout that difficult time. The outpouring of support they received was heartwarming and reaffirming, she said. The community went out of their way to support them, Austin said, with the locals, and even people who moved away, eager to help.

Austin also discussed the value of education in her entrepreneurial endeavor, acknowledging that her college education in communications and marketing equipped her with the necessary skills to build and grow her business.

“I don’t come from money, I don’t come from connections,” she said. “I’m from Queens and my mom is an immigrant. I needed to go to school. It opened up my world and it allowed me to get into corporate spaces that I wouldn’t be allowed to without college.”

She later provided advice for entrepreneurs. 

“One should not be afraid to talk to people and ask questions and be open to learning,” she said. “Everyone’s story is different, and seeing the diversity could help you walk your own path. Also, leaning into family is okay, and it’s okay to ask for help, because community is important.”

In response to a question about ensuring consistency and quality of the product and experience, Austin said that it’s important to be “hands-on” and actively engaging with the product and the guests. She said that when you start a business, you feel protective, and giving ideas away brings more advantages than one might think — doing so and helping other people in the process is a good thing, and that means your business will prosper as well. 

At the end of the webinar, Austin said she believes in organic growth. Social media is not always the answer. She said, 

“Social media numbers don’t always translate into revenue,” she said. 

Businesses have to build authentic connections with clients. They have to take the time to talk to people and listen to the feedback. At their coffee shops, they like to be as personable as possible. 

To this day, Milk & Pull still faces some challenges, such as rising costs of goods and pricing strategies. However, the couple remains committed to their entrepreneurial journey, showcasing the resilience, determination and community spirit essential for a business’s success. 


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