Life after graduation can be scary, nerve-wracking and intimidating. For Contra Coffee & Tea founders and Cal Poly Pomona (CPP) alumni, Paul Del Mundo and Julie Nguyen, entering the real world was something they chose to make exciting instead.
Former food science majors, Del Mundo and Nguyen are the innovative minds behind the pop-up coffee shop in Santa Ana, California. They’ve cultivated an idea and taken it somewhere no one has before: they put it on tap. Contra Coffee & Tea is unique in that it takes your typical black coffee, Vietnamese coffee, horchata, Thai tea and more, and infuses it with nitrogen before serving it on tap.
I had the opportunity to ask the pair about their journey with Contra Coffee & Tea so far.
Tell me about Contra Coffee & Tea and the idea behind your approach.
Del Mundo: Contra is simply a mobile nitro coffee and tea brewery. Essentially, we wanted to put all the teas and coffees on tap.
Nguyen: Years of going to a lot of coffee shops and getting to know the different types of coffee drinks made it easier for us to figure out what we wanted. We also visited craft breweries and observed how quickly stuff rotates on the tap list. We wanted to combine those two ideas and create a whole new experience for everyone.
Why do you think customers love your product so much?
Nguyen: I think customers love our product so much because it is a completely new experience—there’s nothing to compare it to. We don’t like doing what’s already out there so we like to try and experiment.
Del Mundo: Take the pumpkin spice latte. If you want one, you already know you go to Starbucks. We wanted to do something festive, but we didn’t want people to be able to say it tasted like anything else, so we did apple pie on the rocks.
Nguyen: Plus, nitro is hard for people to compare to something. A lot of people try our drinks, and they like it but they don’t know why. Well, that’s because you’ve never tasted anything like our product.
Did you have any fears about starting something entirely new?
Nguyen: Yeah, totally. Once we had the concept, we were doing research on trends and how doable it would be while we still had our full-time jobs. When we did quit to make our own brand, it was hard, and I had to keep reminding myself that we’re young and if it doesn’t work out, we can go back to working in the real world with our nine to five jobs. As long as you have passion and a plan, you’re fine.
What was the transition from school life to the “real world” like?
Del Mundo: The transition was interesting. Job hunting was a job in itself. Hustling and getting interviews was hard. Being on the job market and having to differentiate yourself is way harder than the Career Center made it seem.
Nguyen: I got a job fairly soon after graduation, but that time between graduation and having a job just makes you so anxious. You could be using that time to relax, but instead you’re freaking out about how money-less you are. It was stressful.
Did CPP’s “learn by doing” motto help you with Contra Coffee & Tea? How?
Del Mundo: It helps us every day. I think I take away two lessons most from our “learn by doing” philosophy: One, be OK with making mistakes. Putting yourself in the fire is a good thing because you can always work your way out of it. Trust your skills and trust what you’ve learned. It didn’t occur to me how much I learned until I started applying it to all of this. Two, follow your passion above everything else. Everything will work itself out later.
What were some of your methods of coping with the stress of being newly graduated and starting out on your career?
Del Mundo: Luckily, we found that owning our own business isn’t as stressful as a professional job. Quitting my other job was coping in itself because I was miserable and I decided to unplug. My life had become work, and to avoid the stress, you need to make sure you never take work home and you never make work your life.
Do you have any advice for upcoming graduates on pursuing their careers?
Del Mundo: One, follow your dreams no matter how cheesy that sounds. Do what you feel like you were meant to do. Listen to yourself. You’re smarter than you think.
Nguyen: You don’t have to go to school, get a job and be the nine-to-five guy. If that’s not your path, then it isn’t. Everyone has their own path, and you don’t need to force yourself onto someone else’s.
After the interview, I got to sample the current drinks on tap (flavors are switched out once they tap out). Here is my verdict:
Nitro Flash Brew Coffee: Your simple black coffee nitro-infused, which eliminates the need for sugar or cream. I personally hate black coffee, but this was amazing. 9/10
Vietnamese Iced Coffee: This is traditional Vietnamese coffee without the condensed milk you’d find at places like Lee’s Sandwiches. 10/10
Classic Horchata: The pair have made their own unique horchata recipe and have taken it up a notch: they sprinkle lime zest on top (which sounds weird, but trust me, it was perfect). 10/10
Dirty Horchata: This is a combo of classic horchata with Vietnamese iced coffee. This was my personal favorite. 10/10
Earl Grey Creme: I’m not a huge fan of earl grey, but the sample was still very flavorful; not to mention, the aroma was awesome. 8/10
Sour Patch Watermelon Soda: The pair also crafts soda, and this one felt like I was sipping on the candy itself. You might make a weird face because of how sour it is, but it’s definitely still sweet. 9/10
If you’re ever in the Downtown Santa Ana area, make sure to give these CPP alumni a visit Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.! Follow Contra Coffee & Tea on their journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.