By Pete M. Anderson
You probably can find a good cup of coffee in Tasmania, Australia, but it might not taste like home. One North Carolinian living there filled that craving with an order to Coffee Crate, an Asheville-based monthly subscription service that mails coffee beans selected from more than 30 North Carolina roasters. He’s the most-distant customer that owner Angie Rainey has attracted, joining shipping-list customers in Austria, Chile, Mexico and Peru, among other places.
Rainey, 30, bought Coffee Crate from its founders — two Triangle coffee connoisseurs consumed by their full-time jobs — in August 2015. “Our emphasis is on coffee beans that have a story, from grower to roaster to Coffee Crate subscriber,” she says. Each box has three 4-ounce bags of coffee beans from different roasters. Each also contains asurprise that complements the selection. December’s mailing, for example, included biscotti from a Black Mountain bakery.
Subscription boxes are gaining lots of attention, particularly after consumer-products giant Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion last summer. Cosmetics seller Birchbox, one of the oldest and largest such services, turned its first profit this year. Charlotte-based BrewPublik, which delivers beer selections tailored to each of its more than 2,000 customers, anticipates revenue of $3.5 million this year, up from $10,000 two years ago. Venture-capital firm SierraMaya360 is investing $5 million over five years as the company expands to California. Another success story is Raleigh-based The Produce Box LLC, which posted revenue of $7.1 million in 2015 by delivering farm-fresh produce and meats, along with creations from local artisans, to 8,800 customers statewide.
But not everyone has matched their success. Coffee Crate and Madison-based Carolina Monthly LLC specialize in exporting products with a distinct North Carolina appeal. There is an ample customer base: 54.6 million tourists visited in 2015, more than all but five other states.
Brock Swinson, 29, says Carolina Monthly takes the work out of taking home N.C. goodies. He started the service with high-school buddies Will Southard and Joseph Knight. Their boxes have included gourmet popcorn from Chad’s Carolina Corn in Greensboro and music from Winston-Salem-based band The Genuine. They sell single items and one-off seasonal boxes, too. “We might do [a box of] different kinds of [garden] seeds during the summer.”
Rainey says her 65 subscribers are evenly split inside and outside North Carolina. The monthly fee starts at $29 but decreases when customers agree to pay for longer memberships. Carolina Monthly subscriptions, which start at $34.99, follow that pattern, Swinson says. Two-thirds of its 50 or so subscribers live within an eight-hour drive of North Carolina. It has had two customers in Mexico and one in Norway, a homesick Tar Heel who responded to a Facebook post.
Social media is integral to their growth. Carolina Monthly has more than 1,000 Instagram followers, and it raised $5,000 on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website, for its 2015 launch. “My main source [of new customers] is social media — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” Rainey says. She also sends boxes to potential reviewers, hoping for blog or magazine mentions. She writes a blog for the company website and co-organized the Asheville Coffee Expo last October. This fall’s event again will unite roasters, bakers and other coffee purveyors and aficionados. Rainey’s goal is 200 individual monthly subscriptions and 10 geared to offices, with deliveries ranging from 3 to 20 pounds a month. That would support her and a part-time employee. Swinson says Carolina Monthly’s goal is 1,000 subscribers. More could overwhelm its small suppliers, especially if they use fresh ingredients. But there is a way for further expansion. “We also named it Carolina Monthly in case we wanted to ever start a South Carolina box as well. That could be another thousand subscribers.”