When Sam Lenes, ‘23 was recruited to run cross-country for the Palm Beach Atlantic University Sailfish, he had no idea his college career would lead him to entrepreneurship.
The Waterford, Conn. native learned about PBA from his sister’s childhood friend, who ran track under Coach Maryellen Powers. Other family members and friends trained under the coach, and Lenes knew PBA was where he wanted to be.
In 2019, Sam Lenes was just a freshman learning to juggle classes, practices and meets, and social events. That’s when the finance and marketing double major started making cold brew for himself.
“I didn’t want to spend $5 on a Starbucks drink, so I started making it,” he said. “My roommate liked it. Then I thought [I’d] give some to [the] team—they loved it and wanted to pay me.”
After realizing he could make delicious coffee for everyone, Sam Lenes started by carrying a backpack of bottles and a card reader around campus. He sold the coffee to students in the library, outside of the cafeteria, and elsewhere.
One day, Ann-Marie Taylor, associate vice president of Auxillary Services and Procurement, introduced Lenes to the Aramark team at PBA, who let him brew coffee in the Dining Hall. Rolling Hills Coffee Company was born.
Lenes’ relationship with Aramark, one of the largest U.S.-based food service providers, proved to be fruitful—the team introduced him to several college campuses in Florida. They also introduced him to Sysco, one of the world’s largest food distributors.
Eventually, Lenes was permitted to sell his cold brew off-campus. He started selling his cold brew to the University of West Florida, the University of South Florida, and Celis Juice Bar in West Palm Beach.
As Lenes was getting ready to stock his bottles across more Florida colleges, he received a phone call that changed everything. Due to prior bottling agreements, he learned he could no longer sell the cold brew on most campuses.
“I thought we would sell thousands of cold brews—the next thing I know, in one phone call, [I couldn’t],” said Lenes.
Brewing up a new plan
Lenes wasn’t ready to give up. In the summer of 2022, he changed his focus from cold brew to becoming a wholesale coffee provider for food service, with a focus on colleges.
Before starting Rolling Hills’ Farm to Cup program, Lenes asked all the young people he knew what they wanted out of their campus java. Their answer? Fresh, specialty coffee that was ethically sourced.
With this in mind, Lenes created a unique framework for college food services. Through Rolling Hills’ Farm to Cup program, he now sources ethical, single-origin beans, which are imported, roasted in West Palm Beach and shipped to participating colleges.
Once a college or university signs on to serve Rolling Hills’ coffee, they’re gifted a state-of-the-art grinder, allowing them to quickly grind and brew the coffee—so it’s always fresh. And unlike most coffee companies, Rolling Hills uses specialty-grade beans, which go through a strict grading scale to ensure quality.
By changing his business model, Lenes could continue to work with Aramark. He created a thorough business and marketing proposal for PBA’s Dining Hall and became the University’s coffee provider—in addition to other Southeastern colleges, including the University of South Carolina, Erskine College, and more.
An outpour of support
Lenes credits his success to his network—including his professors, friends and family, and Aramark colleagues.
“My professors were there to help if I had finance or business questions,” he said. “I had nothing but support. When we first put [the cold brew] at The Market at PBA, we sold 60 bottles in one day. Everyone was posting about it on social media.”
Despite the success, Lenes had to overcome several hurdles along the way, including changing his initial business model and covering unforeseen costs (like accidentally ordering bottles with pry-off lids instead of twist-offs)—even working long hours at Target to cover startup costs. Still, he says, the trick is to not give up.
After graduation, Lenes plans to spend some time in West Palm Beach before traveling the country to try and get more fresh coffee into colleges across the nation. He’s also considering pursuing an MBA and would like to start mentoring young entrepreneurs.
“I kept trying to be a problem solver and find a solution,” he said. “Don’t quit. There is always a way through, but you have to start—and you can’t be afraid to fail.”