Few other foods or drinks on the planet inspire as much fanaticism as coffee. So then why, when this beloved beverage is so seemingly uncomplicated, is there so much bad coffee in the world?
In its most fundamental form, coffee consists of two ingredients: ground coffee beans and water. While the formula may be simple, the individual elements are obviously far more complex. Beans: where are they from? What’s the flavor profile? How old are they? How/when should they be ground? Water: hard or soft? How hot should it be? How much should you use? Method: pour-over, French press, drip, percolate? Obsessing over all of these details can become overwhelming, especially in the wee hours of the morning while attempting to jump-start your day.
Full disclosure: There are plenty of mornings when caffeine is the only priority and we just can’t care about ingredients or preparation. Luckily, for those occasions, there’s no shortage of chain coffee locations slinging their gut-rot in the Garden State. When we do actually give a shit about what’s in the cup, however, NJ Indy staff will routinely travel well out of our way for great java from a brewer that obsesses over those aforementioned details for us.
This week NJ Indy sat down with Naomi Rapp, founder of Omi’s Coffee House, a mobile coffee cart that recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. While Rapp may be a young business owner, her work ethic, unparalleled kindness and wildly good coffee have helped build a dedicated following that routinely treks across the state to sample her seasonal offerings.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How long has Omi’s been around?
We’ve been open for a year as of June 12, but it’s been in the works for over three years. 2019 was when I got really serious about it.
How long did it take to get all of the appropriate permits/certifications to be able to have the mobile business and serve the public food and beverage?
That took me about a year and a half. I would say it took about two years for everything: the build-out of the cart and the permits.
So the cart wasn’t pre-fabricated, you had it custom built?
Right, we originally purchased a trailer from a couple in Pennsylvania and then Jacob [Rapp’s husband, a contractor] was like, “Why don’t we take down the walls and put new ones up?” Then, after demo-ing basically the whole trailer we realized that the base was not strong enough to support the weight we were going to put on it. Then I used this program to design a new trailer frame with the right specifications and I spoke with Ryan [Dempsey, Liquid Metalworks] and I asked him if he could fix the frame of our trailer to meet these new specifications. [Ryan] told me that I should really just have him build me a brand new frame… so we worked with him for a long time and he built the entire new structure. From there Jacob put up all of the walls, the flooring, roof water tanks and finished the entire thing. So, yeah, the cart was a total new build from the ground up and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without Ryan; he did it for free, he wouldn’t let us pay him a dime. I told him he’d have free coffee for life and he won’t even let me give him free coffee! He’s so nice and he just understands what it’s like to run a small business. I looked at the price of brand new trailers, and the cost would have held my business back so much had I tried to buy one or pay for a custom build. Jacob and Ryan did so much work.
What was your inspiration?
Ever since I was in fifth grade I wanted to open a “smoothie shack,” that was my thing, I don’t know why. In school when we had to draw what we wanted to do when we grew up, I would always draw myself in a “smoothie shack.” When I got older and more interested in coffee, I also fell in love with ambiance, especially coffee-shop ambiance; and I always really loved making things cozy for people. So everything sort of coincided and I thought, “It’d be really cool to run a coffee shop instead of a smoothie shack.” After high school, opening a coffee shop was always in the back of my mind so I went to school and got my associate’s for business, but it wasn’t until I moved to Washington state, and I saw all of these little coffee trailers and huts all over the state, I was like, “You know what? New Jersey would really benefit from this.” People are always on the go in Jersey so I thought it’d be really cool to open a shack sort of thing in the parking lot of a grocery store or something, but after I researched all of the state laws and regulations, the idea of opening a mobile trailer replaced the shack concept. I’ve always loved going to street fairs and festivals and thought it would be really cool to be a vendor at those. So that was the inspiration for this little coffee trailer business.
History/relationship with coffee?
I don’t know why I was always drawn to it, I just thought it was so cool. My first coffee job was at a Starbucks in Washington state and then I transferred to the one in Hackettstown, New Jersey. People will say what they want about Starbucks, and I totally understand that it’s a huge corporation now, but the roots of Starbucks are pretty cool and they taught me so much working there—particularly the location in Washington, where they really cared about quality. That was Starbucks’ home state so we used to do samplings and learn how to calibrate the espresso machine and the proportions for everything [all of the traditional coffee drinks]. But that was my only experience with coffee, and then I had a moment right before I was about to open my business where I was like, “Jacob, who do I think I am? I’ve only worked at Starbucks for like a year and I’m going to open my own coffee business?” It was like imposter syndrome.
For the coffee snobs out there: what beans are you using?
Right now we’re using organic Peruvian Kovachii beans. All of my coffee is fair-trade, which means that the workers who harvest the beans get paid a livable wage and are treated fairly—that’s very important to me. So, we do Peruvian dark toast for our espresso and then we have two blends: a cold brew and drip-coffee blend; those are a blend of Peruvian and Brazilian beans. Both are fair-trade but the Peruvian is organic. Hardy’s Coffee Bar in Flemington roasts them up for us; they are so accommodating and nice, I love working with them.
The drinks you post on social look incredible. What inspires your menu?
We put out four menus for the year—one for every season. For years I’ve been collecting inspiration from different places, or online, and keeping all of these notes in my phone. I’ve been waiting to come up with these specialty drinks for so long it feels like. The recipes come from whatever I’m craving during the different seasons. I try to always do something a little different flavor-wise because I personally hate going into a coffee shop and there’s nothing interesting to try. Obviously I love a good latte or mocha but I really enjoy trying weird new things, so I try to come up with things that are different and very specific to the season. This spring we did a lot of floral flavors, this summer we’ll do some fruit-inspired drinks like a cold brew with orange sweet cream—it’s called the “Florida Morning.” A lot of the drink names I’ll try to make them fun and reference pop culture. We made a rose mocha and named it the “Moira Rose ” because I really love that character from Schitt’s Creek. Last year in the winter we had a drink called the “Belsnickle” referencing Dwight Schrute in The Office Christmas episode; it was a snickerdoodle latte and people really enjoyed it. So yeah, I try to come up with fun names that are inspired by my favorite movies or shows.
Do you have regular staff members or do you call upon friends/family as needed?
I have two permanent staff members: my friends Jamie and Allie. I’m only set up at the same location twice every week, on Thursdays and Fridays, so one of them will work Thursday and the other works Friday. Then for events, I schedule them a month out so they know what days they’ll be working well in advance, and then any event they can’t work, Jacob picks up.
Any specific adversity or obstacles you’ve had to contend with?
Well, I think pricing has been challenging at times. When I first started and was formulating the menu prices, I really didn’t want to go above a certain cost per drink because I wanted to be fair with people. After looking at the cost of ingredients in addition to the fair trade coffee and the 100% recyclable or compostable/biodegradable materials we use, I was like, “Oh my gosh, no wonder you pay $8 for a large latte with an extra shot or oat milk at a specialty coffee shop!” At events, pricing isn’t as much of a concern because I have to pay to be there and people are getting specialty coffee drinks for a treat, not their morning coffee before work. People have never really had a problem with my prices at events except for this one event I did in Millburn where they put me right next to a Dunkin Donuts; I couldn’t believe it. That was rough and our sales were obviously not good because people would walk up and say, “Cold brew is $5? I can go to Dunkin and get iced coffee for $2.” So that was tough but that’s not how things typically go.
I have had a little push-back [regarding prices] at the place we set up at every week in Warren County, though. There’s something called “Hackettstown Life,” which is like an online forum for the area; well, someone posted my menu on there to tell the community about us and then another person commented on it: “$3.50 for a regular coffee? I can go to the gas station and get it for 50 cents.” Thankfully, like 10 people responded to that comment explaining that what I’m doing is completely different from gas station coffee. Believe me, I don’t get rich off of these drinks and I try to put out a really quality product. There’s plenty of drinks that I’d love to make with fresh muddled fruits or craft tonic water but I know the cost to make it would be way too high and I just can’t justify charging people what I would need to.
What do you think the future holds for Omi’s?
That’s an interesting question because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what my next step will be. Where I am in New Jersey, it’s a very rural area, and there’s only so much I can do here as far as events and setting up during the week. And then when I have to travel so far for events or whatever, it affects my costs, particularly now when gas is so expensive. I’m sure people who own a mobile business will be able to relate to this but, there are so many expenses that I never anticipated before I opened my business. We looked into opening a coffee shop in Hackettstown actually, although that didn’t work out because of a zoning issue and they wanted me to sign a five-year lease; but an actual storefront location was a consideration. Then I considered opening another cart or a coffee-truck because the truck might actually be a little easier to operate. I also thought about doing some consulting work with other coffee shops or mobile businesses because I’ve gotten inquiries about that and I honestly wish I had someone like me to ask all of these questions when I was opening Omi’s. I had so many questions that took me hours and hours of research to figure everything out. I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking about a lot of different things and trying to figure out what would make me happiest. I’m hoping that the answer will come to me soon but I know I definitely want to expand in some way, just not certain what that is yet.