Tell us about you and how you got into the coffee business?
I got started in the coffee business about 5 years ago. For the longest time I’d just been a fan of drinking coffee and having a third-space to enjoy it in (mostly just going to Starbucks and other local chains during High School and early college). It wasn’t until 2008 that I was really exposed to specialty coffee. When I was going to graduate school in Norway, I was suddenly immersed in a very advanced coffee culture. I started to see all these fantastic shops, each having its own roaster inside. Seeing and experiencing this dedication to coffee lead me to develop a stronger connection to and interest in coffee.
I started living in DC shortly after coming back from Norway and started visiting specialty coffee shops in the area. Luckily, a shop called “Sova” (which is no longer open) was really close to my house near H Street. I would go there almost every day and talk to my favorite barista there (Chris, the founder of Vigilante Coffee) coffee. He started teaching me about espresso drinks, coffee beans and started teaching me how to make latte art. I later found out that he lived just a few houses down the street from me, and we became friends through our shared passion for coffee. Chris eventually left his barista position to pursue his coffee roasting company. Since I had space, he moved his roaster into my basement and began growing Vigilante Coffee company. During all this time, and in between shifts I had been working at another local cafe, (Pound the Hill) and I had been working for the US Department of Commerce. It was a good job, but I wasn’t excited about it. I lacked passion for the work. Seeing Chris roasting coffee in my basement, watching the business grow, and seeing how excited Chris was about what he was doing — even when things were tough — was so inspirational. And I started noticing the same passion building in me. Finally, I had to make the leap and follow this dream full-time. That was only a couple of months ago! So my start in coffee was gradual; I went from an interested customer to a super passionate coffee professional.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about your coffee?
I think most people don’t understand the relationship we have for our coffee and how important that is in terms of the experience we’re able to deliver to our customers. A lot of shops in the area serve good coffee, but so many of the people serving it don’t know much about it, where it comes from, how it was processed, or who the farmers are. Our staff is constantly trained in these regards. We talk to them about the farms that we visit, how our coffee is grown, why it tastes the way it does, and how to explain these things to customers. And what flavors come from different coffee beans. It is vital for us to know this information and for us to get our staff excited about each coffee in order for us to provide a truly unique experience for customers. Whenever we have someone come through that front door and say “I’ve been drinking ‘regular coffee’ my entire life, but have heard a lot about specialty coffee lately and am interested in trying it out” we all just light up. It’s like a dream customer in many ways because it gives us a chance to share our passion and knowledge with someone and give them a great entry into the world of specialty coffee. Being able to provide these experiences in an approachable, non-intimidating way is just one thing that makes us different.
What would be your greatest life lesson?
Finally deciding to make my passion my work. I was working a job for five years; year after year becoming less satisfied with myself and with daily life. I was taking ‘safe’ over ‘passion’. I knew what my check was going to be, and I knew the benefits that I was going to have. It was easy, predictable, boring. It felt just wrong to me. Chris was a huge catalyst in me making this decision, constantly encouraging me to pursue something more, something that got me fired up. Finally, I got past all my fear and realized he was right. If you are truly passionate about something, you’ll make it work. You can’t be fantastic at a job that you don’t want to be doing. I didn’t like the idea of not being fantastic. So now I’m here, where I know I will be just that.
Tell me about your first cup of coffee ever?
The first cup of coffee that I remember having was at church, growing up. The coffee had been scalded, sitting in a pot for hours – just completely cooked. It tasted terrible. I remember thinking “Why does anyone drink this? It’s awful!” It took me a while to understand coffee and, to be honest, a lot of what pulled me in at first was the culture and social aspects surrounding it. I didn’t learn to appreciate the complex and amazing tastes coffee had to offer until years later. I don’t care who you are; once that happens, once that door is opened, there’s no going back. Having the opportunity to open the door to specialty coffee for people is one of the most rewarding things I do now.
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