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Vigilante Coffee: Building a business from bean to cup

Tuesday - 7/30/2013, 8:34am  ET

Christopher Vigilante and his small team serve 'flat whites' and 'long blacks,' among other espresso drinks. (WTOP/Dana Gooley)
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Dana Gooley, special to

WASHINGTON - Six mornings a week, Vigilante Coffee opens at 1017 7th Street N.W., in Mount Vernon Square. Its red walls, leather booths and spray painted tables may not look like your typical coffee shop decor, but that's because Vigilante Coffee isn't very typical.

Inside the pop-up shop -- which turns into the alternative tiki bar, Hogo, after 2 p.m. -- Christopher Vigilante and his small team serve "flat whites" and "long blacks," among other espresso drinks.

Don't worry if those terms are unfamiliar -- it's expected. Employees are more than happy to explain the names, and give you a bit of background on the beans, as well.

Actually, "background" is a bit of an understatement.

Besides having one of the best last names in the business, Chris also has an extensive knowledge of all things coffee-related. He can tell you the story of the drink in your cup, from farm to foam topping.

That's because he's involved in every step of the process, and it's important to him that his customers are informed, as well.

It All Started With Cat Poop Coffee

Before Vigilante Coffee really took off, Chris had the opportunity to present President Obama with a very unique type of coffee bean, one that even he'd never tried before.

"Well, it was cat poop coffee, to be exact," Chris says.

Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, is the most expensive coffee in the world, but it's also, quite literally, made from cat poop.

Civet cats digest the coffee cherries, and after a process of fermentation in the digestive tract, release the beans inside the feces.

Chris snuck a taste of the luxury coffee the night before it went to Obama, only to find it tasted "like musty man on the subway."

But, since it wasn't his company, he passed the beans along, anyway. And that was that, until about three months later, when a letter from the White House arrived at the cafe where Chris was working.

It was a generic, two-paragraph letter thanking him for the gift. But Chris explains that the letter counted for something.

"One of the interns said (the coffee) went into the oval office, and that's good enough for me," Chris says. "I got this letter back, then my mom hijacked the letter and I haven't seen it since."

Vigilante Coffee is the first "third wave" coffee roaster in D.C., and it joins the recent movement in specialty coffee, focusing on seasonally available products and forming strong partnerships with small farmers.

"It's outside of just profit-driven, ‘make as much money as you can in the city,'" Chris says. "It's more relationship-focused."

For Chris, it all began in Hawaii. After his parents moved to Honolulu during his sophomore year at Virginia Tech University, he jumped on the chance to surf.

However, after watching some of his friends graduate with no career paths, he started looking for a way to combine his love of surfing with his love of coffee shops.

"Why don't I just pick something that I'm going to really love and be passionate about, and then if that doesn't work out I'll go sit in a cubicle and make money," Chris says. "That's my backup plan. Once you have the degree, that's what you can do, right?"

He responded to an ad on craigslist looking for a barista, even though he had no previous experience. But, Chris was persistent.

"I went to the shop every day for about a week and a half, until finally he said ‘OK, you get the job.'"

He started at Downtown Coffee, a tiny store in Honolulu with a staff of two -- Chris and Charles, the owner. Charles sourced his coffee from local farms in Hawaii, some of whom Chris still buys from today.

Working with Charles, forming partnerships with family-owned farms and learning how to roast the beans, Chris developed the skills he would later use to start Vigilante Coffee.

Vigilante sources coffee from Hawaii, Colombia and Guatemala, and it's expanding.

Chris is planning a trip to El Salvador in November, and a recent trip to Indonesia had to be postponed, due to an unexpected increase in business.

According to Chris, the coffee shop staff makes it possible to accomplish as much as they do. "I have an awesome team," he says. "Everybody that's on our staff is incredible, and they work really hard. They care about what they do."

The Future of Vigilante Coffee in the District

The team's hard work is paying off. In the spring of 2014, Vigilante Coffee is moving to a more permanent location. The coffee company will join Toki Underground and Durkl Clothing at Maketto, Erik Bruner-Yang's new market on H Street.

The market's combination roastery-coffee bar will allow the Vigilante staff to teach classes on roasting, brewing sciences and other coffee-related subjects.

"Basically, we can educate people when they want to be educated, instead of forcing it on them," Chris says.

According to Chris, D.C. is definitely ready for good coffee. The transition from pop-up shop to permanent location wouldn't be possible without the excess of coffee chains in the city.

"Put us next to a Starbucks -- that's a good thing. It shows what's good and what's not," Chris says.

It Begins With the Bean

Chris and his team put a lot of effort into each individual bean and each collective cup. Vigilante Coffee receives "green" unroasted beans from its farm sources, which allows the company to highlight the flavors of different regions, based on roasting strength.

With the wrong roast, it's easy to lose the flavor.

A coffee chain might offer six different regional blends, but if they're all dark roasted, no one can tell the difference. "It's very hard to dissect which coffee is which -- which is Colombian, which is Sumatran, what the difference is," Chris says. "They all taste pretty similar, right?"

Starting out, Chris had the connections from Downtown Coffee, and not much else.

"Our only sources were Hawaii for a while, and people kept telling me ‘Wow, your Hawaiian's amazing but some of the other coffees are a little lacking,'" he says, adding that most of his other importers were in New York or California.

When deciding on his trip to Colombia, Chris had a little help from a coffee celebrity. The wise words of Gordon Bowker, the original founder of Starbucks, sent him packing to South America.

One of Chris's customers was related to Bowker, and offered to pass along the entrepreneur's phone number, in case Chris wanted to chat. "I gave him a call and explained what my problem was -- I was lacking in quality outside of the Hawaiian. And he said ‘You're like a wine store that only sells Merlot. You have to go get better stuff.' And that was it. I think I bought my ticket to Colombia about a week later," Chris says.

The trip was successful. Vigilante Coffee formed partnerships with three farms in Colombia, all of whom Chris still works with today. Those relationships led to coffee connections in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia and El Salvador.

"I really think that's what changed my business -- going to get the best coffee, not just taking what somebody handed me. I want to go there, I want to see who I'm working with, I want to taste the coffee at farm level, I want to really get to know it."

Pouring and Serving

For those who prefer their coffee served simply, the world of pour overs and cappuccinos can be intimidating. Unfriendly, über-knowledgable baristas only add to the confusion. At Vigilante Coffee, the baristas know their stuff, but they're as friendly as can be.

Chris gives credit where credit is due, and he expects his staff to do the same. He knows how much hard work goes into each cup he serves, and it's important that the farmers are recognized as much as the baristas.

"I learned coffee from tree-to-cup. I started at the farm level and learned it all the way up to the roast and barista side. It gave me a huge appreciation for what they all do. I try to put that emphasis on our employees -- it's your job to make sure you don't mess up a long line of hard work," he says.

Breakfast is also served at the coffee shop. Pies and quiches from D.C. bakery Whisked! are available each day, along with acai bowls.

Vigilante's coffee is served in over 25 bars and restaurants in the greater D.C. area. The local company also frequents farmers markets around the area, making the company hard to miss.

As for the future, Chris and his team are looking forward to the move to H Street.

"We're working hard to get where we think we belong and where we want to go," Chris says. "We're going to do something this city has never seen. We're going to set the bar a little higher."

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