Inside DC’s Vigilante Coffee

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In the heart of the Arts District of Hyattsville lies a coffee lover’s paradise – the new home of Vigilante Coffee.

Located in a former 1920s Ford auto showroom, Vigilante Coffee’s first brick-and-mortar location houses its roasting and production facilities, offices, and training space. The café portion of the space – which will offer coffee and espresso roasted and brewed on site – opens this Saturday to the public.

For owner and founder Chris Vigilante, it’s the culmination of years spent in pursuit of great coffee – a pursuit that began when he was just a sophomore at nearby Virginia Tech.

“I was watching people graduate only to get jobs they didn’t like,” Vigilante says. “That didn’t appeal to me. I had already done internships that showed me what I didn’t want to do. So when a few friends pushed me to find something I was passionate about, I took a chance.”

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That chance led Vigilante to Downtown Coffee in Honolulu, where he began to learn the ins and outs of the coffee business from then-owner Charles Nelson.  During the week, Vigilante made coffee for the shop’s customers. On the weekends, Nelson would teach him how to roast coffee on a Diedrich (which, incidentally, is the same model currently used at Vigilante Coffee’s Hyattsville location).

By the end of the summer, Nelson was ready to start a side coffee roasting business – and he wanted Vigilante to join him. Vigilante, however, was about to start his junior year.

“There was a 50-50 shot that I’d just become a beach bum,” Vigilante says, laughing. “Ninety percent of the people around me told me not to do it, but I was stubborn. I wanted to do it.”

And so he did. Vigilante enrolled in online courses, attended coffee school, and pursued an independent study on how to start and operate a business. He learned first-hand just how hard the coffee roasting business was.

“We’d drive out to Waialua Estate on the North Shore and pick up 100 pounds of coffee,” Vigilante says. “We’d roast it Friday night and all day Saturday and then sell it on Sundays. We did the same routine every week for five months straight.”

Though their coffee roasting business was ultimately successful, both Nelson and Vigilante were ready to move on. Nelson sold his café and Vigilante, homesick for the East Coast, returned to Virginia Tech.

Despite the location change, coffee was never far from Vigilante’s mind. After graduation, Vigilante returned to Hawaii to work for the Javar family, owners of the world-renowned Pavaraga in Ka’u.

“It was a higher-end coffee product than I was used to, mainly because of the processing,” Vigilante says. “They’d leave the sugar membrane of the bean intact and experiment with fermentation. It tasted amazing every time.”

The Javar family’s approach appealed to Vigilante because it put him in closer contact with coffee farms. This allowed Vigilante to continue developing first-hand experience with the coffee-growing process.

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“All the hard work happens before the coffee gets to the roasters,” Vigilante says. “The goal of the roaster is to bring out the best part of the coffee and not mess up the end game.”

A year later, Vigilante was offered the opportunity to move back east to develop wholesale accounts for Pavaraga. He decided to base himself in Washington, DC.

“It seemed like an obvious choice,” Vigilante says. “A lot of my college friends were living here and there was an increasing demand for good coffee. The coffee market wasn’t saturated like New York, so it was a great opportunity.”

As Vigilante worked in his new DC-based role and settled into the city, he began thinking about starting his own coffee roasting business.

“I knew I could do it from the tech side,” he says. “I didn’t think about anything else.”

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Vigilante, of course, was not one to shy away from risk. In February 2012, he quit his job with Pavaraga and began his own eponymous company in his Trinidad rowhouse.

The move was not without its challenges.

Vigilante’s typical day began at 6am and ended at midnight. In between, he’d work on his roasting business and balance barista jobs at Pound The Hill and the now-defunct SOVA. He even developed and invested in a Lego-like coffee cart, which would later be shut down by the DC government.

“It could only be used at special events,” Vigilante says. “So we tried it out at a motorcycle event at RFK stadium during the summer when it was 90 degrees. It was a total miss, but we learned an important lesson. It’s all about perspective.”

That perspective helped Vigilante try new ways to build his business, step-by-step. He had pop-ups at area restaurants and shops and a weekend stand at Eastern Market (which continues to this day). He also focused on sourcing coffee whenever possible through direct relationships with farmers in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and several Latin American and African countries.

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Today, Vigilante is focused on developing the Hyattsville location and preparing his Diedrich roaster for a return to H Street. (The Hyattsville location will eventually house a roaster that Vigilante promises will be “three times bigger” than the Diedrich.) Vigilante Coffee will have its own café and retail shop at Maketto, the $2 million project spearheaded by Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang.

The ultimate goal, Vigilante says, is to make good coffee less pretentious and more welcoming.

“I have friends who are afraid to tell me they go to Starbucks,” Vigilante says, laughing. “They shouldn’t be afraid! Not everyone sees coffee the same way. Our goal is to help people discover other coffee they might enjoy based on what they’re drinking now.”

You can explore Vigilante Coffee for yourself beginning this Saturday, July 19, at 4327 Gallatin Street in Hyattsville, Maryland. To learn more about Chris Vigilante’s tips for making great coffee at home, click here.

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