Vigilante recently purchased a second, larger roaster, which allows him to fulfill his 50-plus wholesale accounts with local cafes and grocers. Though he’s relinquished the lion’s share of roasting duties to his head roaster, Vigilante keeps busy with tastings, bean purchasing, securing new cafe and retail partners, and visiting producers.
How he got the job
After his parents moved to Hawaii during his sophomore year at Virginia Tech, Vigilante spent a summer on the island surfing and waiting tables at a cafe. It was there he developed an interest in coffee production and secured an apprenticeship at a local coffee roastery.
“I would ride 5 miles on a bike that only had one pedal to learn how to roast for free,” Vigilante says of his commute. “And then I would ride 5 miles back. I did this for four months.”
He convinced his alma mater to give him college credit for co-founding a coffee roasting company during a semester in Hawaii. “I graduated with a liberal arts degree, but I wish I’d started a business and failed at it, and started another one instead,” he says. “That would have been a better way to spend my time, and much cheaper.”
He returned to the East Coast at the end of 2010 and started working in cafes. He invested $7,000 on a Diedrich coffee roaster in 2012 and began (illegally) roasting coffee beans in a shipping container on a friend’s property in Silver Spring. He sold his joe at farmers markets and cafes while gaining attention as one of D.C.’s only craft roasters.
“At the time, there was nothing in D.C. but M.E. Swing’s,” Vigilante says. “I thought we could make a big splash here.”
Later, he moved his roasting setup to a basement in Trinidad, where he realized that he needed a more spacious base of operations (and one that was legal).
Who would want this job
“You need to be insane,” Vigilante says of anyone interested in building a coffee empire from the ground up. “You have to be incredibly motivated, because nothing is guaranteed.”
This job is also suited for patient people with strong teaching skills: A lot of variables go into making coffee correctly, and mistakes can be expensive. “You hand off your beautiful product, and if an employee messes it up, it’s hard not to flip,” he says. “Now I have patience.” And forget your weekends. But there’s an upside: “You get to enjoy every day.”
How you can get this job
The coffee landscape here has changed dramatically since Vigilante jumped in in 2012: There are now at least six coffee roasters in the District alone. To compete, you need to immerse yourself in the intricacies of coffee.
A good place to start? Attend local cuppings (a process to evaluate and compare the characteristics of different coffees) and take online coffee classes.
And hands-on experience is invaluable, too. “You can learn a lot on other people’s dime,” Vigilante says. “You want to open a good coffee shop? Go work for one. Like Vigilante.”
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