The snarky cool crowd, the ironic hipsters, the cynics — you guys are about to become obsolete. But then again, you weren't doing much anyway, were you?
I'm part of that generation, and it's with relief that I've seen the next one stealthily changing the narrative from nihilism (with cocktails) to idealism (fueled by coffee). At the Lamplighter Roasting Co., Noelle Archibald, along with her husband, Zach, and their partner, Jennifer Rawlings, all in their 30s, wanted to start more than just a business; they wanted to create an intersection of coffee culture, sustainability and community.
The coffee came first. When the Archibalds moved from Portland, Ore., to Richmond, Noelle didn't realize what she'd left behind. "I could give up almost anything, but then one day I found myself actually crying," she says. "Every day [in Portland] I'd get this little, tiny, delicious latte … when I realized I couldn't get it here — I'd never get it here — I actually considered moving back to the West Coast." Instead, while she and Zach were looking for a restaurant property in Church Hill, they met Jennifer Rawlings, and Noelle's passion for coffee was validated. Rawlings has been roasting coffee for more than 10 years. She first owned a coffee shop called the Frisky Goat in Eureka Springs, Ark., and in Richmond, she became the last owner of 17.5 Ethos Café in Shockoe Bottom — Hurricane Gaston flooded it just a few months after she bought it in 2004. When she met the Archibalds, a partnership seemed like a natural fit. "People had told me about Zach and Noelle, that we should meet," says Rawlings. "I didn't want to do it alone, and so it seemed perfect … we have the same goals and want the same things."
"We're also passionate about the science of coffee," she says. They roast the beans two blocks down from Lamplighter in a building they call the "lab." Rawlings' vintage Probat roaster can only hold small batches, but these tiny lots of coffee ensure that each bag of beans will be fresh and in season. "We like to roast it within a month — and we do — but we have to pay a higher price" to buy the green beans in small quantities, says Noelle Archibald. Volume isn't the only thing that affects the retail price a customer pays, $14 per pound.
The coffee is "fair-trade, organic-certified or as close to that as you can get," she says. "We get a lot of information about it from our brokers — pictures of the pickers in the fields, how much they're paid, when it was harvested. We really know about and care about what's going into our beans."
"Nobody would pay for organic coffee until last year," Rawlings adds. "They finally understand that it's a human- resource issue and an issue globally."
That focus on sustainability and connection to a wider community is reflected in the business's name and logo, a double-tall bike originally used by those who lit gas street lamps during the 19th century. For Lamplighter's owners, the bike represents "what we're trying to do with our business," Noelle Archibald says. They want to emphasize the hands-on, human aspect of what they do. Even how they choose their beans will, in turn, affect people who grow them and those who buy them. The tall bike on their sign is a symbol of "taking it to another level," she adds.
And the partners plan to take their venture to the next level in the coming year. "We want to ride the momentum of the café and focus on what coffee is supposed to be scientifically," says Rawlings. They want to open a second location that's a "retail outlet for our beans and an all-made-to-order, super-purist coffee bar," Noelle Archibald says. "We're going to have nothing pre-prepared, local-farm milk, individual pour-overs [made by the cup rather than the pot] for drip coffee." They see the Lamplighter as a café that can provide good, well-made coffee and food, but one that remains affordable. However, the new coffee bar will be necessarily more expensive, given the labor involved in making each artisan cup. Instead of dividing their attention between food and coffee, as they do at the Lamplighter, the new place would concentrate solely on the coffee — by the cup and by the pound.
"Instead of putting money into advertising, we just put it all in our product to make it as good as it could possibly be and to let it speak for itself," she says.
And it's worked. The Lamplighter is the kind of place where you might find an organizer of the Keep Monroe Park Open & Free campaign at a table next to Bev Reynolds of the Reynolds Gallery having coffee with interior designer Suellen Gregory. Musicians, lawyers, artists, even celebrity chef Eric Ripert have made the Lamplighter an off-the-beaten-track destination. Although that track's gotten pretty beaten down by now. For the Archibalds and Rawlings, it's exactly the kind of inclusive community that they wanted to create. "It's really just about making your square foot of the world the way you want it to be," Noelle Archibald says, "it's the 100th monkey theory. One day there will be that person that'll tip the tide."