Lamplighter Roasting Company opened in Richmond, Virginia in 2009, and here, four years later, you'd have a hard time declaring a more emblematic small business for this gracious old Commonwealth town. The ownership has deep roots in this city of just 200,000. They do all their roasting right there in Richmond, and the local bearderatti – the “hipsters,” young creative types…you know the sort, dammit – those movers and shakers and generational influencers here in Virginia's third largest city all gather comfortably in Lamplighter's cafes. The brand is living proof that fine specialty coffee in America is no longer constricted to the major population centers. We could list more examples, heaps more really, from all around the United States, but Lamplighter is as good as any.
Co-owners/spouses Noelle and Zach Archibald first met in the Pacific Northwest, though Mrs. Archibald is originally from Richmond. Looking to open a restaurant or boutique clothing collective in RVA, Mr. and Mrs. Archibald realized there was a market for specialty coffee in their community of like-minded cyclists and artists. The two found a cafe space in an old service station on Addison Street, slightly southeast of the bustling enclave of Carytown. Mrs. Archibald had experience behind the bar at the former Half and Half in Portland, Oregon, having previously cut her teeth at the likes of Stumptown Coffee Roasters – now gloriously bicoastal – and Courier Coffee Roasters, still doggedly making their mark in Portland's bustling downtown core. The team is rounded out by roaster Jenn Rawlings, whom the Archibalds met in Richmond, bringing with her some 10 years of previous roasting experience.
Mr. Archibals's professional experience in the kitchen led him to round out the cafe fare to include sandwiches and snacks, many vegan-friendly, which this interloping journalist understood to be quite popular locally. And while the business's original intent was to focus on roasting and wholesale, the Addison cafe has also become a popular community space.
As is the way of the world, local popularity has led to high sales volume and an increase in wholesale accounts. This is a small market specialty coffee success story. As word of Lamplighter's high quality spread throughout Richmond, the team chose to upgrade their roasting scheme from a 10 kilo Probat – a quite small coffee roasting apparatus in the grand scheme of things, a bit rough and ready – to a considerably larger 30 kilo Diedrich brand coffee roaster. The acquisition of said professional roasting set up was buttressed by a brand new roastery and cafe space, located on an industrial block less than two miles north from their locally iconic original space on Addison.
I visited both cafes during my time in Richmond. The original Addison cafe has an old-school community coffee house vibe, albeit with an up-to-date specialty coffee pedigree among the hyphens. Their new roasting and retail hub on Summit Ave, however, is unpretentiously new wave and high polish. Mrs. Archibald designed the interior of the space thusly: “We want to capture an industrial feeling, but keep it warm and inviting.” This is, I reckon, a goal she and her team have succeeded at. The cafe is sumptuously appointed, magnificently post-industrial while staying true to the building's core, with a large glass garage door and some old street-facing louvres allowing for substantial amounts of fresh air and light. Like all good American small market high-end cafes, there's plenty of seating and room – glorious amounts of space in which to to breath and be served and mingle.
While both of Lamplighter's cafes are welcoming, they serve different purposes. The original Addison shop feels like a community center with social seating and ample real estate. The Summit Ave roastery is likewise substantial and comfortable, but the focus is on the coffee itself, with customer education events, cuppings and throwdowns. I came away impressed by both.
The back of the Summit building houses a super-tidy roasting operation and office. The climate control and room to move are a big step up from the warehouse where the Probat lived after demand pushed them out of the Addison shop's kitchen.
Their goal for the coffee is to produce lighter roasts that highlight the beans' origins. In Richmond, where international coffee trends are perhaps viewed with a healthy degree of suspicion, Lamplighter's dedication to flavor and nuance above all carries with a degree of good old fashioned Southern evangelism. As the Archibald's told me, lightly roasted coffee is “not what folks in our area are used to. It took a while to get folks used to ordering coffee by regional name instead of ‘dark' or ‘light.' Once they began to notice the differences, they started to get drawn in.”
The company's name and logo come from ties with the local bike culture. The tallbike in their branding is also their namesake: those bikes' original function was lighting the city's iconically tall gas street lamps. Given the Archibald's openly avowed passion for bicycle culture, a bike delivery service for their beans was an obvious choice.
Lamplighter is experiencing a moment of momentum. The brand is looking at doubling production in the coming months, and expect to open a third cafe in the next calendar year. This precipitous business growth has been built on community outreach and event sponsorships, capitalizing on Mr. Archibald's deep ties with the thriving Richmond bike scene and his city's vibrant small press community. “We are big believers in social capital,” Noelle Archibald told me, and it's an investment rich in meaning for Lamplighter, yielding the best kind of very real dividends.
D. Robert Wolcheck (on Twitter as @drw) is a photographer and writer based in New York City. Mr. Wolchek's photography accompanied Sprudge.com assistant editor Alex Bernson's recent feature on La Colombe NoHo. This is his first written feature for Sprudge.