If ever there were dog days of summer, you’d find them in Washington, DC, a city founded in the middle of a swamp and full of hot pavement and sweaty tourists. This summer, I visited three future shops pushing through long humid days filled with installations and tangos with the city’s zoning permits office, moving closer to opening their doors. Slipstream Coffee, Compass Coffee and Vigilante Coffee are three new shops hoping to push this city’s burgeoning coffee scene even further.
While each shop will contribute something unique to DC’s current coffee scene, the three had some common ideals for their spaces congruent with a lot of recent conversations about the changing landscape of specialty coffee. Transparency, be it on the part of sourcing, roasting or preparing the coffee, is of primary importance for each, and shop layouts are designed with this priority in mind. Streamlining or enhancing the service model in some way was another topic that came up again and again—these embryonic shops embrace the idea that the last part of a seed to cup story is not the barista, but the person drinking what the barista prepares.
Whether or not there is an expected setting for a cafe, or an expected type of person to open a specialty coffee shop, the three buildouts I visited may ultimately push people to ask and redefine who and what DC coffee is, and where to find it. Read on to meet three shop owners who want to make coffee for the District, and soon.
On busy 14th street, in the Logan Circle neighborhood, Ryan Fleming has finally received the all-clear from DCRA and has begun his buildout process. Along with his wife Miranda, he is navigating the long days of renovations and installations as a first-time shop owner, and really, as a newcomer to the city and the specialty coffee scene at large.
I stepped through the flurry of drills and drop cloths of the future Slipstream Coffee on my way upstairs to a conference table in a gallery (they’ll share the building with design firm Fathom Creative) where he told me his story about how he came to coffee from a career in finance. Ryan previously worked in San Francisco, where the coffee scene resonated with him. “When that company’s office was closing, and I had a choice to relocate, I chose instead to recalibrate,” Ryan told me, “and tap back into that passion I felt growing up, helping my family run a business.”
Ryan immersed himself in coffee knowledge, learning on his own and taking classes for about two years before finding a location in DC for Slipstream. “DC has this energy and curiosity for food and drink and craftsmanship that is perfect for how I want to serve,” he said. Ryan’s mission is to redefine people’s expectations of a coffee experience, past a line and a name on a cup handed across the counter. Slipstream will encourage guests to be guided to coffee choices by a barista; to take a moment and watch the process of beverages being created, to “acknowledge that coffee is a nuanced and complex beverage.” Ryan partnered with MadCap Coffee as his roaster and has plans for a coffee and cocktail setup that facilitates the customer seeing everything and interacting with their barista in an inviting “low resistance” setting that evokes the shop’s name. As a matter of philosophy, Ryan told me that at Slipstream, “Everything about the space should eliminate stress and tension and confusion in a coffee experience.”
A few minutes away in the Shaw neighborhood, two former marines welcome me warmly into a coffee shop and roastery that’s rapidly taking shape, soon to be widely known as Compass Coffee. I know Harrison Suarez and Michael Haft through local coffee events and MANE; the two DC locals have been talking coffee shop since publishing the eBook Perfect Coffee at Home last summer.
Friends in college, then military service and now through business partnership, they take turns talking about Compass Coffee, sharing ideas and concepts together comfortably and seamlessly. “After we published the book, we thought we were starting a publishing company,” Haft said.
“Then we started thinking, ‘What do we want to do? What are we going to look in the mirror and be proud of? We love coffee, we know coffee, so we thought, let’s make coffee, let’s make good coffee simple, and started looking around for a space,” adds Suarez.
Walking through the renovated cafe space, the once dim laundromat is now bright and inviting, with skylights and a view of their Loring roaster in the next room over. Up at the counter, Harrison and Michael have plenty of surface area, extra sinks and space to spare under countertops (handcrafted by the duo and made of steel and poured cement). “We want to leave it as open as possible to start,” Haft told me, “because the end goal is to put together a fluid, ergonomic workspace…the difference of inches for a counter or a space between a portafilter and drip tray can really matter for a barista.”
They walk me through their service flow along the counter which includes a “just coffee” express area close to the door, a little further down, the espresso handoff, in front of four-group Modbar setup, then at the end is bar seating for manual brew service. Farther back in the building, behind the roasting area is plenty of space for a future cupping room and wholesale staging area.
Head out of the city on route 50 for a few minutes, breezing by all the incoming traffic and you’ll reach Hyattsville, a DC suburb with its own emerging downtown arts district. Vigilante‘s flagship store and roastery has just opened here. Its glass garage doors are up, music is blaring and curious neighborhood folk are peeping inside.
Founder and operator Chris Vigilante greets me from behind the bar’s refurbished La Marzocco Linea, and shows me around the chic industrial interior, coasting around on his skateboard for half the tour.
“Little Red,” a Diedrich IR3 roaster sits behind the bar near a table loaded with bags of green coffee making the roasting process extremely visible to customers. Mr. Vigilante started to learn to roast at home in 2012 and went on to operate a few pop ups and farmers market stands in the past two years “I learned incrementally,” he told me, “about how to manage a staff, how to be in the business of coffee, through a lot of trial and error in pop ups.”
As a DC resident, opening up away from the roar of the city was no accident. “I still bike in to work, and I love coming in and seeing the shop open in this developing neighborhood,” Vigilante said. The city apparently had no qualms about permitting the zoning for a roastery; their only stipulation was that Vigilante must have a cafe presence in town. With space to be had and a staff Chris thanks for their collaboration in getting the shop off the ground, Chris has sights set on a larger roaster, lots of training space and expanding wholesale.
With the DC area about to open its arms for these three new cafes, it’s beginning to feel like the late-summer blooming of the cafe scene here. Will these new shops herald another era for DC coffee? For those who’ve waited patiently to see this region come into its own–from a city with a few exceptional shops to a full-blown movement—it feels like there’s a moment happening now.
Compass Coffee is located at 1537 7th St NW in Washington, DC. Official website.
Slipstream Coffee is located at 1333 14th Street in Washington, DC. Official website.
Dawn Shanks is a coffee professional based in Washington DC. This is her first feature for Sprudge.com.