Walking through downtown Lancaster City, you can see banners on every other streetlight reading “Lancaster, a City Authentic.” That’s not too far off from the vision that David Stallings has for his newest venture, Passenger Coffee: a high-level coffee experience that can remain authentic and accessible to its—and Stallings'—Lancaster roots. But while Lancaster goes for the marketing slogan, Stallings and Passenger want things to feel natural, instead of marketed. This hometown revolution will not be televised.
“I want anyone who comes in to be able to just say ‘I want a coffee,’ and be served,” says Stallings, whose past and present-day coffee life has taken him around the world. “But I also want to provide a world-class experience to people who are looking for that something more.” It’s a rainy Saturday morning in Lancaster, and Stallings and I were taking shelter in Passenger’s impressive roasting and education space. Without a literal brick-and-mortar retail location (yet), Passenger has given that approach wings through a more whimsical implementation: A retrofitted 1955 Airstream trailer.
Earlier that day, we'd walked to the gleaming half-dome, angled into the corner of a temporary pop-up park on downtown Lancaster’s Prince Street—a commercial corridor of art galleries, bookstores, and bruncheries. Also featuring a Penny’s Ice Cream truck, the Prince Street Park is a transient vision of the Lancaster yet-to-be. During my visit, it was too cold for ice cream, but Passenger did a steady business of slinging shots and paper cups of their Heleanna Gr. 1 from a FETCO XTS. From snippets of conversation I overheard while talking to Stallings at the park, it seemed like much of the Saturday morning crowd was made of regulars or friends.
“It’s really not as cramped in here as you might think!” assured Nate Kaiser, Passenger’s Director of Wholesale, after I hesitantly asked about climbing aboard. And indeed, stepping up into the Airstream, it came as more than a bit of a surprise to be able to stand up straight, even stretch my arms or lean back to take photos. Even though the standard crew for the trailer is an army of one, during special events or especially busy shifts, it can comfortably be staffed by two baristas working in tandem.
On this day, Kaiser was on deck, along with Tyler Goodling. Everybody gets in the Airstream. Even though Kaiser might be a part of the upper-level Passenger staff, he’s regularly on bar at the Airstream. Not only to keep the operations crew of Passenger customer-facing, but also to keep his fingers in the dirt, working with their coffees in an actual tangible environment and not just the lab. The Airstream is, in its own way, a lab of sorts for what’s next: Passenger’s first permanent retail space.
Stallings and I then walked the two blocks to 7 West King Street, where the only indication of what’s to come is a small paper sign with the Passenger logo in the window. He speaks excitedly about the opportunity that they currently are laying the groundwork for. “At the end of this building is a meeting room, Lancaster was capital of the US for one day,” he says, jumping from idea to idea. “But the retail fronts in here have been so underutilized.” Pointing to a chintzy Christmas shop next door to Passenger’s future home, I see what he’s saying. On one side of the building is the actual center of Lancaster City, a roundabout on which also sit the Marriott and Convention Center. On the other, the Lancaster Central Market: the longest continuously operating farmers' market in America since it was established in 1730. The market sees a staggering number of people through its doors on open days (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday), so the King Street cafe is an omen of good portent, if Passenger can handle the space properly.
The Market already has two coffee vendors within, Stallings knows that setting up shop in Lancaster won’t necessarily be smooth sailing. Square One already has a solid grounding in the city, and smaller ventures in nearby Harrisburg such as Little Amps and Elementary can’t be ignored either. But Stallings welcomes the friendly competition, even hopes to build bridges instead of fences. “We’re not sure of anything yet,” he says, “but when we’re in the new shop we might try and do a featured roaster on Saturdays.” Besides, total domination of the local scene isn’t the point—Passenger has its eyes on another prize.
Stallings and Kaiser see what many would take as a disadvantage—being located in a small city—exactly the opposite. “We’re really in a good place, geographically, when thinking about wholesale,” says Kaiser. “Right between Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, and still relatively close to New York.” Opening shops coast-to-coast isn’t necessarily the end goal here. Before this, Stallings left Blue Bottle’s Brooklyn roastery in order to focus on something smaller-scale, starting with Parlor Coffee (whom he still buys green for), and now on to Passenger. He also works with Oslo-based green trader Collaborative Coffee Source—a far shake from a trailer in Lancaster City. I ask if it will only be a few years before he’s off to lead another startup.
He smiles and looks away toward the city before answering, “No. I think it was time to come home.”
Jeremy Zimmerman is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist. Read more Jeremy Zimmerman on Sprudge.