Thursday, April 18

RVA Eats: Jen Rawlings, Roastmaster

All photos by Nicole Lang.

Throughout the spring, Nicole Lang is blogging for us about her adopted hometown of Richmond, Virginia (aka RVA). We've chosen Richmond as the site for this year's Summer Foodways Symposium, which will take place from June 20–22. Over on her own blog, Food Punk, Nicole is telling more stories of the folks—from musicians to fashion bloggers—who make Richmond awesome. Check out her "One Day in RVA" series to meet these men and women. 

RVA has many options for that magical bean-juice we call coffee. But if I wanted to show you a true cross section of Richmonders—and I do—I’d take you to Lamplighter

Lamplighter is not just a coffee house, it's a lifestyle. Centered around a DIY vibe and a love of bicycle culture, the main location—in a re-hauled 1920s garage in the Fan neighborhood—fills up early with bike punks, hipsters, students, artists, ad execs, moms and tots, and everyone in between. It is a true third place for many Richmonders: not work, not home, but an important public space for socializing and community interaction. Coffee nerds swoon for the pour-overs, and vinyl junkies can take turns playing their favorite records. 

Co-owner and roastmaster Jen Rawlings sources, roasts, and oversees the coffee program for Lamplighter—both its retail café and its fifty-plus commercial clients. (There is also a second, newer outpost of Lamplighter in Scott's Addition, a former industrial neighborhood that's enjoying something of a renaissance lately.)

“I was offered the opportunity to open a roasting café when I was 20," Jen says. "It was like boot camp for what was to eventually become my life: milk runs, espresso hangovers, machines going down. That was back in 1999. I was hooked."

As Jen has helped build the Lamplighter business, Richmonders have become more serious about their brew. They now recognize—and gravitate to—Lamplighter's "tall bike" logo in markets and restaurants around the city. Says Jen, “I used to pitch to restaurant managers who could care less about coffee. Now, when I approach a new client, I'm sent to see the sommelier or the beverage program manager.”

I tell Jen how much I admire Lamplighter's industrial aesthetic. When I ask her who designed it, she's surprised. "We did," she replies. "It's mostly inexpensive or used materials."  

That do-it-yourself, community-minded ethos permeates all aspects of Lamplighter’s culture. “What’s kept me in coffee is my love of community," says Jen. "Every part of the supply chain of coffee relates to community, from growing to harvesting to consumption. I can now Skype a farmer in Ethiopia and "handshake" on a price for a micro lot. My job evolves constantly. And I dream of growing and processing my own coffee!”

What began a few years ago on a corner of Addison St. has become a local institution; a successful small business built on self-determination and a commitment to values. “Coffee has saved me," says Jen. "It’s enabled me to stay in line with my personal politics of sustainability and equality. And now that we have kids, we have a legacy to pass on to them. I used to think, 'my poor kid has to come to work with me.' But he loves weighing out coffee and being a part of it all. Watching our children learn our family trade and doing business in the place where we grew up—it fills me with gratitude."