Vigilante Coffee: Building a business from bean to cup

Dana Gooley, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Six mornings a week, Vigilante Coffee opens at 1017 7th Street N.W., in Mount Vernon Square. Its red walls, leather booths and spray painted tables may not look like your typical coffee shop decor, but that’s because Vigilante Coffee isn’t very typical.

Inside the pop-up shop — which turns into the alternative tiki bar, Hogo, after 2 p.m. — Christopher Vigilante and his small team serve “flat whites” and “long blacks,” among other espresso drinks.

Don’t worry if those terms are unfamiliar — it’s expected. Employees are more than happy to explain the names, and give you a bit of background on the beans, as well.

Actually, “background” is a bit of an understatement.

Besides having one of the best last names in the business, Chris also has an extensive knowledge of all things coffee-related. He can tell you the story of the drink in your cup, from farm to foam topping.

That’s because he’s involved in every step of the process, and it’s important to him that his customers are informed, as well.

It All Started With Cat Poop Coffee

Before Vigilante Coffee really took off, Chris had the opportunity to present President Obama with a very unique type of coffee bean, one that even he’d never tried before.

“Well, it was cat poop coffee, to be exact,” Chris says.

Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, is the most expensive coffee in the world, but it’s also, quite literally, made from cat poop.

Civet cats digest the coffee cherries, and after a process of fermentation in the digestive tract, release the beans inside the feces.

Chris snuck a taste of the luxury coffee the night before it went to Obama, only to find it tasted “like musty man on the subway.”

But, since it wasn’t his company, he passed the beans along, anyway. And that was that, until about three months later, when a letter from the White House arrived at the cafe where Chris was working.

It was a generic, two-paragraph letter thanking him for the gift. But Chris explains that the letter counted for something.

“One of the interns said (the coffee) went into the oval office, and that’s good enough for me,” Chris says. “I got this letter back, then my mom hijacked the letter and I haven’t seen it since.”

Vigilante Coffee is the first “third wave” coffee roaster in D.C., and it joins the recent movement in specialty coffee, focusing on seasonally available products and forming strong partnerships with small farmers.

“It’s outside of just profit-driven,