Vigilante culture — more than just coffee

Vigilante employees are always ready for a conversation or a photo opportunity. Photo by Mark Goodson.

BY MARK GOODSON — Free coffee and espresso drinks were some of the many attractions at Vigilante Coffee Company’s two year anniversary in Hyattsville. Founder Chris Vigilante and crew wanted to express their appreciation to the city. “Hyattsville taught us about community,” said Vigilante. “I’ve always believed coffee could be a lightning rod for communities triggering new ideas and new business.”

Vigilante listened when patrons asked for more seating and Wi-Fi. When seating was sparse in the first few months, “one of our first customers was like, ‘I have a table I think would be good. We’re trying to get rid of it.’” Cooperative growth with the community is part of the company’s mission and helps explain the shop’s popularity and loyal patronage.

A quick poll of visitors revealed an acknowledgement of the coffee culture at Vigilante. “I like the atmosphere and the people behind the bar,” said Gizem Arslan. Victoria Hill said, “They’re really good people. This is the only place I feel like I can come with a baby and a dog and be OK.” Tommy Benz was a tea drinker until he came to Vigilante. “I’m here because the coffee is amazing, and they treat you like family,” he said.

Just like the beans harvested by Colombian farmers, the culture of Vigilante grows with care and precision.

Operations Manager Ashley Bodine tells new baristas to enjoy the moment when customers sip and enjoy their coffee for the first time. “There is a glimmer in their eye. They realize there’s something different going on. Then they want to know more,” she said.

Employees are encouraged to learn and grow within the company. Production Manager Michael Guest began as a barista. “I didn’t know a ton about coffee when I started here,” he said. “Then I got infected by the coffee bug.”

It’s the company’s goal to send each barista to the farms that supply the Hyattsville shop.

Diane Contreras — describe by Vigilante as “the queen of the vibe” — recently went to Colombia. “We stayed for the three days in the middle at El Ocaso: the farm where we got our beans for making the cold brew,” she said. Instead of a farm, Contreras found a community. The coffee bean harvest was the only income, and the school and town were an extension of the farm. Contreras and Anna Tompkins took the charitable proceeds — 10 percent of cold brew sales in the form of toys — and played with the town’s children.

“You learn that the origin of our coffee is family,” she said of the experience.

This awareness of the community behind coffee is then passed on to the customers.

“When you’re in there you are a part of it. You can talk to Franklin and Awan. You can talk to anybody,” said Austin Redington, Director of Retail and Marketing.

Franklin and Awan are the duo roasting beans 15 feet from the register.

Redington described Vigilante’s coffee culture by noting the difference between customer service and hospitality. “We don’t see customers in a shop, but friends that have come into our house.”

It’s the family environment that attracted Michael Coursey. He is listed as Director of Partnerships & Creativity, although when asked his title he said, “We’re all Vigilantes.” Coursey has worked in marketing for larger companies like Starbucks, and noticed that at Vigilante, “they’re not making a living; they’re making a life of it in the same way that Colombian farms have made coffee harvesting a way of life.”

Vigilante’s coffee culture reminds Coursey of the diner coffee in the small Kentucky town where he grew up.

“It wasn’t about what was in the cup then, it was who was around the cup,” he said. “We’re trying to make a life around the best cup of coffee. And you follow that cup all the way down to the farmer and his family.”

“For a long time our culture was hustle,” said Vigilante of the busyness that came with early entrepreneurship. “Now it’s happiness. At the end of the day, that’s why we do it.”