The Dallas, Texas-based entrepreneurial team behind Oddfellows restaurant and AJ Vagabonds outdoor gear and lifestyle store is kicking up dust anew with Rabble Rousers Coffee Co., a roasting business located in a commercial kitchen built into the back of the AJ Vagabonds.
The company’s 3-kilo-capacity US Roaster Corp Millennium roaster now hums inside the compact 100-square-foot production space behind the store, where Co-Owner Jason Roberts achieves the culmination of a hobby that started about 15 years ago. He originally wanted to go commercial with roasting just two years into that hobby, going so far as to register a brand name in 2006, but other actions intervened, including some directly related to the spirit of the brand.
Apart from his activities as an entrepreneur and aspiring roaster, Roberts, who is also an artist, civic activist and urban designer, has spent considerable time rousing actual rabble as the Board Chair of the Better Block Foundation, now an internationally networked nonprofit that works to support communities and their leaders in grassroots efforts to literally reshape local environments for healthier and more vibrant neighborhoods.
“In our earliest days, we pulled out the laws and rules related to zoning and public space ordinances and began breaking them purposely through projects,” Roberts told DCN. “We illegally painted bike lanes; turned a high speed three-lane street into a one-lane by installing historic lighting and planters that widened the sidewalks; created a series of pop-up businesses with neighbors including a coffee shop, art store, fruit stands, and gift shop that were not allowed by zoning. We then printed off the rules we were breaking and we put them in the windows so the community would see how ridiculous the rules were. We also invited the city staff and mayor out to challenge them to put us in jail for improving our neighborhood.”
Roberts was not jailed. Instead, he received an award from the White House in 2012 after delivering a TED talk about the project. Now Roberts said there are Better Block offshoots in Melbourne, Tehran, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Roberts’s urban-planning-related travels around the world provide opportunities to visit small coffee plantations in order to form relationships with producers from whom to procure small, unique lots.
“I’m loving the fact that we can buy more interesting and obscure microlots that don’t make financial sense to a lot of groups because they need to acquire larger lots,” said Roberts. “One of the advantages we feel we have over other roasters is that we have a built in clientele and feel no rush to expand at a rapid rate.”
The Oddfellows restaurant now depends on Rabble Rousers exclusively for its espresso and its brewed coffees, both auto-drip and manual pourover. The restaurant will continue to serve Cuvee Coffee‘s Black and Blue cold brew, but is developing Rabble-roasted cold brew to roll out by Spring, according to Cowan. At the USRC machine Roberts said he favors a Nordic-style lightness in order to highlight each bean’s origin flavors to the fullest, although he is also sensitive to how accustomed the restaurant’s customers had become to the previous coffee provider’s darker approach.
Said Roberts, “Right now, we’re slowly introducing the lighter roasted microlots and will begin one-on-one cuppings with several of our regulars to have them be a part of the process and see where we’re wanting to take our roasts.”
AJ Vagabonds customers that catch a glimpse of this indispensable mess kit item in the making are able to purchase retail bags of the fresh-roasted goods on the spot.
“Offering retail bags to customers there makes sense,” said Amy Cowan, one of three partners in the Rabble Rousers venture. “Once people see the machine or smell the roast, they’re very curious.”
While there are no current plans to pursue a standalone Rabble Rousers-branded coffee shop, Roberts has put a lot of thought into what it would like when they get there. He is particularly inspired by the micro-store cafe concepts developing around Tokyo.
“They’re architecturally interesting, and typically house small roasters within the spaces,” said Roberts. “I’d love to begin creating high-design infill structures that are architecturally compelling while combing the comfort and accessibility of the classic cafe setting. Our success with our restaurant, Oddfellows, has given us a template to begin. We just want to crunch that same idea down to 100 square feet.”
Until then, Rabble Rousers is focusing on launching the retail component of its website on Feb. 20 while also slowly expanding its wholesale business with a “neighborhood-centric” growth strategy, partnering with local establishments first and working out from there. Roberts added that the company also hopes to spread its name through association with some unconventional events around town.
“Amy and I originally cut our teeth on block parties and festivals, so we want to start tying our brand into some of the weird things we put out on the streets,” said Roberts. “After the community voted down a needless tollroad expansion through our city, we threw a New Orleans styled second line jazz funeral for the road that brought a hundred neighbors out into the streets. We’re known for being troublemakers, so I’d expect something even bolder in the coming months.”