Retailer Profile: San Diego’s Best Coffee in the Virtuoso Lab

A copyIt is time to go down to California for that perfect cup of coffee and have a nice chat with another successful roaster-retailer. Give it up to Stephen Vonkolkow, the happy owner of Cafe Virtuoso, a centrally located San Diego café and roasterie.
V.     Stephen, how would you compare the coffee scene in San Diego to the big boys’ (Seattle, New York and others)?
V.     There has been a real trend over here in the last 10 years in every direction. It used to be a conservative, sleepy, little military town, but now it’s much more progressive.
As far as the coffee goes, that is my personal opinion, but the wave is just starting to build, and we are still catching up to the other big cities. That actually was one of the things that really spurred me to get into this business – an “A” game needed to be brought into town.
There are an increasing number of people in San Diego who value good quality coffee and are willing to go our way for it. These are real coffee fanatics who find us and say, “Wow! Some good coffee in here.” It is a great time to be around in my opinion.
A copyV.      How has the business being going?
V.     We are growing very steadily. We started this business about a year before the recession hit, but we had grown during the worst economic times, and last year we have more than tripled in size in terms of the volume going out of the door, number of customers, and volume sales.
V.      As the owner, how would you describe the café and the customers?
V.      I have recently received a comment from a barista that came from Portland. He said that we looked almost like a lab. Our café is really built around a roasterie. It’s geared towards being able to let people sample coffees quickly.
We have single serve in addition to brew, and we do the espresso thing really well. But all of that is built so that people can sample the coffee that we have because remember, we are mostly wholesale.
The café is starting to become known as a hip trendy place. This particular neighborhood is a little industrial, a bit edgy, but there are also some art schools, so there are many “creatives,” who utilize our space and do a little bit of blogging about us as well.
A copyV.      I have noticed an interesting trend that the majority of roasters-retailers are following. They choose to move their roasteries to a separate location after a while, for reasons such as noise and distraction from the retail aspect. Are you planning on going in a similar direction?
V.     No, I don’t think so. We enjoy our all-in-one open setting, and we feel like this is an essential part of our ambiance. It can be noisy in here when we are in full production, but our customers seem to enjoy it. It’s wide open, and we are taking our customers on a mini tour on a regular basis, showing them how our coffee is roasted. Most of them are really intrigued by it.
V.      What kind of roaster do you use?
V.      We use a 12 kilo Diedrich. That is strongly my preference. I use it a little bit different – something I won’t be able to expand on for the sake of keeping the company’s secrets safe – but I found it to be the most consistent roaster in our market that is capable of making the best coffee out there.
It is also extremely energy efficient. And the afterburner that we bought for it uses one-third less gas and puts out one-third less of CO2 emissions compared to the thermal afterburner that you would normally use. Ours costs twice as much, but it pays out in gas savings. Plus, I know that I’m putting out a lot less CO2.
V.      How do you source your coffee?
V.     Well, we have about twenty different varieties, and it’s too difficult to have a direct source and a large selection at the same time, so I do use importers. Our coffees are 100% organic, and we are Fair Trade certified.
A copyV.      I have noticed that you use Facebook and Twitter accounts for your business. Are there any other marketing tools that you use for promotion?
V.      Absolutely, we also have a lot of customers coming from Yelp. I would say that there is not a day when three to four customers come by and say that they found us on Yelp.
However, there is another important thing that we do to promote ourselves. We have started our business through the farmers’ markets to develop our products and to get our brand out, and we have actually held on to one of them. The biggest farmers’ market here in San Diego is in Little Italy on Saturday. It’s a huge event, over five blocks, and we have stayed in that because we get a lot from it. We receive enormous amount of feedback from the customers, and also reserve many wholesale accounts because chefs work through this market to find vendors. In any given market we brew up eight to ten different coffees, keep them turned over, and do sampling, sell cups, talk to customers. We also sell quite a bit of retail bags there as well. It is an amazing market that everyone should visit when in San Diego. Look for a big line, and you will find us.
V.      What do you think makes you successful?
V.      The number one factor is our top to bottom emphasis on quality: all the way from the beans that we buy to the roaster that we use. We pay attention to the details in each stage of our business. For example, when we set up our wholesale accounts and bring in the equipment for them, we make sure that their programs are completely dialed in, so that their staff is trained and makes the same cup of coffee to the one that they sampled in our roasterie.
I also think that everyone on our staff is on the same page; we always try to keep our quality curve up, and it shows and draws for us. I don’t know any customer that we have lost. Once they find us they become part of the family.
V.      Is there something that you would like to share with the coffee world?
V.      We are in a period of great uncertainty – coffee prices have been rising in the last year – but all of us who are in this industry have to stay true to the vision of a continuing effort to increase our quality. We all need to keep pushing the quality curve up, and this is where the future of the coffee is.

Suggested Reading