A hobby that started more than 15 years ago in his kitchen by hand-stirring coffee beans in a cast-iron skillet has turned into the latest neighborhood-centric business venture for Jason Roberts. Roberts already co-owns the popular Bishop Arts diner and coffee spot Oddfellows, and now, Rabble Rousers Coffee Co. is the latest entrant into a local coffee scene that’s been brewing rapidly in recent years.
But it was the opening of yet another new venture that enabled Roberts to seize a perfectly sized opening into the dark-roasted fray.
“I'd wanted to roast commercially for years and had even registered a name and created a brand back in 2006,” he says. “Unfortunately, I ended up getting buried with several other projects, so it had to go on the back burner. Last year, we opened an outdoors store called AJ Vagabonds a block away from our restaurant [Oddfellows] in an old Craftsman house. The back of the house had an old kitchen that was the perfect size for a small commercial coffee roaster. From that point on, we got to work meeting manufacturers and laying the groundwork for Rabble Rousers.”
If you’re a southern Dallas-dwelling coffee lover, you’re in luck these days. In 15 minutes, you can drive past numerous local coffee roasters, including established, adored names such as Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters, Full City Rooster in the Cedars and Exposition Park’s Noble Coyote. Go a few more miles out, and the number of carefully crafted choices becomes even greater.
Indeed, it’s a glorious time to be a buzz-seeker around these parts. But as is the case with the recent boom in craft beer breweries, it’s becoming more important for new coffee roasters to prepare for a tight battle for Dallas domination.
Unless, that is, your primary goal is to simply keep your own cozy neighborhood well-caffeinated. For Roberts, there’s more than one way to enter a crowded marketplace.
“What we've seen is that most small roasters make big growth plans and are vying to land their coffees on grocery store shelves or in shops across the region," he says. "That model is fine, but it means you're having to buy bulk lots and sink your capital on a substantial production line.”
Starting in a hyper-local manner is certainly on-brand for Roberts, who chairs the board of directors for the Better Block Project. In 2010, Roberts and his business partner, Amy Cowan, began Better Block to team up with other members of their community to bring vital energy to their neck of the woods by flouting many of the ordinances and restrictions Roberts and his team felt held the area back from proper development. The name Rabble Rousers is a tribute to those days of making trouble, but for a good cause.
“We love staying small and being boutique,” Roberts says. “Since we have Oddfellows as our base customer, we're not worrying about chasing merchants, ramping up machinery or supporting a large outside sales force. We can focus on buying extremely small micro lots from farms that other roasters won't go near because it doesn't make financial sense.”
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For now, those small batches of beans are coming from Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil and Ethiopia, Roberts says. But thanks to his work with Better Block, which sends him traveling all over the world, sourcing coffee from new farms in pretty much any corner of the globe will soon be possible. In fact, Roberts hopes to get Rabble Rousers beans only from farmers he’s gotten to know personally.
Rabble Rousers seems to have the luxury of not necessarily needing to get big in order to be successful. That’s a unique and certainly enviable position for a Dallas-area coffee roaster to be in, but for Roberts, staying small is just the way he’d rather have it, regardless.
"Our ethos has always been scrappy and DIY," he says, "and that's where we want to stay."
AJ Vagabonds, 336 W. Eighth St. (Oak Cliff)