The Dish: Where to Try Providence's Rarest Cup of Coffee

Vanuatu Coffee Roasters on Federal Hill serves artisan-crafted, single island origin coffee from the Republic of Vanuatu.

Coffee is arguably the lifeblood of Rhode Island. Dunkin’ Donuts shops pop up like dandelions and Autocrat coffee syrup pumps through our veins. Providence was even on a list of Travel and Leisure’s Best Coffee Cities in 2013, beating out San Francisco. So it really isn’t surprising that there is a new coffee shop on Federal Hill.

Vanuatu Coffee Roasters is run by brother and sister duo James “Jimmy” Lappin and Martha Soderlund. Soderlund fills orders behind the counter as Lappin breezes around the shop, talking to customers, giving hugs and greeting timid newbies who wander in.

While the jovial atmosphere helps, an essential part of what has people coming back is what’s being roasted, brewed and served. 

Vanuatu coffee is made with special beans, lacking the bitterness that is common with coffee. It is from Tanna Island, part of the archipelago-nation of the Republic of Vanuatu, a smattering of islands nestled between Australia and Fiji. The secret to its flavor is Mount Yasur, a volcano on Tanna that, besides serving as the backdrop to “Survivor” host Jeff Probst during Season Nine, makes serious dirt.

“We only planted five years ago, and to be honest, we started picking too early…but the plants were growing so fast. The soil is out of control,” says Lappin.

He sits in one of the leather chairs in the shop, his hands constantly moving as he speaks. A solar eclipse is emblazoned onto his black T-shirt.

Lappin’s choice of shirt is fitting since the cafe owes its existence to his passion for chasing solar eclipses, a hobby that brought him to Fiji in 2009, about 753 miles from Vanuatu. He decided to hop over to see the great, spewing Mount Yasur and have his own Jeff Probst moment.

While there, he had a fateful incident with the local men involving some potent kava and early morning salvation in the form of a cup of coffee; coffee that tasted unlike any other.

“I don’t drink my coffee black, but had I no choice,” he says. “… it was fantastic. There was no bitterness, so I asked the lodge owner ‘Where is it from?’ To my surprise, he said ‘It’s from here!’ ”

Lappin returned to San Francisco, where he was living at the time, with three bags of coffee and a new fascination. After his reserves began to run perilously low, he tried unsuccessfully to contact someone about getting more coffee. When Lappin finally broke through and inquired about replenishing his personal stock, he was asked, “how many tons?”  Tons was not what he was expecting to hear, but he pursued it.

 Back to Vanuatu he went.

“I met the co-op, Mike Pole, head of the Tanna Island Coffee Project (TCP), and the farmers. It had a profound effect on me,” he says.

Lappin learned about the loss of young men to the promise of steady income on the government island or even Australia.

He gestures to the photo behind him. “You can see in this pic, they’re all thirty and above or twelve and under; no eighteen to twenty-one-year-old kids there.”

Lappin saw coffee as a way to help Vanuatu retain its young men, as well as a way to give them a fair income.

A large sign in the store explains the coffee production process, an innovative relationship between Lappin, the INIK cooperative and the farmers.

Mike Pole, a New Zealander who organized the Tanna Island Coffee Project and who works closely with Lappin, explains: “Jimmy’s model was a huge step up for the farmers of Tanna who wanted coffee. He was the first to enter in an off-take agreement where the farmers kept their coffee and Jimmy funded the first years of the development and yet promised to buy what each farmer produced at the market price.”

Lappin essentially cut out the middleman and committed entirely to Vanuatu Coffee and its farmers.

Pole says, “The farmers saw, or a family member heard, the stories of Jimmy’s business model, so many new farmers simply started planting because they did not want to miss out on the movement…. so Tanna has a lot to thank Jimmy for.”

Lappin returned to San Francisco to sell his “better than fair-trade” beans, but no one in San Francisco wanted them. Similar to Kona beans, Lappin describes the flavor as “soft and feminine.”  

“These guys were looking for extremes: a blast of acidity for a light roast or extreme dark. My beans were not a good fit,” he says.

Finding little success in San Francisco, he sent Soderlund bags to sell in Rhode Island, where the production could not keep up with the demand.

After much soul-searching, Lappin returned to his childhood home, Providence, to open a coffee shop. Soderlund helped scout out a location as Lappin undertook a roasting apprenticeship in Germany to earn the title of master roaster.

Soderlund found the perfect location in an unlikely spot: Federal Hill.  

“You have to understand, Martha’s phone is from 1982, so I got this small Picasso pic of the place. But we checked it out and it was a good sized space,” Lappin says. “Plus, the Hill is completely different from thirty-three years ago. It’s a destination, they bring buses down here! We want to be a destination within a destination.”

The location was gutted and designed to be slick, contemporary and intimate. Last winter was a struggle, with mountains of snow muffling the grand opening.

Now that good weather is here, business has picked up. Lappin claims regulars make up 90 percent of their business and the 10 percent of newbies eventually fold into the 90 percent.

You will find Providence resident and regular Duncan Putney at Vanuatu a couple days a week. As a black coffee drinker, he knows this coffee is special. “I do black coffee, so you can’t mask the flavor…putting it simply, they have good coffee.” Putney not only finds the brew special, but also the owners. “They know you after one or two visits; they’ve got you down.”

Vanuatu is more than just a coffee shop; it’s a coffee ecosystem, a cafe dependent not only on the passion of its owners, but also on the relationship to its coffee source.

Lappin can’t say enough about the people of Vanuatu and what they mean to him.

“We are emotionally invested — these are our peeps.”

294 Atwells Ave., Providence, 401-273-1586, vanuatucoffeeroasters.com

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