For many of us, it’s nearly impossible to start the day or make it through the afternoon without a fresh cup of coffee. It helps to keep us alert, on task, and, well, it simply tastes good. Here in Richmond, we’re lucky to have several coffee shops within walking distance of our office. So when the wood paneled Alchemy Coffee trailer set up downtown, we immediately took note. The trailer is difficult to miss. Paste Magazine included it in its roundup of the 25 Best Food Truck Designs. While the mobile location was always a good visit, we were excited to hear that Alchemy Coffee’s new brick-and-mortar location was finally open.
Eric Spivack is the man behind Alchemy. When he left the corporate world to start his own business a few years ago, he was looking to combine two things: passion and filling a need in the market. Before moving to Richmond, Eric spent a considerable amount of time in the Pacific Northwest. He noticed that the West Coast’s coffee culture was so much more advanced than what he found here. For Eric, “The level of the quality of coffee is a bar higher [in the Northwest] than what I was finding in this area on a consistent basis. I thought I could do it better than most of the places that were already doing it.” So Eric set up shop and Alchemy got its start.
Operating the trailer was an opportunity for Eric saw to test the waters with a diverse consumer demographic around the city. Compared to the professionals downtown, college students were more receptive to his educational and quality controlled approach to coffee making. “Here, the lawyer or banker commuting from the suburbs may not understand why anything could be better than Starbucks. Paying for a great cup of coffee could be a stretch for them, but they are willing to drop $120 on a meal, or $60 for a bottle of wine. On the other hand, a lot of a student’s discretionary income is going towards coffee or alcohol. They aren’t spending as much on food but are willing to pay $3-4 on a cup of coffee.”
When a space for a coffee shop opened up on Broad Street inside of The Depot, a newly renovated building by the VCU School of the Arts, Eric went for it. The shop is called “The Lab” and retains Eric’s unique approach to education and focus on quality.
The Lab lives up to its name. It may even induce flashbacks to Chemistry 101 which in this case is a good thing. The Lab team is incredibly precise in pushing the limits to deliver the best tasting coffee possible. They measure and monitor water temperatures, different brew methods and recorded all of their results into a tablet. The shop even uses a refractometer to measure the amount of coffee that is being dissolved in the water. It’s an impressive and earnest operation.
The day that we paid a visit, Eric and the team offered us a variety of beans to try and provided information about their origin and flavor profiles. We settled on the Banko Gotiti, a coffee from Ethiopia that has notes of blueberry, raspberry and blackberry and brewed with the pour over method. It was the best cup of coffee that I’ve had in a long time.
Eric wanted to build a coffee shop that was accessible for all levels of coffee drinkers. So the space design is inviting but informative. For example, the coffee shop does not serve decaf. “In the corporate world, I would’ve been told, ‘Here’s the market on decaf and the opportunity costs,’” Eric noted. “What they would’ve missed is that this enhances the experience for the non-decaf drinker. The decaf process has a negative impact on that coffee, and we’re not going to sacrifice quality as a function of increasing the number of people that we can provide this product to.” It’s those kinds of compromises that Eric couldn’t have made in the corporate world and hastened his departure.
In the near future, The Lab will start opening for consumer education events. For Eric, he’s happy to see people getting excited about coffee education. Ultimately he would like to be able to transform the way that customers look at coffee, even at home. Encouraging people to develop their tastes is the the focus of consumer education. Through everything that The Lab is doing, the shop is building an environment where coffee drinkers can become better consumers of the product. Eric and the Lab team are a welcome addition to the coffee landscape here in Richmond.
The Lab is located at 814 West Broad Street.