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The Original Brew

In the days before the Starbucks invasion, Jay Rostov pioneered Richmond’s caffeine uprising.



In the beginning, there was only one coffee shop in Richmond. Or at least the kind we’ve come to expect these days: fancy coffee drinks, baked goods, regulars who hang out for hours at a time. Carytown Coffee & Tea Co., now the site of Capital Coffee & Desserts, opened in late 1979.

Today, there are hundreds more. And there’s a bill before the Senate of Virginia (it’s passed the House) sponsored by Sen. Donald McEachin and Delegate Betsey Carr, to commend Rostov’s Coffee and Tea for its 35 years of service. It’s a testament to the Rostov family’s perseverance and the enduring loyalty of its customers.

Thirty-five years ago, Jay Rostov took a chance on a retail area that had seen better days and opened Carytown Coffee & Tea. In the ’70s and early ’80s, break-ins were common (along with the occasional mugging) and vacant storefronts dotted this sketchy strip of Cary Street. Rostov was a key player in bringing the neighborhood back.

His daughter, Tammy Rostov, who took over and renamed the business Rostov’s Coffee & Tea after her father’s death in 1998, recalls moving from Baltimore to Richmond after her parents’ divorce. Her father owned a pipe manufacturing company and made frequent stops at a tobacco store that used to be located in Cary Court. A Baltimore friend with a shop that sold coffee beans encouraged Rostov to open a similar business in Richmond.

“He was fearless,” Tammy Rostov says. “My dad was a visionary.”

Starbucks had opened two years before, and was still a local Seattle business. In Richmond, on-site, roasted, whole-bean coffee was impossible to find. Espresso and cappuccino didn’t exist here yet, and hardly anyone had heard of a croissant. Rostov introduced all those things. He found a coffee roaster circa 1930 or 1940 (no one’s sure of the age of the equipment) and bought a new Cimbali espresso machine.

“Richmond was so hungry for it,” Tammy says. “People were thrilled to death to have coffee that was roasted in the same week.”

Lines snaked out of the door every Saturday during the ’80s, and through the holiday season, the grinder never stopped while scoop after scoop of coffee from Colombia, Mexico, Kenya and other far-flung places was bagged and sold. I still recall the contact high of working in the shop.

It was easy in the beginning to get green coffee beans. There were two suppliers. “You called the same man, you told him what you needed and it came in,” Tammy says. “There weren’t 40 million different varieties. … Small farms were lumped into regions.”

Rostov eventually sold the bakery side of his business and focused on coffee beans. His version of retirement was to expand into the wholesale business. Within a year, he had 250 accounts without going on a single sales call and was roasting all of it in the store.

Tammy started working for her father as soon as the store opened — at age 11. “People thought I was a very small adult or a very tall child,” she says.

She never stopped working at the shop. When her Carytown landlord raised the rent in 2003, Tammy decided to move to West Main Street. That, too, was a risk worthy of her father that similarly paid off. Sixteen other businesses have opened since in the immediate two-block area.
The third wave of coffee — artisanal sourcing with an emphasis on fair labor practices and relationships with individual growers — has changed the industry.

“It was a big business decision to try to figure out — where do we fit in?” she says. “How do we stay relevant?”

So far it’s meant more variety in her store and more fair-trade, single-origin beans for her customers. She also gets opportunities to travel to the farms owned by the store’s suppliers. What she does, and what her father did before her, has been variously called small-batch, craft and micro roasting. At Rostov’s, the changing labels haven’t affected the way the green beans get from the bags from around the world stacked in the store into coffee makers around town.

“It’s just roasting,” she says. “It’s just coffee.” S

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