Rostov’s: riding a 35-year coffee wave

She sold iced tea as a kid and used Nancy Pelosi’s congressional bathroom as an adult. In between, Tammy Rostov was making coffee cool BEFORE it was cool.

Nancy Pelosi had a sweet bathroom on Capitol Hill as the former Speaker of the House. Tammy Rostov used it.

“It was really nice,” said the owner of Rostov’s Coffee & Tea.

In 2009, Tammy was in D.C. to speak at a press conference arranged by then-Speaker Pelosi. Flanking the former House Leader around the microphone were citizens advocating for affordable health care. “I fit the bill as someone who could speak out about needing affordable health care for my employees,” Tammy said.

Rostov pays 100 percent of insurance premiums for each of her full-time workers, which Rostov’s has done since Tammy’s father owned the business back in the 1980s.1

Before her D.C. trip, Rostov had articulated how insurance coverage had nearly “priced us out of the market” to the Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small business owners. Ahead of the press conference, Pelosi’s office called the group in need of a business owner seeking health care reform that would be willing to make a public speech. Main Street Alliance had the perfect business owner in Richmond.

She gave her two-and-a-half-minute speech2 in front of congressional members and the media. “As you watch it you can see me getting more and more terrified,” she said, smiling. After the speech, but not before using Pelosi’s swanky bathroom, Tammy headed home.

“As we’re leaving town, they called us back because the Democratic Caucus was having a pizza party,” she said. “We went back to the Capitol, through these underground tunnels into this big room, and I gave my speech again to the [caucus].”

Although rallying for legislation that would inevitably become the Affordable Healthcare Act, members of the caucus pressed Tammy for insight on another topic. “They mostly asked me questions about…coffee.”

Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, Rostov’s Coffee and Teas was a local trailblazer long before Third Wave Coffee crashed down over America.

— ∮∮∮ —

Tammy was 11 when her father, Jay, opened Carytown Coffee & Teas in 1979. Establishing a brick-and-mortar business was an extraordinary move for Jay Rostov. “We moved every 18 months growing up as kids,” Tammy said. “He just got restless.”

Changing cities often meant Tammy’s father changed careers. “He was a social worker. He ran Jewish community centers and federations. He wrote a book or two that never got published. He was a photographer.”

He was also a single parent. “Nobody wanted to hire a single dad,” Rostov said of the early 1970s. “Single moms could get jobs, but single dads couldn’t.”

Jay Rostov eventually settled down after calling for compensation for a favor he once did for a Baltimore friend. That friend owned a coffee shop, and Jay would learn the ins-and-outs of running one before opening his own shop in Richmond.

“There was no coffee shop,” Tammy said, recalling Richmond in 1979, the year her father opened the business. Sure, there were a few businesses around town that sold coffee and teas. But no store specialized in it. “My dad was great at seeing when a niche was missing and building on the niche.”

Building the shop was another matter. “My dad…built everything [in the store], so everything was very crude. It was the 1970s and he believed that you shouldn’t spend money on things that don’t make you money. So counter tops, cabinets, and shelving were just plywood,” Tammy said. “It was very…’rustic‘.”

After the store opened, Tammy’s father set up an iced tea stand in front of the store for his daughter. “He actually had business cards made up for me. It said: Iced Tea Girl – Sidewalk of 2902 W. Cary Street,” she said. “I bought my first bicycle using the money that I raised that summer.”

By high school, Tammy was now a vital part of the business inside the store. “I’d scoop coffee, use the register, bag teas,” she said. She points out a “little scooper muscle” on her right forearm she’s built from over 30 years of shoveling coffee beans.

As a teenager, Tammy realized her eventual career. “I love being a retailer. I love why people buy things. I love what people buy,” she said. “Coffee just happens to be what I was born into.”

Tammy went to college to study business “thinking that what I was learning in my everyday life was going to be what I would learn in college.” It wasn’t. “If VCU offered a course in retail I probably would have stayed in school.”

After giving up on college, Tammy returned to her father’s shop, roasting coffee using the 1930s Jabez Burns model R71 roaster that Rostov’s still uses today.3 Before long, Tammy managed the retail side of Carytown Coffee & Teas while her father oversaw a separate wholesale operation.

In late 1998, Tammy, then 29, told her father that she was leaving the business to move to Europe, where she had studied abroad as a high school senior. She’d be gone by Spring 1999. That was the plan.

But Jay Rostov died in January 1999. In his wallet was an old business card: Iced Tea Girl – Sidewalk of 2902 W. Cary Street.

Instead of packing for Europe, Tammy fell into a legal dispute between herself and the woman her father had later married. After over a year of debate, the two women decided that Tammy would keep the retail side of Carytown Coffee & Tea, but that she’d forego both the wholesale component and name of the store.4

Tammy now owned her father’s business outright. But would the store last?

— ∮∮∮ —

Throughout the legal dispute, Tammy’s lawyer gave her client one piece of advice: maintain. Maintain your sanity as best you can. Maintain the business as best you can. And that’s what Tammy did. She maintained.

No longer owner of the store’s name, she rebranded her father’s business to Rostov’s Coffee & Tea. “Sales stayed the same,” Tammy said during the emotional and business upheaval following her father’s death. “We made it through.”

Before long it was 2005. The business had been in Carytown for over 20 years, but the building’s new owner shot up Rostov’s rent less than a year after taking over the property. “If this is what she’s going to do in one year,” Tammy reasoned, imagine the rent five years from now? Another dramatic rent increase could imperil the business.

So Tammy relocated the store to 1618 W. Main Street in 2006.5 Coincidently, that was around the time that Third Wave Coffee crested and crashed down on American consumers.

Third Wave Coffee6 describes the impassioned interest in coffee and making coffee as an artisanal craft. Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was passé. Fair-trade, Chemex7-brewed coffee was vogue.

But most of the things that defined Third Wave Coffee (fair-trade beans, traditional roasting and brewing methods) have defined Rostov’s for decades. Take their coffee supplier.

Rostov’s buys their coffee beans from La Minita. Based in Costa Rica, the coffee supplier was founded by William McAlpin. “He and his wife were in an RV traveling the country [in the early 1990s] going to introduce themselves to small coffee roasters,” Tammy said. “They came into the store and Bill, and my dad hit it off immediately.”

La Minita’s coffee was nearly four times the going rate of beans in those days. “Because they take such care [of their workers], they pay a living wage to their farmers,” Tammy said. “They were the first people that we met that grew coffee like that.” Rostov’s has used them since, even occasionally flying to Costa Rica to meet and talk with the farmers who harvest the beans that end up in the store’s antique roaster.

Even roasting, something that Jay Rostov has done since the early 1980s, became a big part of Third Wave Coffee. “We roast coffee. We’re a coffee roaster,” Tammy said. “At some point, we stopped being a coffee roaster and we became a small batch coffee roaster. And then we stopped being a small batch coffee roaster, we became a craft coffee roaster…The words keep changing.” Rostov’s process has stayed the same.

But what hasn’t changed is Rostov’s love for its customers. When you walk into the store “you’re spoken to,” Tammy said. “It’s always been that way.” A comfort regulars take for granted, the greeting also helps first-timers feel welcomed in a business that regularly stocks about 60 varieties of coffee and even more varieties of tea, as well as roasts between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds of coffee each week. “You don’t walk into stores like this all the time.”

Yet it’s a store Richmonders have walked into for 35 years. Tammy Rostov believes the shop will still be around if and when the fourth coffee wave hits. “I’m not sure we’ll have the right vocabulary in 20 years,” she said. That’s OK.

Rostov’s history says enough.

Rostov’s Coffee & Tea is located at 1618 W. Main Street.

photo courtesy of Rostov’s Coffee & Tea

  1. She also has a retirement-matching program. 
  2. It begins at the 18:15 mark. 
  3. Jay bought the roaster shortly after opening Carytown Coffee & Teas. Jay rounded up neighborhood friends to help him assemble it. “They had no idea where the pieces went,” Tammy said. 
  4. Jay Rostov’s wife would eventually sell the business, which still operates as Carytown Coffee in Midlothian. 
  5. You can read more about how the 1600 block of W. Main Street has changed here
  6. The first wave was in the 19th Century when Folger’s became a household product. The second wave started in the 1960s with the rise of Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Starbucks. 
  7. “We’ve had Chemex in our store since 1979 when we opened,” Tammy said. Here’s a video tutorial on how to use a Chemex to brew coffee. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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