Mobile Roast

Roasters

Tall, with long blond hair pulled back tightly from his intense face, JT Peifer gives the impression that he will try anything and, with enough planning and dumb luck, succeed. He’s certainly got the track record: one poop-scoop business in Texas, where he earned an obscene amount of money as a ten-year-old: check. One functional basement coffeehouse in Kenya with no running water, no refrigeration, and one electrical outlet: check. One fully mobile warehouse and coffee roastery: check.

That’s right—Peifer roasts coffee in his van. Recently, he took the time to share about the logistics of fitting a 325-pound San Franciscan roaster into a Ford utility van, what it’s like to roast outside at twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and how his past makes Feisty Goat Coffee, a shared venture with his wife, the perfect business for him.

How did Feisty Goat come to be?

My wife and I have been working on this idea for many years. She’s finishing her PhD, and we needed a mobile business idea so we could relocate when she is placed for her internship, and then after. We were matched to Vanderbilt, Tennessee. At that point, we were ready to go and decided to do our Kickstarter campaign in Charlottesville, where we had a strong support network. So in this crazy timeline we finished the crowdfunding, placed the order for the roaster, drove the van down, outfitted it in August, and started roasting in the stifling heat of late August.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: how exactly did you get that roaster into your van?

(Laughs.) Well, we built out an old van with a commercial drawer. The folks at [Coffee PER, Inc.] made a shorter base for the roaster, and we used tension bolts to attach the base to the drawer. I have something like half an inch clearance, and I have to fully disassemble the roaster every time I pack it up, down to the hopper, fan, and cooling sweep.

We’ve got a pretty long-suffering van. I found it on Craigslist, and it’s got around 180,000 miles on it. The first issue we ran into was I measured the interior space instead of the door clearance, and I didn’t realize that until the roaster arrived! That was quite the summer. The day I realized I’d made that mistake my van was parked all the way across town, so I biked over with my toolbox and started measuring feverishly. We reduced this, knocked that down, and by sheer dumb luck it worked. Barely.

up close
JT Peifer roasting out of his van.

OK, so what about roasting and atmospheric temperature?

Well, it is really hot in the summer here, but that doesn’t really matter. Winter is the hard part—the weirdest issue we ran into is that the outside of the roaster wasn’t warming up quickly enough, so the drum would rub and blow fuses. I ended up getting a welder’s blanket and a sleeping bag and building an A-frame shelter over the roaster’s flue so some of the thermal heat isn’t lost during the heating process. I also use the damper and air flow control a lot to help it heat up, too. I did a lot of calling the San Franciscan guys, looking on the Internet on topics like grilling during the winter, and talking with my uncle who is a fluid dynamic engineer in Minnesota. It only takes thirty minutes to heat up now. With the San Franciscan SF-6, once I get it up to heat it’s super consistent.

Did you run into any trouble with the local health department?

No, not really. They said that I could do everything outside as long as I packaged it in a commissary kitchen. So I roast on my street and then bring the coffee to the nearby kitchen I rent space in. I was nervous at first that my neighbors would have a problem, but I gave flyers to everyone telling them what I was doing in a humorous way, and everyone’s been really supportive!

Where are you currently selling your coffee?

It’s a mix of wholesale and retail—we have a lot of online sales, which is great with the mobile aspect of our business. I still have dedicated customers in Virginia and all over the country, and am really building a following in Nashville. We sell in some small boutiques and are looking at bed-and-breakfasts. But the best thing we are doing is events—art crawls, gallery openings, parties, weddings. Basically we are doing a pop-up shop with coffee brewing, and we keep explaining that we don’t have a food truck—it’s more like a mobile warehouse and production facility.

bedslide detail
The roaster on the van’s BedSlide. (Photos courtesy JT Peifer.)

You have a history of quirky entrepreneurship and a long history in coffee, don’t you?

Yeah. My first business was in Texas. I was ten, and I ran around and picked up people’s dog poo for a ton of money—nobody wanted to get out in the heat. Then I moved to Kenya for ten years with my family. I started a coffeeshop in the basement of the admin building where I went to school. We had one 110 outlet, no refrigeration, intermittent electricity, and no running water. We had a low-end home espresso machine—like a Krups—and we had to get water from the surrounding houses and bring our ice in with a cooler. It was a blast. I ran that for two years in high school before selling it. Then I managed the student-run coffeeshop at my university, and then I managed the downtown Mudhouse coffeeshop in Charlottesville.

Where do you envision Feisty Goat in the future?

Eventually, we want to have a roastery and a shop, but we don’t plan to do that immediately. We figured out how to make this work financially, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s weird, but it’s a lot of fun.

—Emily McIntyre is a regular contributor to Fresh Cup.