Since the day in 2006 that David Waldman opened the doors to Rojo’s Roastery, his coffee cafe and small-batch roasting operation in Lambertville, he was determined to go “beyond fair trade” to source the very best beans directly from small, independent producers in every coffee-growing region in the world. This “seed-to-cup” approach paid off in a big way this past July when superstar-chef Jose Garces chose Waldman to develop a signature line of coffees for his stable of acclaimed Philadelphia restaurants and for his new gourmet market and cafe, Garces Trading Company. Garces is also familiar to those who watch “Iron Chef America” on the Food Network.
“Garces had visited coffee farms in Guatemala,” Waldman says of the James Beard-award winning chef. “He became fascinated and wanted a local artisan to deliver with the same passion and attention to detail that he himself has when developing his restaurants.” Waldman and his staff studied the menus and operations at Garces’ restaurants, which include Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey, and now, the market/cafe.
“We devoted a whole line of beans just to them. It’s their labels and packaging, our beans,” Waldman says. “Their custom blend is called GTC Reserva, and we also did an espresso blend and a decaf from organic Sumatra beans.” The beans are sold at Graces’ market and online at www.garcestradingcompany.com. They are also brewed in each of the restaurants by baristas trained by Waldman and two of his Rojo’s Roastery staff. “I set up a comprehensive program for them. I meet with the chef and his staff on a regular basis,” Waldman says.
Being an artisan coffee roaster represents Waldman’s fourth profession. During the 1970s and ‘80s he had a successful career at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, as music director and performer on pedal steel guitar. (He is also a trained cellist.) He toured with the likes of George Jones and Willie Nelson, and it was during this time he acquired the nickname Rojo, which means “red” in Spanish. “Back then I had red hair,” says the 60-year-old, now bald-pated Waldman.
After Nashville he was with Sony for 15 years, where he developed advanced music technology. He holds a doctorate in law (intellectual property and venture capital is his specialty), and he put himself through the University of Pennsylvania’s law school using his cabinetmaking skills.
J. David Waldman (the J is for Julian, but he has always been called David) grew up in the Philly suburbs. His father, he says, “was a renaissance man:” a doctor and professor of opthamology, a cellist in a string quartet, and a cultivator of bonsai, among other things. His mother was for many years his father’s medical secretary, as well as a pianist and harpsichordist. Waldman and his wife, Jeanne, who is a nurse practitioner and midwife, have lived in Hopewell for 26 years. Their elder daughter is an opera singer in Los Angeles; their younger daughter is also a midwife.
Waldman admits to “doing only things that are pretty satisfying.” When it came to turning his coffee hobby into a profession after being laid off by Sony, he acted upon what he liked best about it. “I like the science part, the organic chemistry behind it.” Before opening Rojo’s, he trained extensively as a coffee “cupper,” an exacting sipping-and-spitting evaluation process similar to wine tasting. Ironically, Waldman himself drinks only about 20 ounces of coffee a week, as he told U.S. 1 back in 2006, shortly after Rojo’s opened (“The Art of Carpets and Coffee,” U.S. 1, November 8, 2006). His current favorite is made with beans from a small farm in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Waldman adds: “I also like acting on a sense of community,” and that predilection extends from featuring area artisans, artists, and musicians at Rojo’s to making sure that the coffee growers he buys from get the best possible price for their coffee and that they treat their employees fairly. He does this by avoiding the middlemen — the fair-trade co-ops who, he says, guarantee that the growers get no more than the minimum fair market price and who are often corrupt. The terms “fair trade” and “certified organic,” Waldman points out, do not ensure the quality of the beans or the quality of the employment practices that produce them.
Rojo’s Roastery is, in fact, several businesses. One is the retail cafe and shop offering packaged beans and brewed coffee and tea drinks, locally made panini, sweet treats, and Bent Spoon ice cream, as well as what Waldman terms “best of breed” home coffee brewing equipment. Another is a wholesale roastery that also sells commercial coffee-making equipment and supplies, with a related consulting business that works with architects and designers whose clients want to open a cafe. “We supply commercial equipment and we design and install alongside the professionals. Plus, we do the training,” Waldman says.
The cafe/roastery is situated in a high-ceilinged industrial space at 243 North Union Street, up from the center of town, which had once been home to the Lambertville Pottery Company, a major producer of toilet bowls in the 1920s. A black metal sign with the outline of a rooster hangs outside. It was fabricated by the father and son team at Hopewell’s T. Johnson Design from a design by Waldman’s nephew, who is a graphic artist. A couple of fans suspended from the matte-black ceiling rotate over the front dining area, which includes a small central island, a scattering of patinaed copper tables, and cushy upholstered chairs. Big burlap sacks are lined up on one side of the floor, stamped with “Costa Rica” and other points of origin. A forklift and large clear plastic bins of green (yet to be roasted) beans share space with African art and artifacts and drawings of roosters by local artists.
The heart of the space, though, is the red painted, gas-fired commercial roaster, vintage 1956. It is one of only 16 still in operation and Probat, the German manufacturer, once offered to buy it from Waldman to put in their company museum. Since the roaster is hard-wired to a gas line, it could not be moved when, just two or three days after the opening of Rojo’s, Lambertville braced for a major flood. In anticipation, Waldman, his staff, and friends loaded almost everything movable onto two large wooden platforms that hang over the central island. Designed and built by Waldman and a friend, they serve as light fixtures, but were made to hold up to 1,300 pounds, for this purpose. “What couldn’t fit was moved out with the help of David Rago’s truck,” Waldman says, referring to Lambertville’s celebrated art appraiser and auctioneer. The flood waters never did reach the space.
Three brewed daily coffee selections at the cafe include a single origin (mild Costa Rican on one visit); the house blend of the day (a full-bodied Italian); and the espresso house blend which Waldman continues to tweak. The public is welcome to join him for special cuppings and tastings by contacting him through the website www.rojosroastery.com. It should come as no surprise that this onetime musician features live music at his cafe, and always without a cover fee. Next up are the James McBride Jazz Group on Saturday, September 24, from 6 to 9 p.m., followed on Saturday, October 2, by Bill Sims, Jr.
Rojo’s Roastery, 243 North Union Street, Lambertville, 609-397-0040. www.rojosroastery.com.