grounds for optimism

Vanuatu Coffee Roasters

By Gloria De Paola / Photography By Stephanie Ewens | November 22, 2016
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Vanuatu Coffee Roasters
StephanieEwens.com

Single Origin Coffee from a South Pacific Archipelago Finds its Way to Providence’s Federal Hill

Maybe you’ve tasted pour-over coffee—a filtered, uniform-tasting cup of individually brewed coffee that takes four to five minutes to make—but chances are you haven’t yet tried this delectable brew. That’s because the Vanuatu café is one of a few places in Rhode Island that serves their coffee this way.

Co-owner Jimmy Lappin is a world traveler with a passion for total eclipses of the sun; his dog-eared passport has taken him to over 119 countries. His sister and business partner, Martha Soderlund, suggested he visit Vanuatu when she made him watch its always-active volcano on the Survivor television show. So he made a side trip to the island while visiting Fiji in 2009 to view a total eclipse. He arrived at the base of the volcano, Mount Yasur, in a truck carrying chickens and a goat.

While there, he was invited to a nearby village for a cup (or several) of kava, a relaxing drink made from a local root that is used for social and religious events in the South Pacific. It gave him the “hangover from hell” but he was restored with the best cup of coffee he had ever tasted. It was so good that he brought three (12-ounce) bags of raw beans home with him to Silicon Valley, where he was working for Nokia Technologies. When he contacted a supplier to replenish his pantry stock, he was asked how many tons of beans he wanted to buy. Intrigued, Jimmy made the 25-hour flight to meet with Mike Pole, a New Zealander who was looking for a joint venture partner to set up about 30 acres of new coffee-growing plots for his Tanna Island Coffee Project.

Five years later Jimmy and Martha opened Vanuatu Coffee Roasters at 294 Atwells Ave. The café opened during the bitter winter of 2015 when the snow pileup made it impossible to push the door open. Now he imports five tons of green coffee beans—a once-a-year shipment—from the fertile island of Tanna that is bathed in volcanic ash and nine feet of rain annually.

The Republic of Vanuatu is an island archipelago in the South Pacific about 1,000 miles east of Australia. For the most part, the islanders are subsistence farmers who make barely enough from their agricultural products to meet their basic needs. As a result young people are forced to leave their island homes for menial jobs elsewhere, often as far away as Australia. The coffee cooperative pays them a fair price and provides a small but consistent income. “We’re a social enterprise,” says Jimmy. Because of the rich volcanic soil, the coffee is grown with nothing but volcanic ash and tropical rain.

The café in Providence is the only one in the United States that sells single-roast, artisanal coffee from the faraway archipelago. So far Vanuatu coffee is sold in Australia, New Zealand and Germany, where Jimmy did an apprenticeship to become a coffee roaster. The single-profile roasting, he explains, produces a robust, flavorful brew with no bitterness. His Vanuatu beans are roasted daily at the shop using a coffee roaster imported from Israel. It produces dark to light beans with a range of flavors, like one might find in a fine wine, with hints of bittersweet chocolate, chestnut and a bit of spice and another with flavors of gingerbread, nuts and chocolate.

Vanuatu has been cited by Yankee Magazine as offering the best coffee drink in New England. Cindy Salvato includes it on her Federal Hill walking tours. “I adore Vanuatu Coffee Roasters,” says Cindy. “The café is a perfect addition to the neighborhood. The coffee is fantastic. His story is inspirational and that’s one of the reasons I support him.”

Jimmy and Martha opened Vanuatu Coffee Roasters on Federal Hill instead of the East Side because of its bustling foot traffic and a paucity of artisanal cafés in a neighborhood of destination restaurants. The walls are lined with photographs of the island taken by Jimmy, and one of Mount Yasur in full eruption; the volcano is a symbol of Vanuatu. In front there is lounge-style seating in comfy chairs against the backdrop of a nine-foot-high, intricately carved wood panel that came from a 175-year old house in Bali.

All in all, Vanuatu Coffee Roasters offers a virtual trip to a faraway part of the world, with fresh-baked pastries, lunch wraps and an exceptional cup of coffee. It’s an exotic respite from our overscheduled daily life.

Vanuatu beans are available online at

VanuatuCoffeeRoasters.com. The café at 294 Atwells Ave. in

Providence is open daily 7:30 am–4 pm.

Photo 1: Photos courtesy of Jimmy Lappin
Photo 2: Photos courtesy of Jimmy Lappin

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