From West to East: Roland Baker
IMAGES BY DAN KARRAM | STORY BY MICHELLE HOPPER
Nestled in the East corner of the Filling Station Lofts, just north of downtown Miami, you'll find Vice City Bean, a cafe serving up a big helping of hospitality alongside Madcap and Four Barrel coffees. The shop, owned and operated by Roland and Eva Baker, has only been open for just over a year, but it's long enough to hold a special place in the hearts' of the South Florida coffee community and beyond. The Bakers moved to Miami from Los Angeles with a longtime dream to open their own specialty coffee shop. Once the location was theirs, they poured their literal blood, sweat, and tears into building out their labor of love, Vice City, a space that today is a second home to so many.
When they're not at the cafe, Roland and Eva can often be found visiting other specialty coffee shops or hosting coffee events, all in support of the growth of the specialty coffee community. We spent an afternoon with Roland, listening to his coffee story, his enthusiasm for the coffee community, and his passion for hospitality.
On your coffee story...
I never imagined being in coffee. I was not a coffee drinker probably until my late 20s or early 30s. I hated the image of coffee. I hated seeing it spilt on the office floor and hallways, and leaving ring marks on desks. I actually equated it to smoking. I think when I started becoming interested in coffee as a business was when Intelligentsia’s Venice Beach store opened it up. That store changed my view on what coffee culture was and what it could be. Intelligentsia brought a level of service and quality that changed my opinion of coffee. I never felt like diners and traditional coffee shops were my scene, but when the Silverlake and Venice Beach Intelligentsia stores opened in Los Angeles, going out for a coffee became different, like meeting up at a bar with it’s decor, quality of service, and drinks. Coffee began to play an important part in making a neighborhood a destination.
So when that style of cafe movement started happening, that’s really what attracted me to coffee. I was always on the lookout for what kind of business I might get into. I was always entrepreneurial, interested in bars or restaurants; I always thought maybe that’s what I’d get into. But when I saw the workflow, equipment, the hospitality in specialty coffee, I was like, “Oh man this is something I could really get into.” and then later I started drinking better coffee. It took me awhile to sort of evolve my palate to what we consider good coffee. First, it was a lot of mochas. I remember going to the grand opening of Deus Ex Machina and meeting Nicely Abel who was serving Handsome Coffee. I asked for something like a mocha and he was like, “Nah, bro we don’t have that, you can have a cortado.” and I’m like, “What the hell is a cortado?” and then I tried it and thought, “Oh this is actually really good!”
on moving to miami...
I was in the film industry for 15 years. During that time, living in Los Angeles, the third wave coffee movement started and I had “flagged” it as a potentially something I wanted to do. I spent the next 8-10 years watching workflow and sticking my head behind people’s bars. Then I sort of hit “the wall”, (The film industry has a lifespan, where you start to make enough money that you’re happy, but everyone wants out, and no one knows what they’re going to do. I mean, who is hiring a guy who can wrap really heavy cable?) Eva and I decided, “Let’s go cold turkey. We’re going to move to Miami; we’ve had enough of LA and the traffic." She still had her job, and I knew I could find work here in the film industry. Because we moved here blindly I said to Eva, “If there isn’t a big coffee scene, maybe this is the place we can do it.” We sold our house in 28 days, threw everything that would fit in a van, towed our Mini Cooper, moved to Miami and started Googling "coffee". We discovered Miami wasn’t even on the "coffee map" (so to speak.)
The first shop I found in Miami was Eternity, it was across from the hotel we stayed at while we were looking for a condo. I had coffee there and then I was like, "This is great, but where else is there to get coffee? I don’t think there’s a lot going on around here." We bought our condo, moved in and found Panther Wynwood. We basically lived at Panther; I drank a shit load of drinks there for a few months because we had no furniture and we enjoyed hanging out in Wynwood. By this point we knew what we were going to do, we just enjoyed hanging out there. We enjoyed the social scene Panther built around that shop, it was/is very local driven.
on your daily coffee routine...
It varies, some days I don’t have coffee at all. I try to bounce around and have a little bit of everything. I don’t drink a lot of cold brew or nitro cold brew, but then I come back around to it and that’s sometimes best cause them I’m like, “Wow! This is really good!” My daily drink will be a cortado or cappuccino. I don’t drink coffee to wake up, so drinking coffee for me is like going out for a beer, I don’t drink to get drunk. I drink coffee socially, I want to drink it with my friends.
"The foundation of this coffee shop is simple; coffee should make your experience, or whatever you’re doing, more enjoyable."
on stumbling upon vice City Bean's Location...
Basically, aside from working in the film industry here, we spent the next year looking for a location. I spent every moment I had just driving up and down random streets. I didn’t know Miami well, I hardly knew which direction the beach was. I would just drive streets, trying to understand what neighborhood was what, what’s on each street. I made a lot of phone calls and I would say 99% of them never got returned. Then it came to the point where (the day before we found this location) I finally said, “Maybe it’s not going to happen. I don’t think we’ll find a location. Let’s pass on this. No one is calling us back." and then I just happened to turn down 17th Street, randomly. I recognized the Filling Station Lofts because we had looked at it as a potential place to live. So I pulled over, and I looked in this window, (he motions to the east window) and I thought, “Holy crap, this could be a coffee shop! This is an awesome space, the neighborhood has nothing going on, but this space is pretty phenomenal.” I think it was late Saturday evening or a Sunday and I just called the number on the window and they answered. As fate would have it, the landlord was looking for a coffee shop to anchor the building in the neighborhood. We met them the same day. The rest is history.
on your design inspiration for the shop...
It is a mixture of mine and my wife Eva’s personal taste and to a certain extent, things we pulled out of other shops. At the same time, we were very conscious about how coffee shops were becoming sort of "templated". They all had similar fixtures and a similar look and it’s hard to get away from that. It’s still a coffee shop and you still want people to drive by it and recognize it as a coffee shop. We wanted to somehow make it different than what we were experiencing. I pulled a little inspiration from Saint Frank, from the moment I saw their low counter, even online, I was like “I’m having a low counter." I knew a low counter was the way to go, I enjoy a shop where no one hiding behind the espresso machine, you can actually have a conversationwith the staff and get a peek at what goes into preparing your coffee.
We played with workflow a lot. We knew we were going to be in a loft type building so we wanted to blend with that. We wanted to keep an industrial look but still make it welcoming to the demographic; what is it? 18 to, you know, 102. We didn’t want it old school, with big old chairs, lamps and checkerboards. At the same time, we didn’t have funds to do a massive build out. Eva picked out most of the furnishings, the chairs, and the plates and I drew the whole thing in Sketch Up. I pulled it out, drew it in a couple hours, and gave it to an architect and said, “Please build this for me.”
I knew I was going to do plywood but I didn’t want it to be a cheap we-have-no-money look, so I stole this idea from furniture designers who were doing end grain plywood and I built the countertops and tables. I built the cabinetry with a handsaw I bought at a yard sale for $25 and two plastic tables. I Googled “How to Build a Cabinet” and built it all in a parking lot down the street. We wanted to do a cement face for the bar so I found some stuff and did it myself for $12.
We knew the neighborhood was sort of vacant so I wanted people to be visible in the shop windows, so I built a window bar so customers could sit facing the street. We put the outlets below the bar to direct people who were working on their computers to the window. That way it was a win for both of us, customers have wifi, plugs, and power and we have store frontage that makes the cafe look busy during slow periods. Would I go back again and knock something out and do it twice? Sure, but I think every shop owner would do that.
on VCB's Commitment to hospitality...