Radames Roldan – or Rad, to friends – is well-known in the local and national coffee community: He was the first hire at Blueprint Coffee in 2013 after a year-plus at Kayak’s Coffee (owned by Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co.). He has represented Blueprint at local, regional and national barista and latte-art competitions, and won the 2015 South Central Regional Barista Championship; he’s also competed in the U.S. Coffee Competition. He took his first origin trip in 2015 to meet coffee farmers in Colombia. Today, he travels the country as part of Blueprint’s wholesale department and trains baristas at the Delmar Loop and new Lindenwood Park locations at home. His passion and drive for better understanding and improving his craft is palpable – talking to him, it’s easy to imagine how motivating he must be as a teacher behind the bar.
Still, Roldan admits that just six years ago he barely knew anything about the specialty coffee world. Born and raised in Chicago – home to third-wave coffee roaster Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea – Roldan’s earliest memories of coffee are relatable and familiar: Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. He remembers drinking coffee with his mom since he was in elementary school, albeit, as he says with a laugh, with plenty of milk and sugar. It wasn’t until he moved from Chicago to St. Louis at around age 22 that he explored the wider world of specialty coffee. At the time, he was working as a manager and buyer for fashion boutiques and saw how significantly the Recession was changing the landscape for his industry as well as so many others.
“I think what came out of that was more intentionality about where we put our money,” Roldan remembers of that time. “I saw that from the fashion-retail side of things: A lot more things emphasized how they were produced stateside, were one-of-a-kind, handcrafted, something quality – it became very important to create a narrative that spoke to what we wanted to value in our lives. Attention to detail became really important. That was something that I identified with – I wanted things that were well made, with all of the care and intentionality behind it on the clothing and retail-goods side of it.”
Roldan knew he wanted to transition out of the fashion industry into something else – he just wasn’t sure what. He ended up moving about a block away from Kayak’s Coffee in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood and landed an interview with Kevin Reddy, then general manager of Kayak’s and later a co-founder at Blueprint. Roldan recalls sitting down with Reddy, who suggested he try Kayak’s Sidecar – a shot of espresso with a five-ounce cappuccino. Although Roldan now says he starts every day with a Sidecar, he wasn’t familiar with it at the time.
“It had a chocolate-covered espresso bean on the plate and a seltzer water next to it, and I just sat there… I’m telling him how much I love coffee and that I’m so about it, and I didn’t touch anything on that tray the entire time because I didn’t know what to do with it,” Roldan says with a laugh. “But it’s so ingrained into my daily routine now; it gives you this entire picture of what a coffee can be, both on its own and with milk. I had no clue that it was kind of the most ideal situation for me to walk into, because it’s what opened up this entire world to me.”
A little more than a year after Roldan joined the Kayak’s team and became immersed in his work there, Reddy told him about the plan to open Blueprint with other co-founders Mike Marquard, Nora Brady and Andrew Timko. Roldan continued to thrive and grow at Blueprint, advancing his barista skills and eventually expanding into work with the wholesaling and training new baristas at the café.
“I knew I’d found something I could immerse myself in completely,” he says. “It was so much more than I had ever thought. Even now, I recognize how little I know. Coffee is so many things we don’t think about when we walk into a café. And that’s fine as a customer, but working in coffee, you realize it’s a lot more than just that cup in front of you. I just kept pushing to improve.”
Despite being a rising star in the regional coffee scene, Roldan says he wasn’t confident about coffee being his calling until that first origin trip to Colombia in 2015.
“That was the moment that changed my mindset,” Roldan says. “That was when I really decided that I wanted this to be my career. It’s not the kind of career you go to school for; there’s no structure, no rule book for how you turn this into a living. If there’s something I want out of life besides money, it’s to connect with people and see the world. I was doing it and I am doing it; coffee is that thing. Now I get to travel nationally a lot and check out other cities; I like to get on the road and meet with people across the country and share coffee. That trip opened up my eyes to that possibility. When I’m training people, that’s what I emphasize – that you can see the world. If you treat it with care and respect, it could take you to a lot of places outside the four walls of the café.”
Somewhat fittingly, over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, Roldan will celebrate his five-year anniversary at Blueprint. We recently caught up with him to learn more about what inspires his work, what customers can expect from the new café location on Watson Road and how he’s seen the local coffee scene evolve in the past six years.
What’s your favorite ingredient to work with and why? When I’m drinking coffee, it’s without anything added to it. My favorite way to experience my favorite type of coffee… So Ethiopian coffees are far and away my favorite coffees, and I think they are for a lot of people. They’re really nuanced and super approachable but also extremely complex and just super pleasing to a lot of different types of palates. They’re sort of a darling of coffee, and for good reason. They can be really floral, juicy and bright while having crazy balanced sweetness.
Do you have a secret weapon in your job? My favorite thing to use at work… This is tough. I don’t want to put a spotlight on any one piece of equipment. I think, and it’s no secret – it’s probably the largest, most eye-catching thing in a café – but the espresso machine is where I believe all things are revealed about a café. I think that brewed coffee is fantastic, but espresso is far and away the most challenging thing. The espresso machine is what we associate with the job of the barista. You can walk into plenty of places that offer coffee, but to have an espresso machine is like your defining thing in a café; it’s not just a place to grab coffee or that offers coffee. The espresso machine gives us work to do; the idea of creating a perfect shot of espresso or coffee is done on the espresso machine or through the espresso machine. It reveals everything – every quality, every flaw – in your coffee, technique and dial-in, or essentially your espresso recipe. It’s the thing that will tell me kind of everything that I’d want to know about a café. For me, when I want to put myself to the test, I step up to the espresso machine; that’s my go-to for demonstrating coffee and expressing it in a way that I think is very, very close to an expression of what I like in coffee.
What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? Let’s pretend it’s a Saturday, which is my day off. I live right across the street from Tower Grove Park, and when I have the chance, I go to the [Tower Grove] Farmers’ Market and get a Kitchen Kulture breakfast sandwich from Chris [Meyer]. I live for the weekend for that sandwich. [Laughs.] Chris is an amazing person, and the fact that we opened Blueprint on Watson [Road] so close to Kounter Kulture… That’s clutch. I’m a big fan of everything that she’s doing. And that breakfast sandwich is perfect – the honey, the egg, the bacon, the butter on that bread. They just get it right. I would start my day there, and then, at that point, I’d probably want to get coffee. I’d want coffee from a certain person; this person was working at Comet Coffee until about two weeks ago. He’s my barista, I would say – I think every barista has their barista that they go to for coffee. He’s now at Half & Half, though, so I’d go there for a shot of espresso from Michael Butler. For lunch, you’d probably find me on Cherokee Street at [Taqueria] El Bronco. When I moved [to St. Louis], I was so excited to find Cherokee Street; it reminded me of home. There’s really nowhere else around here where I can just walk into a place and hear Spanish being spoken, and I found that on Cherokee Street at the restaurants there. [Taqueria] El Bronco is my favorite one, and I get four different types of tacos and a horchata, which I love. I live for horchatas. I get in there, and they speak Spanish to me because I’m Hispanic – so I think they believe I speak Spanish – but I don’t understand it that well. [Laughs.] But it makes me feel like I’m back home. I love just sitting at the bar there and having that vibe that takes me back home to Chicago. From there, if I’m going out to dinner on a Saturday, I’m going to go to Union Loafers for pizza. It’s the best pizza; every pizza on their menu and everything that they do there, I’m a big fan of it. Before they opened, the owners, Sean [Netzer] and Ted [Wilson], told me about their plan to do bread, and I was so skeptical – Like, “Bread? Just bread?” – but then I had the bread. [Laughs.] Bread can be amazing. I would go there for a pizza – they’ve got the best pizza I’ve ever had, hands down. And Sean has quite the beer and wine list. For a cocktail, I’d go to Planter’s House to order a drink from Jeffrey Moll. I’ve followed him from bar to bar; wherever he’s at. He’s always pushing himself and open to getting immediate feedback on what he’s doing. He’s always working super hard to improve what he’s doing and making sure the person he’s serving is getting something that they want and that pleases them. I would end my night with a drink from him; whatever he’s excited about at the moment.
How has the local coffee scene evolved over the past year? I spend a lot of my time out on the road, in other cities, whether it’s for work or fun, and specialty coffee is in small towns now – it’s really cool. What I’ve seen, out of anywhere, is that in St. Louis – and this is something I tell people all the time – we have an amazing coffee culture. I think access to good coffee, consistently, is readily available no matter where you are in the city. I think that’s something that’s very unique to the city itself. Over the past few years we’ve seen more people shifting into exploring the world of specialty coffee: You’ve seen it with the rise of more coffee shops opening and more people really coming into cafés, I think. I can only say that from what Blueprint was to where we are now; we’ve seen an evolution in how our customers engage with our coffee. When we opened, what we were doing was still fairly new – it wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was unique to St. Louis except for Sump [Coffee]. I love Scott [Carey at Sump Coffee] and I love what they’re doing there. He was kind of the other coffee roaster in town who was doing something similar to us. In the time from when we opened to where we are now, people are so much more knowledgeable about what we do and how we do it that the type of conversations we have, have completed changed. Customers are already more familiar with the types of origins they like, the type of processing they prefer in their coffee. These are things that five or six years ago, we just weren’t there yet. The proliferation of coffee shops that are more engaged with that side of specialty coffee, you’re also seeing customers more aware of it, and you kind of feed off of each other. So we’ve got a really cool and thriving coffee scene.
Who are St. Louis baristas you admire at the moment? Michael Butler [at Half & Half] is probably my favorite barista in the city. He’s very skilled and knowledgeable. He’s a person who, whether when he was at Comet or now Half & Half, I can walk in and share coffee with him; we completely nerd out on tasting the coffee, talking about the recipe, our experiences with coffees like that, and it’s really this thing of being able to talk about coffee while enjoying the coffee. Not everybody wants to experience a coffee that way, but when we get together we’re relating our experiences together. It’s probably one of the things I enjoy most.
What concepts or styles of coffee brewing do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? When we first opened Blueprint, we were going to do pour-overs only as a way to showcase the coffee. We wanted the café to be like a tasting room and we were going to brew every cup to order, because that allows us to control what that experience is like. And that is so closely tethered to specialty coffee at this point – that idea of walking into a café, seeing a pour-over setup and assuming a place has good coffee, especially for a customer who’s already aware of specialty coffee. But now, what I think we’re seeing… It took going back to that from all of this automation that we were used to in cafés and going toward hand-brewed coffee with manual brew methods that we were able to explore what those variables were in a way that became that much more informed about how we can produce a great cup of coffee. So now what you’re seeing is the development of equipment that can do that more consistently. The difference between Delmar and Watson for Blueprint is a lot of the equipment that you see behind the bar. We now have a single-cup brewer that has eliminated the need for a barista to be pouring water over the carafe by hand. What we’ve learned and what we’re trying to pivot into is the idea that it’s not necessarily the coffee being brewed by hand that makes it taste good, it’s about the coffee that you’re using and an understanding of the variables that you have in play. A machine can do it better if you have somebody that’s experienced enough to operate that machine. That consistency is what we’re looking to achieve. I think that’s a shift we’ll be seeing over the next few years. I think it’s exciting; coffee is becoming more mature.
What do you like to cook or brew at home or on your day off? I’m a simple man when it comes to cooking. If I can make some good eggs for myself, I’ll be content forever. If I’m making coffee for myself at home – this is going to sound awful – but I abandon everything that I preach when it comes to how I’m training and serving coffee at work. [Laughs.] When I’m at home, if my scale is working or not, I’m still pouring water over that bed of coffee with my pour-over setup at home I’m lucky that the old [Blueprint] coffee I have at home is from some of the best roasters I know from some of the best coffee-producing regions. It’s usually past any sort of date that would be acceptable in any café, but it totally hits the spot for me. That’s on my days off and my weekends at home, if I’m making coffee, that’s what I’m doing.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Breakfast food. I could eat breakfast food all day, whether that’s cereal, pancakes, eggs, and at all hours. When I’m at home, I could eat cereal to morning till night because my mom’s not around to scold me for it. [Laughs.] And if I leave the house, I’m probably ordering breakfast food somewhere.
If you could tell home-coffee enthusiasts one thing, what would it be? You want to have a good grinder, but you also want to have a scale. Those two things will make a vast difference. If I were to choose one over the other, I’d say a decent grinder. If you invest in a good, electric grinder – we use a Burr grinder – that will take your coffee experience up a notch. That’s true for cafés, as well – the quality of your grinder is directly related to the quality of your coffee.
What’s your first coffee memory? As a small kid, I grew up drinking my mom’s leftover coffee. It had a lot of milk and sugar – it’s a sugar rush if you want it to be. [Laughs.] But out of me and my brothers, I was the only one who really took to it with some regularity; it was me and my mom drinking coffee. I was 7 or 8 years old; I’m talking like, a little kid. I’ve been drinking coffee for a long time and I’ve always had it around – it became a necessity to get through the day. It wasn’t even good coffee; it was Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. That was what was accessible and what we associated with good coffee, and getting it with every additional topping that you could. I grew up in Chicago; there aren’t any Dunkin’ Donuts around [St. Louis]. I moved here and was like, ‘Where am I going to get coffee from?’ And that was about seven years ago.
What’s the most intriguing drink you’ve made recently, and why? This wouldn’t be me, personally, but I would say the thing that I’m most excited about at Blueprint right now is our new coffee, Finca Esperanza, from a farm in Guatemala. It has a really cool story behind it; the owner of the farm’s son went to [Saint Louis University], and he’d come into our café and he was excited about what we were doing. He connected us with his mom and her coffee farm in Guatemala, and they’ve allowed us to come in and do some cool fermentation processing experiments on the coffee farm over the past couple of years. So we just rolled out a couple of coffees from them, a washed processed coffee, and a naturally processed coffee, with some of our input as to how that coffee would be processed. We’ve worked alongside them to improve the soil quality through various means. We’ve seen their coffee in the past year improve rapidly, and that speaks directly to what we want to do as a coffee roaster and partner.
What inspires your work? How do you approach R&D at your job, and what inspires that process? My peers. That’s hyper local, and also nationally and internationally. You’re always kind of looking; the specialty coffee community is so much more connected and probably smaller than I think we really believe. The people who are really shaking things up aren’t really that far away from us. We’re always looking at what other coffee shops are doing, getting out on the road and seeing what people are doing well and tinkering with what we do. If we see something that looks really cool, whether it’s a roaster, producer or café, we’re figuring out why it’s working well, breaking apart what they’re doing and how we can implement it. To do coffee well, you have to be really stubborn but also open to being wrong. Once you’re fine with that, it becomes easier to improve. Coffee competition is also connected to that idea – things that do well in competition wind up being explored further in cafés. [Competition] gives you an opportunity to stretch yourself and put yourself outside of your comfort zone. I’ve competed three times down, and I can look back and see how I’ve improved and what I’ve learned.
What are your future plans? There’s really no outline for what coffee careers look like, no road map. The thing I’ve always connected with is the travel and the work. The path that I’m ideally headed down is getting out and talking about coffee with more people and creating opportunities for other people to have the same experiences that I’ve had as working coffee professionals. That’s the overarching goal: To make coffee better for more people, and to make better coffee for more people.
Blueprint Coffee, multiple locations, St. Louis, Missouri, blueprintcoffee.com