Lynelle: I’m Lynelle. Co-founder and my official title aside from money and bunches of pets is Director of Joy.
John: I’m John Lawrence and I’m co-founder of Mudhouse.
Lynelle: That’s so good.
John: Yeah. I don’t know all of the other titles.
Lynelle: We have a Rainmaker here and we have a Head Honcho. You get to pick your title.
For crying out loud. Mortar, that’s right. Somebody asked John once—one of the baristas that was young and had started—and John was making his way through back of the house one day and she turned and she said, “Hey, so Mr. Lawrence…”
John’s like: “Call me John.”
She said: “Well, what is it exactly that you do here?”
John said: “Well, I’m like the mortar.”
John: Between the bricks.
Question: When did you meet?
John: We met in seventh grade in Norfolk where we grew up. Norfolk, Virginia. We met and we were good friends—really great friends—all through high school and-
Lynelle: Never dated.
John: Never dated, but we met back up later on after we had each gone to college and we ended up in Alaska together. I was a land surveyor and Lynelle was working on a campaign.
Lynelle: A Democrat running for state house in Alaska. Those things don’t always compute.
Question: How did you get into coffee?
John: I had gone to school in Santa Cruz, so there was a really developed coffee culture there. We didn’t have that back in Virginia. We were thinking: When you’re in California and you’re on your vision quest, what if you found what you were looking for and you took it back to where you came from? What does the rest of the country start to look like?
I mentioned to Lynelle I thought it would be cool to do a coffeehouse back in Virginia and she said “let’s do it.” I remember we were driving, it was right about sunset and Mount Hunter (the volcano) was erupting and we were driving down to Homer from Anchorage.
Lynelle: Yes, I was going to say Homer.
John: We started researching and that’s how we ended up bringing the coffeehouse back to Virginia. And, we love Charlottesville.
Lynelle: I went to work for the only place that had an espresso machine in town and we both started waiting tables. We both work lunch shifts and then dinner shifts at another restaurant. So, four restaurants had us.
Then, we would go over to the university after hours to their lab because we didn’t have a computer. We would write up our business plan and the pro forma. We kept stabbing at that over and over and over and we decided “okay, we’re going to start with the cart and see if there’s enough interest because there wasn’t any coffeehouses here at all.”
We wanted to see if there was enough interest to make that work and we also needed to put some numbers down on a page so we could convince a bank or figure our how we were going to go about funding that. We wanted a little research.
John: We did a lot of research out on the west coast and Alaska. Santa Cruz has very similar demographics to Charlottesville. They’re both around the same populations in terms of city and county and both skew a little left in their respective states and they both are university tourist towns.
Since the culture was so developed in Santa Cruz, we had a sense that it would do well in Charlottesville. Charlottesville has a very live and let live feeling about it. That’s what we did and we did that research. We started working also with SCORE which is the Service Core of Retired Executives and they hooked us up with an advisor.
John: Joe Geller. Also, Lynelle’s father had a lot of great experience in business and he was a huge mentor for us.
Question: Where did the name Mudhouse come from?
John: It was another word for coffeehouse, like cowboy coffee.
Lynelle: Cowboy coffee, Ethiopian, Mudhouses.
It fit all the way around, fit the bill for us. It’s wasn’t representative of Joe or it wasn’t stayed, it had a little bit of freak in it, enough that fit us.
Well, probably not enough that fits us.
It needed to be something that allowed the attorneys along with the skate punks to walk in the same door.
The whole idea for a coffeehouse for us was a community space and that required … We had concrete counters when we first opened and then hardwood floors and old mahogany along with black ceilings. We mixed it up this much, we fused together these styles so that-
John: Make it approachable for everybody.
Lynelle: Yeah. City council would come in and sit next to a goth kid and they would start having—I literally watched that happen—they would sit down and have a conversation. It was so awesome to be a part of watching that coming together and making that community space where that happens.
John: Yeah and we’re a small business, so we can’t throw tons of dollars at something the way that say a big corporation can but what we’ve tried to do is be really resourceful about what we do.
We’ve designed different blends for different non-profits in the area. We’re currently doing one for the Local Food Hub here in Charlottesville. They’re a really good clearinghouse for local farmers and they connect local farmers with institutional buyers like UVA. It helps those farmers in that way.
Before that, we donated profits from the blend to the Crozet Library which Crozet is where we have one of our coffeehouses. We donated money from that blend to help them build their library. It’s little things like that. We’ll take a brewing stand and take that out to the ground breaking for the library or at an opening for big events.
Lynelle: Bean Storms is what they call when you show up to the firehouse or non-profit places.
John: Yeah, we realized it was working with the Charlottesville Free Clinic a long time ago. It dawned on us at some point that we had a little more visibility in the community by virtue of having four stores and that we could help some of these non-profits with awareness campaigns by having stuff and information at the different stores and then stickering our cups.
Lynelle: Even right now, we work for the parks and also with the IRC and we deliver them coffee and make sure that they’re … We got them equipment and we pick a group every year that we want to donate to the office to keep them doing all of the cool things that they do is another way. It’s a quiet thing, but it makes us happy.
John: You know, I remember, there was this friend of ours Rob Cramer, he lives out in Santa Monica and when we first met him, maybe it was 15 years ago…a friend of ours put us in touch with each other and we were talking and he said, “All right, you’ve done this, you’ve established yourselves. What are you doing to drill back down and help the community?”
He reminded us of some of the things we had started out with and had done, but maybe had gotten a little caught up in being busy and trying to put out fires or whatever.
I remember jumping up and down, I was so on fire after that conversation with him because we really went back and saw all the kinds of things we could do that made a difference, that were being resourceful.
Yeah, I have a big gratitude to Rob for that.
Lynelle: Yeah, in 1993 for the cart we did city markets and down the downtown mall when there were tumbleweeds. We might get one customer a day and we still have some of those customers. We might’ve gotten five sometimes and those people still come to us which is pretty amazing. Then we opened the flagship store in ’95.
John: Yeah. It was a huge deal.
Lynelle: That was so fun. I had so much fun and yeah, what a wild ride and so much fun to work toward that. Our crew, it’s everybody too. It’s all 23 years of people and it belongs to not just the community, but also all the staff that have been working with us for all these years. We didn’t land here this year.
Lynelle: It’s fun. We’re going to have a big party for everybody.
John: Yeah, our main bag is a 12 ounce. It’s a largely white bag and we did that about three years ago.
We did that with Laura Roseberry who was our original graphics designer and she came up with our logo back in 1995. We had her re-design that bag and we think it looks really elegant and it looks like a gift in an of itself.
This last year, we launched a line of Geisha coffee, we have five Gesha coffees from four producers in three countries and these are really super special. We worked with Roastar and then we also worked with Studio Industria and they were the designers for those bags.
We have one bag for each of those coffees and then we did little coffee info cards that are tri-fold cards that go in each of those. Those are photographs that we took from each of those visits to Ethiopia, to Gesha, and to Panama. It’s cool to be able to bring that into it.
Lynelle: Yeah. There’s one really beautiful one from Geisha Village that is almost ominous.
John: It’s not ominous.
Lynelle: In a good way. What’s the positive of ominous? It’s magical and you think a little hobbit’s going to run out.
John: But not Gollum.
Lynelle: I took this picture and what you cropped out of that was one of the dudes, he’s got his rifle wrapped over his shoulders and it was such a beautiful day and that.
John: Yeah, that mist through that deep jungle.
Lynelle: I know some of them we used the cherries and love all of that and showing the stemmy part of the way a Gesha tree grows is really interesting to me and the type of way it’s bushy, I mean, not bushy, kind of sticky. That’s my favorite one out of all of them.
John: Yeah, those are really special coffees and the stories are special and what those farmers are doing is really special. I think in particular about what Adam Overton and Rachel Samuels are doing in Gesha. The ground that they’re breaking and preserving those forests where those coffees are.
Those forests are getting hacked away by cattle farmers, it’s rapacious. They’re disappearing and so are those incredible coffees, they’re disappearing with it too.
I also think about these are special bags, they’re a way to really present all of the efforts that, I think about the families, the Lamastess’, the Hartmann’s, the Peterson’s, and Willem Boot down in Panama.
All of the innovation that they’re doing in developing these super specialty coffees by focusing super diligently on every aspect of their process to make these coffees that have floral aspects and are really transcendent. That’s what we attempt to do, that’s what we tried to do with Bellant and this set of special bags for them.
Lynelle: When you get it, we also put in a toy because life is not quite that precious.
John: That’s right. There should always a toy.
Lynelle: Always a toy in the box. We’ve gotten pictures of people who build these dioramas with all the toys they’ve received. If they have a subscription, they’ll get a toy every week or every two weeks and we’ve seen some really fun dioramas. Getting the toys is interesting, my favorite-
John: Director of Joy here.
Lynelle: That’s so much fun to do. Getting the little trees that you use on train sets. I’m sure somebody’s opening a box and going what in the world do I want this little two and a half inch fake tree for? I’m like, why wouldn’t you want that?
John: That’s right. This past year we partnered with Willem Boot and Kelly Hartmann and started a Gesha coffee farm above in Boquete on the Volcan Baru in Panama. We were down planting that in September and October.
Lynelle: They’re doing well. Willem’s down there right now, we get to see pictures, we’ll go down a little in a couple of months.
John: Go back down next month.
John: Well, it’s funny because Lynelle would always talk about having a coffee farm at some point and I always thought, “That makes me crazy.” But, when Willem and Kelly came to us and asked us to partner with them, with all of their experience, that was a no brainer for us. That’s why we said we wanted to do that.
We were also at a place in the business where we were ready to take on another challenge and then adding another vertical component to be a company that’s our size and so tiny, to be able to go completely farm to cup is a special thing. I got to say, with coffee, I was training somebody the other day and talking to them and I was explaining to them how we’ve been doing this since 1993, for 23 years, 24 years. We jump out of bed every morning the same way we did before because there’s always something brand new to learn.
Lynelle: It’s like chess.
John: Yeah and we feel like two little monkeys playing chess.
Lynelle: It’s great.
John: There’s always something to learn about the biology, the bonding, the social aspects of the natural aspects and there’s always some kind of challenge and the whole part with the farm, it’s a whole another … When they went through the hedge into Narnia? It is like that.
Lynelle: Digging in the dirt with our hands and learning Spanish and messing around with these wild packs of dogs. It is so much fun to be out there and if I could spend all of my year hanging out there and planting trees, that’s what I would do. I would sleep in a tent and hang out there. To even have the opportunity to do that a little is a huge part.
John: Yeah. Again, to be able to work with Willem and Kelly and then also to be able to talk with all those amazing coffee families down there who’ve been doing this for over 100 years, each of them, and how they all work together in a really cooperative way to develop their coffees is a mind blower. Thank you so much for having us here, we’re honored to be a part of this, thank you.
Lynelle: We really are.