Vincent Iatesta was inspired to learn more about coffee when, as a graduate student in international marketing in the 1990s, he spent time in France and Italy. When he returned home, he immediately bought an espresso machine. He worked as a strategic planner in the healthcare industry and helped his brother David with his furniture company, but never lost the coffee bug. Iatesta started Ceremony Cof-fee in 2002 after he’d taught himself to roast beans in his basement. As the company has grown, so has Iatesta’s vision, with each new location building on the last. The 75-seat Harbor Point restaurant, which opened in May, takes the concept to a new level with an expanded menu as well as adult beverages.
Iatesta launched his business “when Starbucks was moving east,” and he credits the Seattle-born franchise with “creating the culture for small independent coffee shops.” Unlike the sweet milk-based drinks favored by the big chains, however, Ceremony brews are “meant to stand on their own,” Iatesta says. “They don’t need cream and sugar to balance the acid.” Likewise, Ceremony roasts its coffee on the light side, and therefore uses higher quality beans, he says. “Dark roast can hide a lot of the subtle detail.”
Ceremony is headquartered in a repurposed industrial building tucked be-hind a car dealership in Annapolis. Along with cranking out a range of roasts for wholesale customers including restaurants (Charleston, Johnny’s, La Cuchara) and coffee shops (Amber at soon-to-open Anthem House), the shop has facilities for seminars on everything from pairing flavors to learning about seeds—both for the public and for wholesale clients.
The expansion to restaurants grew from a moment of reckoning, when Iatesta decided to focus on retail. “With wholesale, you are supplying the product to someone else so they can execute their vision,” he says. “We wanted to share our own vision.”
While attending culinary school in New York, Jordan Thompson worked at Laughing Man in Tribeca. Like most employees at Hugh Jackman’s coffee company devoted to social change, she started as a cashier (and met the movie star owner during her first week on the job), eventually training as a barista. Thompson returned to her hometown of Annapolis, armed with an Institute of Culinary Education degree, she sought “a company that loves people as much as they love coffee.” That was Ceremony. Her goal as culinary manager is to “flip the menu from cliché coffee shop food” like “pastries and sandwiches and tomato soup” to seasonal dishes that complement the beverage. Snacks like avocado or smoked salmon toast, and salads are served all day, with charcuterie, tarts and falafel showing up in time for happy hour. A summer macrobowl with arugula, quinoa, sauerkraut from Hex Ferments and garbanzo beans will give way in cooler months to one with autumn flavors like caramelized root vegetables and candied pecans.
Along with traditional espressos, cortados and pour-overs, the coffee menu in-ludes offbeat concoctions like the Sakura Saku made with coffee gelatin and whipped cream (use a spoon) and a coffee mule with ginger beer. The spirits menu, which includes a handful of wines by glass or bottle and a selection of craft beers on tap, is tightly edited. Most cocktails, says Iatesta, are “batch prepared and assembled to order,” and most are classic: a Paper Plane with amaro and aperol, Aide Memoir with chartreuse and prosecco, and a Boulevardier with Sagamore rye. It’s the first Ceremony with a liquor license and Iatesta doesn’t envision setting up a full bar (The place does, after all, close at 9 p.m.). “I don’t think this will be the kind of place where people get rowdy,” he says.
As with the food, Ceremony shops’ designs are tweaked with each new store. The Mt. Vernon interior is a strong white, perhaps to keep the “campers” as Iatesta calls the laptop sitters, alert. Harbor Point’s walls are the more mellow “slipper satin,” described as a “chalky off white” on the Farrow & Ball website. The pricey U.K.-based firm also supplied the Hague Blue, a midnight hue on the ceiling and complementary walls. The interior design, which Iatesta executed himself, with the help of SM+P Architects, “is meant to subconsciously communicate warm and inviting, but very clean,” he says. Wood veneer midcentury chairs, counters and display cases are walnut, and white marble is used as an accent. The 1950-square-foot space is illuminated by dozens of pendant lights, each a globe suspended in a ring of steel like an acrobat in a trapeze.
When Iatesta started his company, he had one goal. “I wanted to be the number one roaster in the Mid-Atlantic,” though at the time, the competition wasn’t too thick. (“There really was no competition,” he admits.) At the time, he also had two employees and didn’t pay himself for two years. Now his payroll has grown to 65. Where to from here? Ceremony is currently sold at Whole Foods and other up-scale grocers and Iatesta would entertain other locations and partners. But he also seems focused on the fun of it all. “I never had a kid, but this may be like it,” he says. “I have so much pride in this store.”
When Vincent Iatesta started his Ceremony Coffee roasting company, he had no intention of becoming a restaurateur. We look forward to discovering what his next step might be.