Coffee folks in the Pacific Northwest drive their cars from Portland to Olympia to Seattle on a fairly regular basis; ours is one of the most colorful, quality-focused coffee regions around, and we like to stay in touch with all of it. I’ve made a habit of stopping at Lava Java in Ridgefield, Wash.—about 15 miles from Portland—whenever I’m headed north on this corridor. Owned and operated by former United States Barista Champion (USBC) Phuong Tran since 2002, Lava Java is one of the longest-standing cafés on my list of must-see coffeehouses in the region.
When Phuong bought Lava Java in 2002, it was little more than a working café in a suburban strip mall. Named Lava Java because it sits in the shadow of the volcano Mt. Saint Helens, the café was plenty busy, amply popular. But it wasn’t up to Phuong standards.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Phuong told me recently over lunch. “I need it to be the best it can be, best equipment, best baristas, best coffee.”
She may be small in stature, but Phuong is formidable when she’s cracking the whip: within months she had turned a so-so café into one of the best coffeehouses in the Northwest. Using Stumptown Coffee since the beginning, Lava Java boasts a well-loved La Marzocco FB/70 and a staff of exacting baristas, all of whom Phuong has trained herself to ensure their ability to meet the high standards Lava Java is known for.
Phuong has done this for 11 years consistently, and as a result has earned the kind of loyal customer base and high reputation most coffeehouse owners only dream about. She expanded into the city of Portland in the summer of 2012 when she opened Maglia Rosa, a coffee cart located inside West End Bikes downtown. Actually, it’s not exactly inside the bike shop as much as it’s on the edge: the majority of Maglia Rosa’s customers are pedestrians on their way to work.
It’s been a long and successful 11years for Phuong and Lava Java: not only has the café been an extraordinary success in the Ridgefield community, but it’s the breeding ground for some of the best in the industry: Phuong won the United States Barista Championship in 2005, sure, but did you know she trained and employed barista heavyweights including Billy Wilson, Ryan Willbur, and Matt Brown?
She continues to employ longtime barista competitor and BGA superstar Cam Kellett, and is as proud as she’s ever been about Lava Java’s staff—which is why she hopes the buyer of Lava Java keeps them on bar.
That’s right: Lava Java is for sale. It’s never been more successful or popular, and Phuong has a somewhat heavy heart about leaving. But, she says, it’s time.
“It’s in perfect shape—I’ve done all the work,” she tells me. “But I need a vacation! I want to get involved in the larger coffee community again.”
Phuong says she’ll only consider serious coffee people as buyers: “Lava Java has earned its reputation, and I want to be sure it stays as great as it is now,” she says.
Phuong will continue to own and operate Maglia Rosa.
She looks forward to continuing with her freelance work for esteemed coffee consultant Tracy Allen of Brewed Behavior, for whom she trains accounts all over the world. And for his part, Tracy couldn’t be more excited for Phuong.
“I’ve worked with Phuong in a professional capacity for the past decade, and have always been impressed by her proficiency as a barista and a true educator. What she has built at Lava Java is nothing short of inspiring, from the consistency of the high quality service, to the impeccably trained staff, to the loyal and numerous regulars who wouldn’t get their coffee anywhere else,” Tracy says. “Phuong treats everyone and everything she comes into contact with the highest regard. I am proud to call her my colleague and my friend.”
Another party that applauds Phuong as she makes this transition? Her longtime wholesaler, Stumptown Coffee, whose staff feels like family to Phuong at this point.
“I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with Phuong Tran these last seven years,” says Skip Colombo of Stumptown. “I’ll never forget how nervous I was when I first met her, knowing of her reputation, not only as a USBC champion, but how respected she was for her passionate and unrelenting commitment to quality. She was a powerful voice as well as a mentor to so many in the coffee industry. I think about the distinguished alumni that have come through her doors and the impact they in turn have had in their own careers in coffee.
“I’m proud to have earned her trust and respect, and even more, to be able to call her my friend. I know personally how difficult it is to leave something you’ve put so much of your time, energy, and love into, yet I’m so happy that she is able to walk away at the top of her game.”
Skip likens Phuong to a professional athlete whose commitment to excellence for the duration of her career has afforded her the desirable position of being able to call her own shots.
“It’s rare for a cafe owner to be able to leave on their own terms and she’s able to do it,” Skip continues. “Whoever has the privilege of inheriting Lava Java will be getting not only a high-volume, successful, and legendary café, but one that is beloved by and entrenched in, its community. It will be a lot to live up to, but there’s no better person than Phuong to be able to help them achieve it.”