After half a decade as baristas, roasters, and café managers from Central Tennessee to Tidewater Virginia, Brianna and Will Libby were finally ready to launch their own coffee company, Color Wheel Coffee, in March of 2020. The terrible timing meant the couple had to quickly pivot away from wholesale bean retailing, which they had expected to comprise the bulk of their business, to selling directly to customers.
“We opened right before we knew everything was going to fall apart across the world,” says Will. “Lots of places were closing and not wanting to take a risk on a new coffee vendor. Eventually we got into a farmer’s market in Short Pump which saved us.” Slowly as things loosened up last summer, they began expanding their business and opened the recreational vehicle.
The RV in question is hard to miss. Painted bright goldenrod on top and sky blue on the bottom with swathes of various other hues stretched across the middle, the RV lives up to the Color Wheel name. Their eye-catching operation was a stroke of branding genius.
“I wanted to create the RV café to help us get traction and provide a space for people to come and experience our coffee firsthand,” Brianna says. “Will and I and my father, who is a contractor, renovated this RV last summer as our little project, but we didn’t do it all alone — we had some friends help us paint it.”
The crazy colors across the RV also represent the couple’s approach to coffee.
“In coffee tasting, there is a tool called the tasting wheel which is used to teach people how to pick out different notes in the beans,” explains Will. “When you look at it, every flavor has a distinct color, creating a kaleidoscope of notes, people and places reflecting the diversity of the beans’ production. Coffee is a gateway into learning about the cultures of Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Ecuador and all of these places we may never get to experience otherwise.”
Ironically, the success of their coffeehouse on wheels is allowing them to ditch the RV and return to their original plans to operate largely as a roaster. A streak of vandalism which twice destroyed the RV’s power cable, shutting down operations, made the choice all the easier. Those looking to snap a selfie with their one-of-a-kind café should head out to West Broad Village in Short Pump before Jan. 30 when they plan on retiring the RV.
“Owning a café is super difficult, but owning a café on wheels is incredibly hard,” says Will, adding that now that the roasting business is picking up, they don’t have the bandwidth to also manage the RV. “We’d rather do one thing really well instead of multiple things below the quality level we want. Providing coffee to the Richmond community is where our mind is at right now, so we want to dial it back a bit and become more sustainable in growing our wholesale clients.”
Although the era of the RV is coming to a close, curious customers will still be able to find classic Color Wheel Coffee creations at the West End Farmers’ Market. One such signature item is the Miel — a honey cinnamon latte which began as a specialty drink of the month and morphed into a menu mainstay. No matter what you order, all the flavor syrups are made from scratch using fresh, often locally sourced ingredients. The honey for the Miel comes from Salt and Pepper Farm in New Kent, for example.
For those uninterested in making the long trek out to Short Pump, Color Wheel supplies coffee to a variety of shops around town. Minglewood Bake Shop in Carytown makes their drip and cold brew from Brianna’s and Will’s beans. Besides bicycles, Outpost in Forest Hill offers customers Color Wheel roasted coffee and bags for purchase. Perk! Coffee & Lunchbox’s holiday blend was also crafted by the couple.
The increasing reach of their roasting is a testament to their talent and approach to the industry. Despite being steeped in the culture of specialty coffee with all of its nuanced flavor notes, the duo behind Color Wheel Coffee always aims to serve up something for everyone.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on trying to be accessible to someone who already knows the difference between a washed Guatemalan versus a natural Ethiopian as well as to folks who have no idea what the heck we’re talking about and just want drip coffee with cream and sugar,” Will says.
No matter the season, Brianna and Will always stock at least one coffee from the three primary coffee growing continents: South America, Africa and Asia. It’s just one more way the couple tries to live up to the Color Wheel Coffee motto: “Diverse people, diverse coffee.”