When sisters Lisa and Melissa Gerber first set foot in Guatemala, they were teenagers on vacation with their coffee-fiend parents. The sisters were looking for a break from the usual, an escape from the mundane. They found themselves winding up the high mountains to walk in the lush coffee fields, and they marked this moment in their lives as the first time they understood where coffee comes from. Standing in the high mountains, on the rich, volcanic soil they tasted freshly grown, recently roasted, beautifully brewed coffee, and they were hooked.
Lisa immediately began pursuing a career in coffee importing, and Melissa started to learn what it took to work in the food and beverage industry. After a few years, a lot of travel, and countless cups of coffee, Lisa and Melissa teamed-up to bring their passion, experience, and connections to the D.C. coffee scene. The sisters started RĀKO Coffee Roasters to bring coffee to the D.C. area and to put their talents as skilled coffee professionals and their close relationships with world-class coffee producers to good use. Perhaps the best part is that they are able to support their global and local coffee communities in the process.
At the core of their company is a challenge to do business better, literally. RĀKO translates to “challenge” and the Gerber sisters believe that challenge is important. In every aspect of their business, they challenge themselves to do better. Whether it’s brewing the perfect cup of coffee, roasting the beans to perfection, supporting environmental sustainability, or empowering the coffee farmers they work with, Lisa and Melissa challenge themselves to do more. Due to the complications of the pandemic, they know many people are displaced from their daily coffee shops, so the Gerber sisters are empowering their customers to brew beautiful coffee at home through online coffee tutorials. Their videos are meant for every kind of coffee lover, from the first-time brewer to the seasoned coffee professional. They believe outstanding coffee should be something everyone can achieve.
Lisa and Melissa also challenge themselves to source coffee from people they know. From Lisa’s time as a coffee importer and Melissa’s multiple trips to coffee-growing countries, the sisters have close relationships with a number of coffee farmers across the globe. Whether the beans are from Ethiopia or South America, the sisters source directly from the farmers, eliminating an importer, and ensuring all of the money they pay for fresh green, unroasted coffee beans goes directly to those growing the beans. Lisa and Melissa choose to work with their friends because they know the farmers will use the money to do good in their local communities. “The RĀKO team believes that the best way to help communities is through economic empowerment, and by importing coffee directly from the source, it allows the farmers and their communities to grow and thrive,” they share.
As one of the few women-owned coffee companies in the United States, Lisa and Melissa are passionate about improving the lives of women all over the world. That’s why they are proud supporters of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). The IWCA is an independent, self-organized, and self-governed network of communities that decide their own goals and the best way to improve their own communities. Locally, 10% of their profits go to a rotating charity, and the sisters are currently searching for their next cause. Most recently, they’ve given back to Erik Bruner-Yang’s Power of Ten, an organization that uses donations to keep independent neighborhood restaurants open and staff employed making meals for front-line workers during the pandemic.
Although the pandemic proved to be an unexpected challenge that delayed the opening of their two cafes in D.C., they operate a new pop-up shop at Oyster Oyster. The location serves baklava lattes, lion’s mane mushroom chai tea, and some of the best single-origin coffees in the District. The location also serves as a drop-off spot for customers to bring their empty coffee bags. Through a relationship with TerraCycle, RĀKO recycles every empty coffee bag they receive into new park benches. If you aren’t in the D.C. area or can’t drop off the bags in person, RĀKO offers a self-addressed packet, at cost, that can hold up to 14 bags for you to send your empty coffee bags back to be recycled.
RĀKO Coffee is a shining example of how challenges form a better company. The Gerben sisters have certainly faced more than their fair share of obstacles since the founding of their company in early 2020. But the sisters and their team have risen to each challenge, and they are always pushing themselves to produce the great coffee that’s good for their communities.