Robert McAlister didn't know anything about the coffee business. But he knew he enjoyed drinking coffee.
“People from New Orleans, and Louisiana in general, tend to really be coffee lovers, so I already was. And I had an interest in it and just really wanted to know more about the coffee industry," McAlister said, explaining his move from Capitol Hill to become head of wholesale sales for a burgeoning coffee company. While working as a deputy spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, the Louisiana native spotted Vigilante Coffee Company as it worked to build a base of consumers with pop-up shops around the District of Columbia.
"I saw what [founder Chris Vigilante] was doing and really liked the way he was growing his business," McAlister said. So he emailed Vigilante, and argued his congressional background could be beneficial to the company.
“Being a Hill staffer, you have to be able to respond to crises that pop up," McAlister said. "And being a small business, things constantly pop up that you weren’t expecting.”
CQ Roll Call sat down with McAlister Monday at H Street Coffee House and Cafe to discuss his transition from Hill staffer to coffee connoisseur. The cafe is a few doors down from Maketto, the future home of Vigilante's first full-service coffee bar in D.C.
Maketto is a 6,000-square-foot marketplace, combining the cafe with restaurant and retail space. The coffee bar will be on on the second floor, with Durkl's Will Sharp operating the fashion shop and food by Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground on the first level. It is set to open early April.
As Maketto is about to open, McAlister is settling into his new career. And the past few months have been a blur: He and his wife had a daughter, he left the only job he knew and he jumped into an unknown industry.
The 29-year-old said after nearly 10 years in politics, it was time for a change. His former boss, Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., had retired, and Vigilante, where he was working part-time, was heating up.
"As Vigilante was ramping up and looking to grow, and Chairman [Mac] Thornberry, [R-Texas], was looking to kind of make the committee his own, it just made sense to transition and jump over to the coffee company full time,” McAlister said. "For as much as I loved politics and national affairs and public affairs, I wanted something real, that I could put my hands on."
McAlister first came to Washington while attending Louisiana State University, majoring in political communications. He landed a summer internship with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and enjoyed seeing politics up close.
That summer he got to know Holly, a fellow LSU student also interning in D.C., and the two struck up a romance. Holly, who was a year ahead of him, moved permanently to D.C. to work while he went back to Louisiana to finish school. As a student, McAlister worked for Gov. Bobby Jindal's 2007 campaign and Woody Jenkins' unsuccessful House campaign. After graduating, McAlister hoped to return to D.C. and reached out to LSU alums working in the nation's capital.
"Louisiana people tend to be very chummy and tight knit. If they meet someone, they’ll help them out," McAlister said. "So basically, an alum forwarded me a job posting for a California congressman and I applied."
The media skills he honed in college and on the campaign trail landed him a "new media" job with McKeon. McAlister then headed to D.C. and reunited with Holly, whom he married.
“There were hardly any House rules that even governed what we were doing," McAlister said, detailing his first job on the Hill at the time when the House was transitioning to digital technology. McAlister described how a small group of House GOP leaders encouraged the conference to embrace new technology and social media. But things have changed rapidly over the years, and he noted now it's the rank-and-file members who are often ahead of the technological curve.
When McKeon became Armed Services chairman in 2011, McAlister transferred to the committee staff, as part of McKeon's push to boost the committee's communications department. They revamped the website, published a series of Web videos explaining sequestration and defense cuts, managed a blog and live-streamed committee hearings on YouTube.
Passing the National Defense Authorization Act was one of the last things McAlister helped accomplish before he decided to leave the Hill. Now, he sells Vigilante's coffee to restaurants and other businesses and likened his job to a campaign — it's about developing a sales plan and executing it.
McAlister said he sometimes misses the Hill, but he's been so busy he hasn't had time to process everything. "I’m sure I will miss it as time goes on,” he said. But he is excited to see how Vigilante grows and is looking forward to being a part of that process.
"I had to just trust my instincts when an opportunity came up to go because there’s always a part of you that says, 'Stay where you are,'" McAlister said. "'And stay doing what you know, because you know more about politics than you know about coffee.'
But I really needed to challenge myself, too."
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