Shawn Mankowske is very particular about what coffee he brews, and how he does it. For several years, in between co-curating or co-directing projects like the Wreck City art collective, the Indigenous artist-turned-entrepreneur worked at some of the best local coffee shops, brewing beans of the highest quality available.
“There’s actually skill and style to it,” says Mankowkse. “Not every barista makes coffee the same, and there’s a lot of technique that goes into influencing the final product.”
To his credit, that’s likely why VHF Coffee, Mankowske’s mobile coffee van, is in such high demand today. In 2020, Mankowske challenged himself to bring third-wave coffee (a movement emphasizing premium coffee, fair trade practices, sustainability and consumer education) to the masses — any time, any place. It took him a year and a half to build the self-contained van, which is partially powered with a solar and battery system, before launching in February 2022. Since then, VHF Coffee has served thousands of drinks at markets, concerts, movie nights, private events, film sets, sports competitions and other locations.
Mankowske describes VHF as an artistic adventure as much as an entrepreneurial one. The name, which stands for “very high frequency,” is inspired by VHF radios, like walkie-talkies, which are used for direct, person-to-person communication, often in adventurous and off-the-grid scenarios. (It also nods to the buzzy feeling one gets from caffeine.)
The van is equipped with a five-filter and reverse osmosis system to ensure the water going into the coffee is as pure as possible, plus two espresso machines and removable carts for on-site catering. Mankowske carries beans from local names like Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters and Hammer & Chip, and sticks to smaller, traditional coffee sizes, serving eight-ounce flat whites, americanos and cappuccinos, and 10-ounce americanos and lattes.
“A big part of having good coffee is to let the coffee do the talking,” he says.