Lesley Walkington, an Ole Miss adjunct professor, launched the coffee company last year, borrowing Oxford’s nickname for her unique brand.
There’s something about waking up to a steaming cup of coffee. Whether it’s popping in a K-cup and pushing the start button, loading up the Mr. Coffee, or going through the ritual of making a pot of French press, the anticipation hits the moment the aroma of roasted coffee beans waft through the kitchen. Add your cream of choice and sweetener, if you must, or drink it black in all its caffeinated glory. That first sip is an affirmation of life, and there is hope that you will make it through another day.
Lesley Vance Walkington liked coffee as much as anyone else who wakes up to a cup of the dark brew. But when her brother came to visit one Christmas and he made a pour-over coffee, Lesley says that took her appreciation of coffee to a whole new level. So much so that she started her own coffee roasting company, Velvet Ditch Coffee Roasters.
A native of Jackson, Lesley spent much of her childhood traveling to Oxford, the childhood home of her father. After college she spent many years in public relations in Nashville (Southern Baptist Convention and Warner Brothers Records) and in San Diego, where she went to school to get her masters. While there, she met her husband. Six months after Lesley had her daughter, Ruby, her mother passed away.
“She was going to move to California to make sure Ruby learned the Southern ways,” says Lesley. “Because my husband was in tech and able to work remotely, we took a leap of faith and moved to Oxford. The Lord brought us here, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Lesley is an adjunct professor at Ole Miss, but during the pandemic lockdown she began experimenting with coffee. They sought out locally roasted coffee at farmer’s markets.
“Nothing compared to the coffee my brother had brought from California, and the cost of having it shipped was often more expensive than the coffee itself. I decided to go to coffee school, with the idea that I could roast coffee for my husband and me, and perhaps sell some to neighbors and friends.”
Lesley attended Boot Camp Coffee in 2019, started by coffee expert William Boot.
“It really is the best place in the country to learn all about coffee,” Lesley says. “I learned under Marcus Young, the most well-known coffee guy in the country. When I am working on a new roast, I always send him a sample to critique.”
Leslie earned her Specialty Coffee Association certification. Then COVID hit, and during that time she thought about launching her own coffee roasting business.
Lesley explains that the process for roasting coffee is much more involved than one might imagine.
“I work with importers to get beans from farmers all over the world. I work with companies that are ethical, people I know and trust. They source the coffee and send me samples that I can roast.”
Cupping the coffee is an important part of the process.
“I am looking for mouth feel, color, aroma, flavor, acidity and after taste.”
Commodity coffees sold in supermarkets are different from specialty coffees.
“We use a different bean altogether,” says Lesley. “Like grapes for wine, coffee is affected by everything around the tree – soil, temperature, sun, rain – all give the coffee its own unique flavor.” The coffee is graded. “We use only beans that are 84 points or higher. Kenyan beans, at 100 points, are grown at the highest elevation in the world. There are so many different coffees from different origins and regions.”
Once Lesley put her toe in the world of coffee, she fell in love with it.
“Did you know that coffee is a fruit? It is in the cherry family.”
Being part of a worldwide community in the coffee industry has been fun.
“I love being in a business where people share their knowledge so willingly, and they want to see each other succeed.”
When she decided to go larger than roasting beans for her own family, Lesley knew she wanted her company to be based in Oxford.
“I’ve always loved it here.”
She named the coffee Velvet Ditch, which is a nickname for Oxford. She is a planner by nature, and she took two semesters off from teaching to spend time doing her research and setting up the business. She did a soft launch on September 1, 2022.
“My goal was to be in two stores by the end of the year.”
Velvet Ditch coffee can now be found in four locations in Oxford, including Chicory Market, Sugar Magnolia, Oxford Creamery, and Offbeat in General in Taylor. The company is also seeking wholesale partners to offer Velvet Ditch Coffee Roasters’ handcrafted coffees in cafes, restaurants and boutique hotels.
“We also take orders online and ship nationwide.”
Drinking coffee is a treat.
“It makes me feel warm and cozy,” says Lesley. “It brings people together around the table. It builds community. We want people to spend quality time with other people, while drinking a quality cup of coffee. When people take that first sip of Velvet Ditch coffee, I want them to say, ‘Wow.’”