One of my favorite cafes, Coffee Plant, recently closed its doors in downtown and John’s Landing. Here’s an interview with Coffee Plant’s founder, Mike Miller, and a glimpse behind the counter of an independent coffee shop.

Q: Not a lot of small, independent coffee shops have slogans or marketing campaigns. Tell us how “Fighting Corporate Coffee” came about and what it meant for Coffee Plant?

A:  At the time we opened in downtown, we were surrounded by large chain coffeeshops, which ultimately were purchased by one another in the last eight years.  The Plant was one of the few local places downtown that was focused on coffee, on creating a welcome environment that wasn’t sterile, and on carrying on the idea of fresh-baked pastries that our predecessor in the space, Bad Kitty Koffee had started in spring of 2003.

Q: What kind of reactions did it get from your customers and your employees?

A:  There were apparently some real estate brokers who found it too edgy initially but I’m hoping their sentiments softened if they tried our coffee or came into the shop.  Generally, I think customers appreciated that we were trying to set ourselves apart by offering things the big chains could not such as beautiful, delicious drinks and fresh-baked pastries.  Staff were good sports about participating in photo shoots and illustrations thankfully and had fun with the theme.  

Q: With Portland’s coffee scene really taking off and lots of smaller shops and roasters taking root, was “Fighting Corporate Coffee” as relevant anymore?

A:  When we put together the last “Fighting Corporate Coffee” campaign, we fulfilled an old desire of mine to have the staff illustrated as an aircrew in front of a vintage bomber.  I was psyched with what Corey Lunn had put together – it took great inspiration from postcards of that era that he was into – but I was wondering if the concept had lost its relevance.  Then, a shiny new cafe opened a couple blocks away that was postured as an independent place but was really a construct of a huge commodity-driven corporation.  To me, the campaign remains as relevant in downtown Portland now as in 2003.

Q: One of my fondest memories of Coffee Plant was the time I came in to your Corbett shop, ordered a latte, and while waiting for my coffee watched two of your baristas admire the work of art one of them had made with my milk. Before the guy handed me my cup, the girl snapped a picture of my coffee on her phone and they both high-fived. Wow. Was that a common occurrence?

A:  While everyone prides themselves on their latte art, I’m pleased that you caught that moment.  I think it’s great that the creations get documented and like a number of shops in this town, we’ve got some talented people.  I wish I would have done more of that myself.  

Q: Besides Stumptown coffee, which you sold at Coffee Plant, what are your favorite coffee shops or coffee roasters in Portland?

A:  Fresh Pot has a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons.  Tiny’s has great flavor.  Those are two favorites from beyond the Plant’s vintage.  I always get nice shots at Barista and I enjoy what’s happening at Water Avenue Coffee and Sterling/Coffeehouse Northwest.  Honestly, I don’t get out of my rut (worn between the shops for many years) much and there are a lot of places I hear good things about and want to check out.  I do like the folks who are trying to create good things without being overly gimmicky though.

Q: Final question…what is the coolest thing that ever happened at Coffee Plant during your 8 years?

A:  I wish I could relate some story about how some woman gave birth to twins during a morning rush after one of the staff had immobilized a tip thief with a day-old muffin, but the coolest thing is probably beyond an incident and more of a phenomena that happens over time.  I do feel like we amassed a pretty special group of individuals on both sides of the counter, worked with some excellent local vendors over the years, and helped stimulate the explosion in the quality of coffee and “non-traditional” baked goods.  If that sounds cheesy, I’ll come up with a good incident.

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