Taking a trip to Italy via Portland’s Spella Caffe

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When visiting Milan many years ago, we did as the Milanese do, and started each day with a small espresso and a light, incredibly delicious brioche. Our typical breakfast spot was a tiny walk-in coffee shop with chipped tile floors and only enough room for a handful of people to order and then stand and eat their brioche while dipping it in a small brown cup of espresso or cappuccino.

I haven’t been back until this past week, when I walked into Spella Caffe (note the Italian spelling) in downtown Portland and was transported back to what felt and looked like one of those little closet-sized cafes on a street corner in Italy (I’ve heard that Spella claims to have Roman, rather than Milanese, influences, but oh well). Only Spella is sandwiched, literally, between two high-rise buildings on the bus mall in Portland.

Notes on Spella Caffe…

Location: Spella Caffe started out in a coffee cart a few years back, but is now located at 520 SW 5th in a long, narrow space with sunny yellow walls, a small counter and a wood-and-glass display case full of tempting baked goods. The café is only large enough to order or stand to drink your coffee, but on nicer days than the one on which I visited, Spella offers a few Italian-style café tables and chairs placed outside on the wide sidewalk.

Coffee: I first experienced Spella’s Italian roasted coffee at Alma Chocolate, one of the dozen or so retailers that carry the local hand-crafted coffee, and loved it – a variety of complementary flavors resulting in an amazing drink, hot or cold. Owner Andrea Spella roasts beans once a week in small batches and sells one-pound bags in the café for around $10, unheard of at most Portland indie roasters.

Cool stuff: It’s small, it’s intimate and it really feels like an escape to another world, complete with tile floors, retro logo and homemade gelato from an artisan maker in Eugene (which I haven’t yet tried). Plus, Spella Caffe-roasted coffee is very tasty.

Not so cool: Once you leave Spella Caffe, alas, you’re not in Milan but back on the bus mall in downtown Portland.

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From behind the counter of Coffee Plant

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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.

R.I.P. Coffee Plant, Long Live Fighting Corporate Coffee

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Word on the street — and Facebook — is that Coffee Plant, one of my all-time favorite Portland Stumptown shops and the creator of the Kung-fu fighting corporate coffee campaign, is closing its 5915 SW Corbett cafe in John’s Landing this Friday, March 11, and moving its gluten-free bakery to a new locale not yet announced, sans the coffee (I think).

This comes on the heels of the downtown 724 SW Washington Plant closing last December; the space was thankfully picked up by another great local coffee shop, The Fresh Pot.

Before I had time to do a review of Coffee Plant or run a Q&A with my friend and Coffee Plant proprietor, Mike Miller, it’s time to bid adieu. But, not before thanking Coffee Plant’s awesome crew for some memorable times and a creativity the patrons of Coffee Plant will never forget — from baristas snapping photos on their iPhones of the beautiful coffees they just made before serving their loyal customers to fun and offbeat marketing campaigns to savoring the shots during those early sleep-deprived parenting days to arguably the best gluten-free pastries in the city.

Stay tuned for the next chaper of the gluten-free side of the business at www.glutenfreegem.com. One can’t help but wonder if the bakery’s marketing slogan will take on the Pillsbury Dough Boy or Monsanto.

Farewell photo from the closing of downtown Coffee Plant

“Portlandia” pokes fun at all things Portland

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“Portlandia,” the six-part mockumentary of our quirky city is yet a mere month away from debuting on cable (Jan. 21, 2011), and the PR is heating up. Portlanders are talking, anxiously awaiting — and already laughing — about the show by Carrie Brownstein, former Sleater-Kinney guitarist (and one-time trainer to my dog at Happy Go Lucky — I’ve got her autograph on my dog’s certificate to prove it), and SNL’s Fred Armisen.

Of course, if you’re making fun of Portland, you can’t let a joke about coffee go by. In the Portlandia trailer/music video on IFC, the cast sing and talk about Portland, where “young people go to retire” and “work at a coffee shop a couple hours a week,” “tattoo ink never runs dry” and “hot girls wear glasses.” OregonLive.com reported in early December that to promote the show, potential reviewers were sent bags of Stumptown Hair Bender as pre-show swag and symbol of this town.

A summary of the six episodes online doesn’t appear to involve any local cafes. But if Brownstein and Armisen continue their Portlandia creative endeavor, here’s hoping a future episode might take place in one of our many great Portlandia-esque cafes, such as Stumptown on Belmont, Fresh Pot on Mississippi or Random Order on Alberta.

At Village Coffee, it takes a village

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Years ago, we lived near Multnomah Village in the hills of Southwest Portland behind downtown, and though a large Starbucks greeted visitors at the top of the road that wound through the village, our coffee-stimulated hearts beat for the little bedroom-sized cafe called Village Coffee. At Village Coffee, you could — and still can — curl up with a heavy white mug of coffee and a dog-eared magazine from the wall rack, share a toasted bagel with your kids or dog and watch the Villagers and visitors meander along the lazy main street. Where Starbucks a block away bustles with busy customers like businesspeople, Girl Scout troop leaders and runners who hurry in and out with their triple-shot fancy drinks, Village Coffee offers a slower, more familiar pace — like settling down in an old friend’s kitchen.

One of my favorite Village Coffee stories has nothing to do with the coffee but everything to do with its laid-back, neighborly feel. When my child was a toddler, she used to clutch a small, fist-sized stuffed animal in each hand on every outing or at bedtime. There was a hippo called “Hippo,” a bird called “Birdie” and a pig called “Mousey” because it bore more of a resemblance to a naked lab mouse than a pig. One day, these little stuffed friends went missing. We searched every inch of the car and stroller and re-traced our steps, all to no avail. Until one day, several weeks later, I walked into Village Coffee, ordered my single latte and looked up at the tall glass case that holds the baked goods and dog treats and saw Hippo, Birdie and Mousey perched atop the case. I exclaimed loudly and excitedly that those were my child’s stuffed animals and then found myself awkwardly asking the barista if I could have them back. This particular coffee slinger, whose dreamy eyes and deep voice made the Village’s sleep-deprived new moms swoon, smiled and said with a puzzled shrug: Why not, they’re yours, aren’t they?

Notes on Village Coffee…

Where: Village Coffee is smack in the middle of the sometimes elusive and bucolic Multnomah Village at 7781 S.W. Capitol Highway, next to one of the Village’s iconic antique stores and across the street from the awesome Thinker Toys toy store.

Coffee: I don’t recall what Village Coffee served when I was a new mom and living in the neighborhood. Whatever it was, it tasted fine and kept me awake. I recently stopped by Village Coffee for a cup of coffee in one of their signature heavy white mugs and discovered they now serve Cafeto, an organic, fair trade, independently roasted coffee from Eugene, Oregon. The Americano I had had a mild, smooth flavor, and what’s not to like about organic and fair trade?

Cool stuff: Lots of magazines to read, old-fashioned movie theater seats with a view out the front picture window, old guys from the Village hanging out and playing guitar, very kid and dog friendly.

Not so cool: When the weather turns wet, Village Coffee gets humid and the picture windows fog up and condense like a badly ventilated 1968 VW bug.

Lost and found at Village Coffee

Next stop, Caffe Viale

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When Portlanders started tweeting in mid-August that there was a new stop for coffee in town — a “recycled, 1970s-era bus shelter,” to be clear — I had to make the trek to the shady, diesel-infused downtown transit mall to check it out. Even before I saw Caffe Viale’s new digs, it was easy to picture the plastic-bubble-roofed Trimet bus stop of my youth with the symbols in bright 70s color palettes denoting various bus lines.

In fact, I’d probably waited at the very shelter where Viale now stands on one of my journeys riding from the Westside suburbs on the NW line (symbol: Orange Deer) before transferring downtown to the NE line (symbol: Yellow Raindrops) to visit my grandmother across the river. Once, as a frizzy-haired tween, I had gotten homesick after a night at Grandma’s and wanted to go home early. The old lady put her foot down: there would be no 12-mile ride back to the ‘burbs in her massive green Chevy Impala for me. Instead, she gave me a handful of change and sent me back home on the bus.

Funny enough, as I ordered an iced Americano from the proprietor of Caffe Viale two days after their grand opening in the bus stop this summer, we got to talking about the last-retro-looking bus shelter design of the mall (the city saved one for retail while replacing all of the others with a modern glass-and-pipe look) and the funny symbols like the Beaver and Leaf, and realized we both grew up as riders of the Orange Deer line.

Notes on Caffe Viale…

Where: Caffe Viale is located at 1001 SW 5th Ave., between SW Main and Salmon in a dark-bronze, bubble-roofed structure that screams bus stop 1977.

Coffee: Caffe Umbria is the roast of choice at Viale, a decent, mild-mannered coffee that is served in many Portland restaurants. Coffee lovers from the 90s may remember Umbria, roasted out of Seattle, as the coffee from the now-defunct Cafe Torrefazione, where you could sip cappuccinos at the NW 23rd location and listen to the chatter of real Italian exchange students, who may have come for the name or the authentic Tuscan ceramic cups.

Cool stuff: Original bus direction signage and symbols still intact; friendly staff who seem to be overjoyed to be out of their previous location in the lobby of a nearby office building; good coffee at reasonable prices.

Not so cool: Waiting at Caffe Viale for your next bus transfer; passing it by entirely because you think it’s just another bus stop.