A Discussion with Portrait Coffee (Part 2)

In part two of our Ratio Journal series with Portrait Coffee, we continue our discussion with co-founder John Onwuchekwa. This time we dive into the Kickstarter campaign that raised $35,000 in 30 days and helped fund Portrait’s current roastery and upcoming coffee shop, and the innovative ways the Portrait team pivoted in the face of the Covid pandemic.  

If you missed part one, you can find it here!

I wonder, for somebody who has not watched your Kickstarter video yet, if you would just describe the creation of it, and how you as a team decided to make this video to present Portrait? 

We had an idea to launch a coffee shop, and the roastery was going to be our initial way to cut our cost of goods sold in half. So the main thing was -- let's start a shop that's the dog, and the roastery can be the tail. The more that we started to talk about what it was that we were trying to do -- we had a round of investors, family, and friends, and it was like every time we shared our story, we found that there were people that were like, ‘I don't even care about coffee, but it's really the narrative and the story --  I want to be a part of that.’  

I think that was the thing that we've realized, and we learned was maybe the biggest calling card -- that there really is a narrative that people want to be drawn up into, right? And for us, you know, coffee felt like more than just a product that we were trying to sell -- it was a platform to do good. It would be the type of thing where friends and family would come, and after we would tell them that, they would go and repeat it, and introduce this to somebody else. So, it really became the type of thing where we were like all right, listen, we're telling this story over and over and over...let's create a video. We think the narrative is powerful and compelling, so let's create it. Let's put it out there in the world and let folks know what we're trying to do and see who catches on. So, we initially created it 'cause we're like, hey, we're getting ready to launch this Kickstarter, and we need people to know what we're about. That was the first time that things took off. We started to find people were sharing the video and there was this buzz created about what it is that we were trying to do. It just felt contagious and it spread.  

So after you had that narrative in place, and it began to spread through the video and the Kickstarter campaign, what did raising funds for the roastery and the coffee shop look like?  

We raised like $35,000 in 30 days which was good. 

That was the last little bit that we needed in February. We started to sell coffee online and then March 1st, 2020 we found a building in the community. We signed a five-year lease on March 1st 2020 and then two weeks later COVID takes place, and it shuts down. 

Halfway in between the time that we signed and the time that things got shut down, there was a movie crew that inquired about leasing our building to film a movie that they were going to do here and so we had obliged because we were like, you know, it's going to take us some time to get permits and all that stuff, so let's make a little bit of money while we wait. Well, in hindsight it was a godsend because when the pandemic hit, they basically told us ‘hey we we're going to have to shut things down and we don't know when we're gonna be able to film and it's actually going to cost us money to move our stuff and we're just going to have to pay the store it someplace else. Can we store it here until we can film it again?’ And so we said, yeah, and they ended up leasing until close to Thanksgiving that year, so it was like we had no expenses. We were actually making money from the shop at that point, and that was when we sat down and said alright, what are we going to do? How are we going to pivot? Then we came across an article by this guy named Andy Crouch, and this was early on in the pandemic, like this was the weekend that it all shut down and his advice changed the trajectory of our business.  

He basically made an analogy. He's like some people think that the pandemic is going to be like a bad winter or a bad snowstorm. Buckle down for a couple of days and we'll be back in it. He's like they're wrong. Some people think it's going to be like a bad Blizzard, right? It's going to be a few weeks, but we'll get back. He's like some people think that it's going to be a bad winter, let's hold things off for a few months and then let's get back. He's like they're wrong. Instead, the people that are going to thrive are the people that see this change as the Ice Age. It has to fundamentally change the way that you do business. 

So, after reading that, we felt like we had a little bit of an advantage because while all our contemporaries were scrambling to try to pay staff, try to think about how they're going to create a safe space for hospitality, we said, hey, what if we pivot and turn Portrait primarily into an ecommerce business? And what if we spend our time focusing on digital hospitality, and so we pivoted overnight. In those first days if you lived in the Atlanta metro right within a 50 minute drive from where we were downtown, we would do same day deliveries. We would drive and deliver bags of coffee to people’s front doorsteps. We would also ship stuff out, but from where we were at the start, it was actually  going to cost us less on gas than postage to just drive and bring it up to people’s front doorsteps with masks on.   

Early on, we didn't even have a roaster at that time, so we would pack up 300 pounds of coffee into Aaron’s little Mazda (the car’s broke down since then...) Just pack it into there and drive 50 minutes up to Johns Creek at 5:00 AM, roast coffee all day, then come back down and deliver it here or ship it out. People vibed with the story about what we were trying to do, and then just providential connections and resources, and the pandemic went along longer than we thought that it would, and people found the rhythm of being able to make coffee in their homes. 

Visit this link to learn more about Portrait’s Kickstarter campaign and follow along!