A Discussion with Portrait Coffee (Part 3)

In the final installment of our Ratio Journal series with Portrait Coffee, we learn more about the collaborative team that keeps Portrait running, the creative way in which their bags of coffee and subscription offerings go beyond simply providing at home caffeination, and what we can expect from the Portrait team in 2022 and beyond (hint: the shop is opening!).

If you missed the first two parts of our discussion with John Onwuchekwa, you can find part one here and part two here on the Journal.  

You already mentioned Aaron, but who else is on the team at Portrait? 

There's been so many!  

Marcus Hollinger, from a marketing perspective, he's been our guru. He's the one that, when he heard us talking about MARTA, he's like, ‘alright, stop right there!’ And his thing was ‘that right there, that is a million dollar analogy, let's run with it.’ My wife Shandra has also been a part of it. When you think about the aesthetic, the kind of look, the feel, she's very, you know, tactile and design oriented.  

Aaron’s wife Erin Fender, along with Kaya Crittendon took all of our pictures for Instagram, and that was how our story got broadcasted. Our thing at the end of the day was, this is the goal -- people that don't like coffee, but like photography and dope pictures, we want them to follow our page just because they love the excellence with which we do things. So our whole thing was, how do we increase the gravitational pull of what goes on here and just bring in so many people? We felt like, if it's just about coffee, then it's hard to bring in folks, but if it's about a narrative and a story and excellence in empowering and equipping Black and brown folks, there are so many more people that we can bring in to be a part of this narrative and story. 

Khalid Smith early on was the muscle. After the Kickstarter,  things blew up and we would have these pop ups where we would serve free drinks and try to meet people in Atlanta. From day one, hundreds of people would come out, and we would spend hours meeting people and serving free drinks. Every time that we've done them, we had lines wrapped around the buildings and the corners. It is a testament to, one, how much Atlanta represents, and two, whenever we would do a pop up we would always have people like ‘yo, I've tracked with y'all, I live in Ohio! Me and my homie drove down so we could be a part of this!’ We had a girl fly out from LA. It was that type of thing. We saw that the gravitational pull of this thing is bigger than we ever thought that it was.

You pivoted to ecomm during the early days of the pandemic, and you were also roasting at another location. Where are you at now? Are you keeping it ecomm, are you opening a shop, or are you roasting? 

Opening the shop. The trajectory has been crazy in that the basement space of the shop that we had was unused, so we approached the Watkins family. They're the folks that own the building, and they let us sign a five-year lease on the basement, and we turned that into the roastery, and we invested money and bought a roaster and expanded the team. The price of construction for us in the pandemic, doubled. It was like we had a cost and so let's raise that, and then in the middle of it, we're like all right we're ready to build it out and it doubled. So we're still at a spot where we're trying to work out the last little bit of financing for the shop and we're at the finish line. We’re all-in on seeing the cafe launch in the first half of 2022! 

But in the meantime, our team has grown and expanded, and Target.com reached out and they picked us up. And we’re on Trade Coffee and Mistobox -- all these subscriptions, and there's just been so much love shown by so many places. We're working out a deal right now, hopefully to be on the shelves of another large national big box retailer, but I think we have to be quiet about the name right now...  

We want to know more about the coffee you roast and serve and the different subscriptions you offer! We love the nods to many emblematic Black people of past, present and future. 

Early on in the pandemic, with the racial unrest that took place this summer, in these back to back months, we were trucking along, things were good. Then we had this little spot on Good Morning America, and with the racial unrest and all that stuff that hit, there was this huge push for people to support Black owned businesses and to buy Black. And it was great, but we sold out each week, and it was crushing us. One of the things that we felt is in the economy of the world that we live in right now it feels like every business can be and should be a subscription business. That helped us out 'cause being able to predict your income, month to month is huge when you're just getting ready to start out. So we started a subscription and we just told folks the best way to support us is to subscribe. So one of the things that was important to us was in naming our coffees, we wanted to name them after it's special, iconic Black and brown artists, writers, film makers, political activists, all of that in order, one, to honor them, but also to use coffee as a platform to help introduce people that don't know them to them.  

So Toni, we named that after Toni Morrison, my favorite author and I just love her. A person one time asked her, ‘hey Toni, when are you ever gonna, you know, write about white folks?’ And Toni is like that shouldn't be the mark of success. She's like I'm writing these stories about Black and brown folks and they are American stories, even if they don't include their white counterparts. And she was just so  unapologetically chocolate, that when we even thought about how to describe the notes in the coffee,  we wanted to do that. And so when we tell that story, I can't tell you how many people we've been able to introduce to the works of Toni Morrison because of a bag of coffee. 

Barry Jenkins. That's Aaron’s favorite filmmaker. He won the Oscar for Moonlight and we named it after him because we love the way that he captures and displays Black skin on film. We did it as an ode to him and then early on we found out he found out that we did it, and he's a coffee head and he loves coffee and he reached out and reposted. And so it's like that's crazy, right?  

Stacey Abrams for the work that she did in giving Black and brown people a voice. When we were getting ready to put out our first dark roast and make this thing a little darker than the rest of them, we call our dark roast Stacy because we want to honor the amazing work that she's done.  

And then for our subscriptions -- Baldwins Club is one. James Baldwin -- the precision, the fervor, the veracity, the accuracy with which he writes. We love that. 

Ode to Prop Joe. That's from The Wire, and we just love that show and how it paints the complexity of the plight of the inner city. We have a specialty drink named Aunt Viv after Aunt Viv The Fresh Prince. We just want this to thoroughly be this ode to people that have paved the way for us to do what we do. We don't look at it like the only people that have paved the way for us are in coffee. The people that have paved the way for us are people that have thrived or succeeded in any industry. 

As a result of all this -- just the outpouring of support and love, and all that stuff, has been humbling, to say the least. That is the word that evokes the most emotion, but I still feel like it's an understatement to describe what it's meant for us. It has been humbling, mind-blowing, and it's just felt like an honor to be able to serve people and have the people in turn want to serve us. It has just been mind-blowing. 

Where do you feel like you're at in terms of your goal of creating a space that helps support the community in the West End of Atlanta, and also helps change the face of specialty coffee?

In both places I feel like we've set a good foundation at this point. And now in this next year, I'm excited to really see us take off. It kind of feels like these past two years we've had those goals, and in the narrative we've had a rocket ship, but we haven't had a launchpad. These past few years, we've built the launchpad and assembled the team and the crew, and now we're really ready to take off.  

So you think about Portrait Coffee, we started off in 2019, and it was me, Aaron, Marcus and our wives were owners. Aaron was part time staff and we were putting money in. Now, it's like, you think about the staff and we haven't just created jobs, but we've created a number of careers. You're on a trajectory. You're not just being paid a fair wage, but a generous one with upside that brings opportunities for 24-year-olds to 29 -year-olds to be able to own homes in gentrifying communities. That is a foundation that we want to bring folks in.  

So for us, as we think of the home renovation project that is rebuilding the West End, these past two years we've laid a foundation and we've put up all the studs, and now it's like this next year is the fun year that we get to put up sheetrock and paint and decorate and all that and really create this house to invite people into. So that's where we are right now, primed to really fulfill the dreams. I'm a dreamer, I'm somebody that's like, yo let's go let's start now! Aaron has been our guy that's been like, yeah let's dream, but in order for us to really do that, we've got to lay a good foundation, we've got to be able to get the logistics right, and that's why I love our team. We've been able to fulfill the purpose that we have because Aaron has been so focused on the process and trying to make sure that we have our priorities in the right place. Marcus has done a great job of providing a platform to spread far and wide the work that we're trying to do, so that's what we've done here in the West End. We're eager to see this shop launch and then fulfill the promise that we made to the community.  

And then nationally, it just kind of feels like it's been great because we've been able to be a part of a larger story. And that's been our thing, we've never cared about being the picture that comes to mind when people think of specialty coffee. We've been concerned about facilitating the change in it, and it's like there was a group of us that all launched at the same time. People like us, and Cxffeeblack [LINK to Journal about Cxffeeblack] out in Memphis, our good friend Neichelle here, Black Girl Black Coffee, Three Keys Coffee out in Houston, Tio and Kenzel, Propaganda out in LA. He's like our Anthony Bourdain of coffee. And then we've got Delvin Stern with Equatorial Coffee Consultants, and Phyllis Johnson, they're on the importing side. We got Brian Gaffney up in Brooklyn, he helps lead the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. And there's just so many people that we've been able to meet, link up with, and collaborate with. The Chocolate Barista, Michelle Johnson. I kind of feel like I'm at the Oscars trying to name everybody in this short time, but there's this crew that we have that I think we're primed to come together and partner and do some stuff. That's what we wanted. 

Website: portrait.coffee

Instagram: @portraitcoffee