Grounds Control

New competition mght be a boon for Stumptown Coffee Roasters

By Mike Thelin July 20, 2009 Published in the August 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

PORTLANDERS WERE JUST LEARNING HOW TO properly pronounce macchiato when Stumptown Coffee Roasters poured its first fairly traded, expertly roasted, hipster-approved cup of joe at its original SE Division Street café. The company hasn’t looked back since: 10 years, three cities, eight cafés, and approximately eight billion New York Times mentions later, the company has become an emblem—and an export—of Portland’s enviro-indie culture (the company recently opened a couple of New York City cafés and a roasting facility in an artsy Brooklyn neighborhood). But there’s trouble brewing at home: Stumptown is facing more competition than ever within the very market it helped to create.

Smaller boutique roasters such as Ristretto Roasters have cropped up in Portland over the past few years, but Stumptown has generally held the largest share of the high-end café business, with nearly 300 Portland accounts. Increasingly, however, beans from highly respected out-of-town roasting companies are finding their way into the cups at P-town’s top independent coffee shops.

This spring, Chicago’s Intelligentsia, arguably Stumptown’s biggest competitor in New York, picked up its first three PDX accounts—among them Barista, shot-pulling champ Billy Wilson’s new shop, which also serves Stumptown. Seattle’s Caffé Vita has grown to service about 30 Portland accounts since entering the market a few years ago. In fact, Vita is even talking to local design shop Skylab Architecture about potentially building a sleek roasting facility and café in Portland; if that happens, it will be the first time one of Stumptown’s boutique coffee competitors marks its territory in the Rose City.
It’s a happy situation for Portlanders, who now have more options for getting their buzz on. But, perhaps surprisingly, the out-of-state competition also could be a boon for Stumptown—it might just allow the company to shake the “monopoly” stigma it’s acquired in recent years.

Despite its success, the local roaster has suffered some backlash from former fans who see it as having become too big. Critics in the blogosphere lament the fact that Stumptown has saturated the Portland market, and fear that it wants to do the same elsewhere. In one recent New York Press article, a Portland-based writer even compared Stumptown to Starbucks.

As any coffee roaster grows, controlling bean quality becomes more difficult, so some criticism is warranted—but similarities to the Seattle-based coffee giant are far-fetched (Stumptown has 8 cafés; Starbucks has more than 16,000). Such criticism, though, can be expected when you’re the only high-profile independent roaster in town. It’s easy to become a target—of both criticism and praise.

“People said we were getting too big when we opened our second café on Belmont [Street],” says Stumptown’s director of operations, Matt Lounsbury, noting that the company employs only 120 people.

Of course, discomfort with a beloved brand’s success isn’t a purely Portland phenomenon: consumers in any city can be protective of their brands. (Although when you’re talking about something as fundamentally rooted in Northwest culture as coffee, Portlanders can get persnickety.)

“People consume products they feel symbolize who they are and what they believe,” says Vincent Miller, a renowned theologian at the University of Dayton in Ohio who studies consumer culture. “As companies expand into large markets to be consumed by different populations, sometimes the local perception of the company can change, even if the product has not.”

It’s not unlike the backlash against an indie band that signs with a major label: the music may not have changed, but listeners’ perceptions of it do when it becomes available to people outside of its hometown.

Ultimately, though, the arrival of equally admired, sizable roasters on Stumptown’s home turf may help patch some Portlanders’ fraying bond with the brand. After all, even the most disgruntled Blazers fan quiets down when the Lakers come to town.

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