Totally Stumped

Written by Ethan Epstein on . Posted in Posts.

Wake up, New York! You’re supposed to be the city that doesn’t take any bullshit, the city that chews up the phonies and spits ‘em out! Are you really going to be bamboozled by a bunch of pseudo-hipsters from Portland, Oregon? Are you really going to fall for Stumptown Coffee?

I’m an East Coast refugee myself, having just finished up four years of college here in Portland. I’ve been indoctrinated into its style and, more importantly, its most popular coffee roaster and chain of cafés, Stumptown. Since owner and self-styled coffee guru Duane Sorenson opened his first Portland roastery in 1999, he has overseen a massive expansion throughout the hipper zips of the Pacific Northwest. Positioning his business as a kind of anti-corporate coffee purveyor—one concerned with the environment, trade practices and preserving local character—Sorenson now counts five Portland Stumptown cafés and two Seattle locations in his portfolio. Alas, he is now set to take New York City: Sorenson’s Brooklyn roastery should be open soon as well as his first local café, which is located in the rockstar-ready Ace Hotel, located on West 29th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

Portland has already bought into the brand: It’s hard to walk (or, ahem, bike) a block in the trendier districts of this city without coming across a café with a banner across the front that reads we proudly serve stumptown coffee. It’s already begun in NYC. One can find the famed beans at over a dozen coffee shops in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, including The John Dory, Momofuku Milk Bar, Frankies Spuntino and Marlow & Sons. We’ve even seen a Stumptown tiramisu served for dessert at a trendy Cobble Hill restaurant.

Stumptown shouldn’t be mistaken for the bohemian paradise that its owner and his legions of promoters and sycophants would have you believe. Like Starbucks, the company it professes to abhor, Stumptown provides a ready-made, generic bohemianism, one where people know exactly what to expect. Stumptown’s current strategy is essentially a retread of Starbucks’ corporate model from more than a decade ago.

Think about it: A Pacific Northwest coffee company presents itself as a caffeinated proselytizer to the masses, awakening people to coffee that is purportedly delicious, ethical and hip. Of course, in the past few years, what with its ubiquity in airports and suburban strip-malls (complete with drive-thrus!) Starbucks has lost its edge. Enter Stumptown.

But not everyone is convinced. East Village stalwart Ninth Street Espresso has remained on the vanguard of coffee culture in NYC (other than the original location off Avenue C, they have a shop on Tompkins Square and in the Chelsea Market) and used to serve Stumptown. “We were the feather in the cap for [Sorenson] when he got in New York,” says owner Ken Nye. “We were his first prominent client.” The relationship went sour a little less than a year after their initial partnership. Nye is prudent when discussing the reasons for no longer hocking Sorenson’s beans, but he did say that they stopped serving it because “we want to be more hands-on and more involved in selecting coffees and blends.”

Ninth Street’s imprimatur was important to NYC’s coffee connoisseurs, since Sorenson’s coffee brand is selling something far more costly, transcendent—and insidious—than mere cups of joe: Stumptown sells inclusion and identification with a culturally elite segment of society. (Term it, perhaps, the counter-cultural elite.) Add to that the fact that it’s doing this by promoting an allegedly virtuous form of consumption known as fair trade.  

Let me back up for a bit and explain a little about the milieu from which Stumptown arose. If you’ve learned most of what you know about Portland from reading the New York Times, you may be surprised to learn that—despite the fact that the town is some 80 percent Caucasian—it’s also extremely culturally divided. The majority of the city is made up of solidly working- or middle-class folks who live in tidy three-bedroom homes, work 9 to 5, drive cars or small pickup trucks. Many even wear non-ironic cowboy hats. (Hey, this is the West.)

But then there’s that small ring through the inner southeastern quadrant that covers maybe 15 percent of the city. This is the part of Portland that the Times can’t shut up about. While most of Portland may be characterized by mustachioed men blasting Toby Keith (he’s a country singer, New Yorkers) out of their SUVs, within Inner Southeast, one is more likely to see cyclists wearing T-shirts that bray one less suv. In Inner Southeast, the flags are Tibetan, the cowboy hats are decidedly ironic and the coffee is definitely, without question, Stumptown. Perhaps no product has come to embody the Inner Southeast Portland attitude—and its complementary elitism—than these precious coffee beans.

Walk into the original Stumptown café on Division Street in Southeast Portland, and you may think you’re witnessing a TV-show parody. The cement floor. The chalkboard boasting the handwritten list of items available. The soft tones of Portland-based wuss rock seeping through the speakers. On a recent spring afternoon, the clientele was positively pitch-perfect as well: A row of skinny young men with thick, ironic glasses and tight jeans sat listening to their iPods and typing into their Macbooks, while three dreadlocked white girls sipped cappuccinos. A few tortured artists clad in all black smoked outside. It was a nearly convincing slice of intellectually elite bohemian life—although it did bear an eerie aura of familiarity. Only then did I realize the obvious: all five Portland Stumptown locations are identical. Even the handwritten blackboard menu is in exactly the same handwriting in each café!

I’m not so naive; I understand the attitude is simply a marketing strategy. To visit Stumptown—like Starbucks—is not to take risks. You don’t need to attempt something different, something edgy, something alive. It is merely a soul-deadening, corporate version of what “hip” should look like to those in Southeast Portland. When even the allegedly “handwritten” sign turns out to be mass-produced, any hope of authenticity, of vitality, is lost.

Perhaps Stumptown’s shrewdest move, however, is to market consumption of its products as a form of virtue. Like the marketing arm of any remotely intelligent corporation aiming at the wallets of lefty twenty and thirty-somethings, Stumptown knows the buzzwords to hit: “sustainable,” “local” and “fair trade” being three of the most important. When I spoke with a manager at a well-known Portland coffee shop affiliated with Stumptown (who spoke to me under condition of anonymity), he informed me that, as of last month, the supposedly “local” and “sustainable” Stumptown was still flying its beans to its New York roastery via Portland.

We spoke with Matt Lounsbury, director of operations for Stumptown in Portland, and he confirmed that the Red Hook roastery—which will be home base for distribution and training in New York—is set to open “any day now.” In the meantime, for those whom “carbon footprint” is not simply a punch line may also be disconcerted to learn that that beans flown from Africa are crossing North America twice.

But it’s the “fair trade” label that may be the most problematic. Fair trade is used with near-religious fervor in Stumptown literature. The recent hagiography in New York magazine, which referred to Sorenson as “the Messiah,” noted that, “all would-be vendors [of Stumptown coffee] attend mandatory barista training as well as a three-hour class that includes a PowerPoint presentation and a video about El Injerto, one of the Guatamalan coffee farms Stumptown works with.” Moreover, its website and official literature make frequent reference to its “direct trade” program, a grade above fair trade that ensures importers pay good wages to farmers. The message: To buy from Stumptown is to practice a benevolent form of capitalism.

Tragically, fair trade coffee practices distort the laws of supply and demand, thereby leaving a country like, say, Guatemala, with far more coffee growers than it needs. A story published in the Christian Science Monitor last year noted that fair trade buyers such as Stumptown, “artificially lure [farmers] away from perusing better-paying jobs that would enrich the diversity of a developing country’s economy.” Thanks to fair trade buying practices, poor rural countries see “more land destruction [and] more dependency on a single cash crop. It’s a subsidy that undercuts the very sustainability fair traders want to promote.” That is to say, fair trade practices like Stumptown’s pervert the natural functioning of agricultural markets in poor countries. Fair trade causes untold harm by giving incentives for growing coffee beans for Western consumption at the expense of growing, say, a local staple food. Stumptown’s over-caffeinated sense of self-righteousness is particularly insidious in this case: Rwanda needs food, not to export coffee to the United States.

Let’s not forget the questionable—if not outright noxious—notion that consuming can ever be a truly noble activity. Indeed, it is particularly damaging that would-be activists here in Portland believe that they can satisfy their craving for improving the world by simply satisfying their craving for a latte. A more bankrupt—and in the case of Stumptown, a more wrong-headedly self-righteous—form of “activism” would be hard to imagine. By cloaking his breakneck expansion plans in the language of altruism, Sorenson takes advantage of the genuinely well-meaning people who feel that they are making a positive difference by patronizing his establishments.

OK, OK, that all may be true, but you love coffee. And Stumptown is supposedly the best, right?

According to New York, “coffee can be objectively measured, to a point.” Indeed, we are informed that there exists a “flavor profile,” which rates coffees on a hundred-point scale of quality. (Evidently, an organization called the Cup of Excellence is the arbiter of these things.) Funny thing about that article, though: It doesn’t actually reveal where Stumptown’s blends fall on that scale. A little digging doesn’t tell us much, either. One of the company’s quality control officers recently informed me that the results are used, “for the most part, internally.” I can’t help but suspect that this lack of forthrightness merely confirms what my tongue has been telling me for years: the coffee just ain’t that tasty.

Take Stumptown’s signature blend and top-selling coffee, the Hair Bender. While Stumptown’s literature likes to boast about its transparency and openness in its cultivation and roasting—to the point of identifying the obscure Rwandan villages in which certain beans are harvested—the customer has no idea what exactly is in the Hair Bender. Like Big Mac sauce, Hair Bender is a secretive mix.

Avoiding details about “quality” or “origin,” Stumptown’s literature simply tells us that Hair Bender features “coffee components from the three major growing regions of Latin America, East Africa and the Pacific Rim.” Thanks! Now, that’ll be just $12 a pound!

The coffee’s cachet can obviously work its magic. Roots Café opened in December in Park Slope, serving Stumptown since its genesis. Owner Jamey Hamm says that they wouldn’t have been such a success without these magic beans.

“Basically I did zero advertising for my place, and people just follow Stumptown just ‘cuz,” explains Hamm. “The coffee itself does its own advertising. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

That’s the sort of success every entrepreneur dreams of but few achieve, so it makes sense that, despite the counter-cultural elite marketing mind games, Hamm goes on to praise the brand: “They are really super cool. Duane swings by and hangs out all the time.”

But we’ve seen how this plays out before, and we can either wait to see if Stumptown will transform coffee consumption once Sorenson’s messianic message takes root, or we can let the bean brawl begin. In a hilarious bit of historical deafness and pomposity, the Stumptown website claims that its 1999 opening “started a coffee revolution.” If that is the case, I implore New Yorkers, then, to commence a
coffee restoration.

Additional reporting by Sarah Stern