When news broke in 2011 that Duane Sorenson's caffeine fiefdom had been partly sold, many observers—this newspaper included—expected big changes at Stumptown Coffee Roasters and its cafes were imminent. TSG Consumer Partners, the private equity firm that purchased a stake in Stumptown, is reputed to flip its acquisitions for big profits five to seven years after buying, so strip-mall franchises and a line of Nespresso pods seemed just around the corner.
Instead, Stumptown's movements have been less like a thick gush of espresso and more like the slow, steady droplets from a Kyoto cold brew drip tower. None has individually made a big splash, but gradually, drip by drip, they add up.
Case in point: A few weeks ago, news came that the company had ceased brewing its standard coffee in French presses at its Portland stores, switching to an automatic drip machine. That may sound like small potatoes, but it marked the end of an era, and further exemplified the brand's move from grungy local coffeehouse to a bean-counting (sorry), streamlined business, with more than 200 employees nationwide.
At such a moment, it seemed like an appropriate time to stop and take stock of what has been happening at one of Portland's most iconic companies in the almost three years since it was sold.
At the time of the sale, Sorenson cited his desire to expand into new territories as one of the major motivations behind the move, telling The New York Times that he had his eye set on Chicago and San Francisco. Instead, the company has branched out into just one new city: Los Angeles, where it opened a cafe and roastery on the outskirts of downtown in September 2013. Earlier that year, it also opened another cafe in New York City—partially out of necessity, no doubt, as its Red Hook roastery took a battering from Hurricane Sandy—but moving its flagship commercial operation from a sleepy Brooklyn neighborhood to a sizeable property in yuppy, tourist-heavy Greenwich Village must have been a serious investment and undertaking.
Though Stumptown continues to resist the lure of selling branded T-shirts (which shows great will power, because it would surely make a mint flogging those things from its Ace Hotel location), other products have been slowly creeping onto store shelves. Cafes now sell $12 mugs (having previously sold limited-edition sets of four "designer" mugs for $100) and $25 Klean Kanteens, plus $120 to $420 brewing kits that come with a grinder, brewer, branded mug and, inexplicably, a branded carpenter's pencil.
In three years on the market, Stumptown's deep-brown "stubbies" of cold brew have become as synonymous with the brand name as maroon espresso cups and tattooed baristas. Now the company is heading deeper into the ready-to-drink market, releasing handsome cartons dubbed "Cold Brew With Milk" into the local market in January. The addition of milk to the brew is actually less notable than the addition of—gasp!—sugar. This moves the brand further from its original coffee-purist demographic and into the mainstream market, competing with the likes of Starbucks' bottled Frappuccino. A hint of things to come may have been found on a recent visit to the Greenwich Village cafe, which was promoting a drink with cold brew, milk and mulling spices—embarrassingly called a "Winter Cheer."
If anyone knows about slinging trendy bottled beverages on supermarket shelves, it's Stumptown's new president, Joth Ricci. In fact, the former chief executive of Seattle's Jones Soda and board member at newcomer Dry Soda is probably behind the Cold Brew With Milk innovation—he told BevNET earlier this year that he was inspired by Starbucks and, er, International Delight, which makes York Peppermint Pattie and white chocolate mocha-flavored coffee creamers.
A rotating lineup of snacks from Portland's finest bakeries previously populated the pastry cases at local Stumptown cafes, but that all changed when Sorenson opened his own bakery last July. The cafes' croissants and cookies are still made elsewhere, but the bakery is a nod to the sprawling local empire of eateries the Stumptown founder has opened in recent years—and where his focus is now. In addition to Roman Candle, there is Italian restaurant Ava Gene's, the Woodsman Tavern and adjoining Woodsman Market.