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August 18th, 2004 Ellen Fagg | News Stories
 

Boiling Over

The hard work of serving locally correct coffee.

     
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HARRIET FASENFEST
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
In Portland, the opening or closing of a coffee shop typically garners little attention. But then, Groundswell Cafe was never your typical java joint. Next week the 4-year-old cafe at 1800 NE Alberta St. will have a new name, Random Order Coffeehouse, and new management.

Groundswell's departing owner and founder, Harriet Fasenfest, might be shutting off the hot plate, but she's not ready to shut up. Ellen Fagg, WW's arts and culture editor, asked Fasenfest what caused her to call it quits. She was served up an earful about the changing Alberta neighborhood, the nature of business and the plain damn hard work of serving community along with the coffee.

Specifically, the caffeine queen complained about the threat of increased competition from local do-gooder chain Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Is this flaunting of local indie cred a valid way to question consumer choices in a global economy? Or just a bunch of froth? Here are excerpts of Fasenfest's comments, edited for brevity and clarity.

"What's next? I think I'm going to sit still for a little bit. And try to digest this experience, and write about the nature of business today, the question of what a true local market district means, the reality of revitalization versus regentrification.

"We have an economic system that is non-sustainable. If you go to a big box, get all your stuff at a big-box store, how is a small hardware store on Main Street going to survive?

"In my mission statement, I called it 'finance squatting.' I was going to be in the space on Main Street, before all of them were gone.

"We're a small coffeehouse. We bought coffee from Stumptown. There are rumors that Stumptown Coffee is moving onto Killingsworth. You can't be a wholesaler and a retailer at the same time. I would say that probably was the nail that made me realize I'm too old and tired to spin a new tale, to fight for my clientele.

"Am I whining? Groundswell was always a mission-related business, and now it's more of a business-related business.

"Originally it was going to be performance art, salons at North Star Ballroom, then I was going to do it with the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. At first, with the space at 18th Avenue and Alberta, I thought: I'll just put in a little espresso stand.

"I thought it was a gallery, a community space, a think tank--and you can get some coffee.

"The experience of hanging out in the coffeehouse is by nature a sort of a younger person's occupation. I'm 50 years old. I'm like somebody's hip mother who still listens to Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. I think that people of my generation, they know how to fix themselves a great breakfast, a great cup of coffee--or they're in the methadone program.

"The cafe--it was hard. Buy food. Sell food. Buy more food. It was really hard. I stopped doing the newsletter, the gallery, the community events--because after the party was over, I still had to make rice pudding.

"It's successful because I became more and more of a cafe. And I wanted it be, for good or bad, a community space, a think-fucking tank, whatever that goddamn means.

"Probably in the end I don't know that I love today's business climate. There is nothing that you buy any single moment of the day that you are not affecting the global economy. That's the dialogue that goes on constantly in my head.

"But then nothing is ever very simple with me. I question whether or not any of us should be buying anything. Should we be drinking all that coffee?"

SHOT FOR SHOT

Over at Stumptown, company founder Duane Sorenson says he's no empire builder. He emphasizes his company's feel-good brand of localism, bragging about providing health care and other benefits to his company's 40 employees, while paying top dollar to green coffee growers in Nicaragua and Panama. Yes, he says, the company, which has two retail stores in Southeast and one in Old Town, is considering an expansion into North Portland. But any launch is at least a year away. As for Fasenfest, he says, "There's a position available for Harriet at Stumptown."


Before opening Groundswell in June 2000, Fasenfest dished out delectables, and side orders of political wisdom, at Bertie Lou's and Harriet's Eat Now.

Fasenfest says she's still peeved at WW for poking fun of her earnest mission statement (as well as the paper's own) in "Kvetchfest III" (WW, April 16, 2003).

 
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