Portrait Coffee opens in West End with a nod to the neighborhood’s history

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

More than three years after first discussing the idea of opening a coffee shop in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, the team behind Portrait Coffee has finally made the dream a reality.

Portrait Coffee’s brick-and-mortar shop opened earlier this month at 1065 Ralph David Abernathy Road in the Lottie Watkins Building, named for the first Black real estate agent in Atlanta who also served in the Georgia House of Representatives and was a civil rights activist (the city of Atlanta is placing a historical marker honoring Watkins at the building later this month).

Aaron Fender and his wife, Erin, partnered with John and Shawndra Onwuchekwa, Marcus Hollinger and Khalid Smith to start Portrait Coffee in 2019, renting out space to roast their coffee and launching a Kickstarter to help build out a roastery on the bottom level of the Watkins Building, along with a coffee shop on the first floor.

Then the pandemic hit, and the group decided to focus on its roasting operation and expand its wholesale and coffee club service, which ships coffee to subscribers nationwide.

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

“We were responding to what our customers were telling us,” Fender said. “A lot of folks were brewing at home during the pandemic, so we really focused on finishing up our production space.”

The roastery was completed in 2021, making 2022 “a moment of resetting and reimagining what we wanted the coffee shop to look like,” Fender said. “We wanted to make sure we opened properly.”

That meant launching a capital campaign earlier this year, with an equity offering to contributors giving them a small stake in the business, allowing Portrait to finish construction.

The result is a 35-seat coffee shop with a 15-seat patio in the historically Black neighborhood much of the team calls home, with general manager Charla Denning at the helm, and a spot that Fender hopes will become a gathering place for the community.

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

The beverage menu will include at least three kinds of drip coffee using beans from countries including Brazil, Honduras, Rwanda and Ethiopia, all roasted on-site. One “classic” Portrait roast like Darker the Cherry will always be available, alongside two rotating blends.

Also on offer are seasonal specialty drinks, including a brown sugar and cardamom latte called Aunt Viv, and a coffee drink on draft (right now, it’s the Cartoons and Cereal, a cereal milk latte), as well as more traditional tea and coffee drinks.

On the food side, Portrait is sourcing sweet and savory pastries from Sarah Dodge of Colette Bread & Bakeshop, including galettes, turnovers and muffins. Items like grain bowls and grab-and-go salads will be added to the menu later this year.

Shawndra Onwuchekwa used the history of the building as the primary inspiration for the design.

“At the time the building was built, this neighborhood was becoming a place of renewal for the Black community,” Onwuchekwa said. “We wanted to take note of the time period, as well as the culture of the neighborhood, and add in a bit of minimal and modern aesthetic. We essentially wanted to create a space that our neighbors, friends and family could be proud of.”

The space also includes art by two local photographers and a muralist and all highlighting Black life.

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

Credit: Courtesy of Portrait Coffee

The decor is a nod to Portrait Coffee’s larger goal of being a part of the West End community and an addition to the rich history of Black-owned businesses in the area.

“Being in this building and honoring (Lottie’s) legacy and the community she built here and having the opportunity to open in the history of what she’s already done is important. I think that’s the part of Black-owned businesses, especially in this neighborhood, that isn’t highlighted enough. When we’re talking about celebrating or patronizing businesses, I hope we’re looking at that through history and not whatever the latest flash in the pan is.”

To that end, Portrait Coffee plans to host events like artist talks and coffee tastings, and to make the space available for rentals.

“At our core, we’re a hospitality company,” Fender said. “I think our customers already have a bit of understanding of what that means, but it’ll be so much easier to convey that now that we can physically serve them coffee and have conversations with them.”

8 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. 1065 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta. portrait.coffee

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