Made in Georgia: Coffee company in West End is ‘pouring a new narrative’

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Aaron Fender, CEO and co-founder of Portrait Coffee, describes himself as an avid learner. That proved helpful, since Fender said he learned his trade as a coffee roaster by “picking a lot of people’s brains.”

Portrait Coffee got its start in March 2019, when Fender and his wife, Erin, committed to the idea of opening a coffee shop in Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, along with co-founders John and Shawndra Onwuchekwa, Marcus Hollinger and Khalid Smith. “We love the idea of shared spaces, where we can gather as a community, but West End, where I live, lacked those spaces,” Fender said. “We started talking about what would it look like to have a coffee shop in our community.”

They raised money on Kickstarter and received a grant from Google for Startups’ Black Founders Fund. In February 2020, they signed a lease on a building in West End. The pandemic put a pause on plans for the coffee shop, but it didn’t stop them from creating a roastery and focusing on e-commerce and online subscriptions.

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

“We said we wanted to roast the coffee for our cafe, but we weren’t thinking we would be a wholesaler of specialty coffee,” Fender said. “But, while we talked about how we were going to open a cafe in a pandemic, we started roasting coffee and started our coffee club subscriptions.”

Although Fender had worked as a barista almost a decade earlier, he and his partners had no experience roasting coffee. Their journey fell right in line with their branding, “Pouring a new narrative.”

Becoming coffee roasters was “learn as you go,” Fender said, involving “a whole lot of YouTube videos, a whole lot of cuppings, a lot of texts and calls and conversations with friends in the coffee community. Turns out, coffee roasting is a process of experimenting to find what works for you.”

The first coffee Portrait put on the market was called Founders, which Fender said was inspired by Waffle House coffee. “When we were talking with people about what they want from their coffee, it would come back to Waffle House — a little nuttiness, a little sweetness, a pretty bold and well-rounded flavor.”

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Credit: Erin Fender

Credit: Erin Fender

The company now has nine coffees available. Darker the Cherry is the newest variety, a Brazilian coffee with notes of toasted nuts and chocolate. Other coffee blends pay homage to individuals. The Stacey blend is named after political activist Stacey Abrams, and Barry honors Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins. There also are two single-origin coffees available, one from Colombia and the other from Ethiopia, with more to come.

“Coffee bean harvests are seasonal, just like vegetables and fruit,” Fender said. “Some of our customers really look forward to the time when fresh beans come in. We’ll have coffee from Kenya this summer.”

Fender enjoys the back-and-forth with customers who ask for advice on what coffee they should try. “It’s definitely a conversation,” he said. “A lot of folks buy three bags of coffee to find their sweet spot.”

Credit: Erin Fender

Credit: Erin Fender

And, when they do, they quite often order a 5-pound bag. “We started with the 5-pound bags for our wholesale business,” Fender said, “but it’s been interesting to see how many people drink a lot of coffee at home. Many of our coffee subscriptions are for those 5-pound bags.”

For now, the core business at Portrait is the coffee roasting, as well as sales to consumers and to cafes across the country. But, for those who want to enjoy the coffee in that shared community space that was part of the original Portrait vision, Fender said they are in the final stage of construction of the coffee shop.

After working on “perfecting our craft” as coffee roasters, he said, “it’s nice to now hone in on who we want to be, and what we want to offer to our community. It’s been a long journey, and an expensive one.”

But, soon, he said, they will “deliver on the promise we offered our neighborhood.”

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