Sponsored by Forest Grove Economic Development
Home Archives August 2006 In Character: Profile of Stumptown Coffee Roasters' Duane Sorenson

In Character: Profile of Stumptown Coffee Roasters' Duane Sorenson

| Print |  Email
Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Brewing a revolution

Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson sees coffee as the perfect platform to change the world.

By Brian Libby

With his tall frame and vintage clothes, Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson cuts an impressive figure. After a meeting next door at Stumptown’s original Division Street café in Southeast Portland, Sorenson heads into the company’s offices in the adjacent Victorian house, where an immaculate white Apple G5 flat-screen computer monitor is sole accoutrement atop his chic mid-century metal desk. Except, of course, for a cup of coffee.

Sorenson is just back from Honduras, one in a long line of trips to the coffee-growing equatorial zone to meet and educate growers while seeking out the best beans. “I’ve only been in Portland about three weeks out of the last four months,” he says, rattling off Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia and Rwanda as recent contributors to a robust frequent-flyer account. “And that takes its toll. I miss my family. But it’s paying off. The quality of coffee that we’ve gotten, especially over the last three years, has been incredible.”

Stumptown has, since its inception in 1999, quickly gained international notice. This spring, Food & Wine magazine rated it as one of the “best boutique roasters” in the world. Sorenson now calls himself Stumptown’s director of coffee, leaving everyday operations largely to others so that he can proselytize about quality growing, roasting and brewing methods.

“He’s very hands-on, with a very great attention to detail,” says Eric Rose, of New Seasons markets, a Portland-based chain that’s one of the few allowed to carry ground Stumptown. “It’s all so we can do the coffee the justice that it deserves.”

Sorenson even goes so far as to instruct pickers on when the coffee beans should be picked. Sound pushy? Keep in mind he also pays more for their product than virtually any other coffee buyer — routinely above the industry’s “fair trade” benchmarks for compensation.  He’s also telling their story, hiring local filmmaker Trevor Fife to make a documentary about Stumptown’s growers in Central and South America. “I think he wants people to rethink the cup of coffee they are drinking and realize that it didn’t get here by the roaster alone,” Fife says.

The marathon traveling means sometimes Sorenson needs to crash. The cell phone goes off and e-mail can go unanswered. Creating the best coffee in the world would be challenge enough for most, but Sorenson is seeking no less than to transform the entire coffee industry.

Earlier this year, for example, Stumptown opened a tasting room next to its café on Southeast Belmont Street in Portland (one of three in the city). Here customers can learn about not only different beans and brews but also the farms where the coffee came from. “It’s empowering them by education,” he says.

Growing up in Tacoma, Sorenson learned about the food industry from his father, a maker of artisan sausage and cured meats. “He was always very selective about using organic producers and growers of cattle and pork,” Sorenson recalls. “That was unheard of back in the ’70s.” The younger Sorenson spent his teens working for his father, but across the street from the family’s sausage kitchen in Seattle, he took notice of a then-relatively small coffee roasting plant called Starbucks. “Those guys just looked cool,” he remembers. “They were wearing shorts and sandals, driving cool Mercedes and Karmann Ghias and playing hacky sack. It was like, ‘I want to work with coffee!’ Plus it smelled great.”

Sorenson worked through college as a barista in Seattle (a coveted job in the grunge-era ’90s) before being promoted to roaster for a small coffee company called Lighthouse. Next he moved to San Diego to head roasting operations for a larger company, but it didn’t take. “Having to get on a freeway to go anywhere, and then having to deal with the machismo, it was like nothing I’d ever seen,” he says. “I was just too uptight.”

In the late 1990s Sorenson bought a circa-1919 Probat coffee roaster and packed his belongings for Portland. When he bought a small storefront 50 blocks from downtown, his friends thought he was crazy. But from there the Stumptown empire has grown steadily.

Sorenson has kept the reins tight. Stumptown now routinely declines offers from other outlets to carry its coffee, and plans little future expansion beyond its three cafés. “We don’t want to get too big too fast in a way that affects quality,” Sorenson explains. Starbucks may have inspired him to leave sausage making for quality, but Stumptown endeavors to remain a boutique roaster and leave the McDonalds-esque ubiquity to others.

It’s a model people respect. Real estate developer Randy Rapaport, who started Portland’s Three Friends Coffee, remembers how Stumptown happily drove him out of the business. “I realized I couldn’t even drink my own coffee anymore,” he says, laughing. “I found myself going to Stumptown. It was so much better.” Sorenson and Rapaport are now friends, sharing a love of indie rock. Rapaport raves about how Sorenson helps members of their favorite bands balance concerts with easy-come-easy-go barista shifts.

But therein lies the dilemma. “Stumptown has a very focused customer niche,” says Mike Ferguson of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “It may not appeal to as broad a customer base. That’s a tough line to walk. But probably less so in Portland than in Kansas City.” Sorenson has decided to strictly limit the amount of cafés Stumptown opens, but even with its ground coffee, there are questions. “Maintaining quality standards becomes harder as you buy more and more,” Ferguson adds. “There’s only so much of the best coffee on the planet to go around.”

Which is why Sorenson isn’t taking any chances. He may have already gone from barista to founder of arguably the best boutique coffee roaster in the world, but soon this coffee crusader will be on the road again — Portland’s own Juan Valdez, but with a Penguin shirt instead of a poncho.


Have an opinion? E-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 

More Articles

Private liberal arts education: superior outcomes, competitive price

Contributed Blogs
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
0826 thumb collegemoneyBY DEBRA RINGOLD | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Why has six years become an acceptable investment in public undergraduate education that over-promises and underperforms?


Read more...

OB Video: Dress for Success

News
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
DFSOBY JESSICA RIDGWAY | OB WEB EDITOR

Dress for Success Oregon promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and career development tools.


Read more...

Updated: Disrupting innovation

News
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
070814 thumb disputive-innovationBY LINDA BAKER  | OB EDITOR

The New Yorker recently published a sharply worded critique of “disruptive innovation,” one of the most widely cited theories in the business world today. The article raises questions about the descriptive value of disruption and innovation  — whether the terms are mere buzzwords or actually explain today's extraordinarily complex and fast changing business environment. 

Update: We caught up with Portland's Thomas Thurston, who shared his data driven take on the disruption controversy.


Read more...

Who said we should sell in May?

Contributed Blogs
Friday, July 18, 2014
BullMarketBY JASON NORRIS | OB GUEST CONTRIBUTOR

Back in May, we shared a common Wall Street quote about investing, “Sell in May and go away.” Fast forward to July and the most common question we have been getting from clients is, “When is the market pullback going to occur?”


Read more...

South Waterfront's revenge

News
Thursday, July 24, 2014
MoodyAveBY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR

Remember the naysayers?  Those who called the South Waterfront aerial tram a boondoggle?  Those who rejoiced at the massive sell off of luxury condos at the John Ross and Atwater Place?


Read more...

Oversight? Or gaming the system?

News
Monday, July 14, 2014
AmazonBY VIVIAN MCINERNY | OB BLOGGER

Some people think Amazon’s winking eye logo is starting to look like a hoodwink.


Read more...

Portland rises

News
Monday, August 18, 2014

IMG 2551Portland is in the middle of another construction boom, with residential and office projects springing up downtown, in the Pearl and Old Town. OB Web Editor Jessica Ridgway documents the new wave.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS