// Photo by Justin Tunis
Both the North Williams and Schoolhouse cafés got under way after the developers asked Johnson to locate in their buildings.
And those unintimidating baristas? Johnson hires employees, many of whom receive health insurance, for the long-term; his very first employee now manages the North Williams café. Nurturing a stable work force has helped Ristretto expand even amid a recession and a doubling of coffee prices in recent years, he says. As margins tighten, employees are expected to grow their jobs, implement “operational efficiencies and bring ideas to the table.” Ristretto’s participatory culture extends to the frequent parties Johnson and Rommelmann host for staff; management and employees also take annual trips to the Sandy River. “We hang out together,” Johnson says.
A family-owned business, Ristretto has grown without investors, says Johnson with some pride, a fact he attributes in part to the relatively low cost of starting up a shop in Portland. “It’s been a bit of a crapshoot,” he acknowledges, singling out the decision to open a store on then-undeveloped North Williams as particularly risky. “But look at it now,” says Johnson, referring to the street’s thriving mix of shops, restaurants and housing developments.
In a town crazy for coffee, Ristretto offers the requisite cuppings — coffee tastings — and Johnson takes the sourcing of his coffee beans seriously, making regular visits to Central and South American growers “to relay standards for cup quality.” But unlike a new wave of elite Portland micro-roasters, accessibility, not exclusivity, is Ristretto’s game. Until recently, Beaumont customers could watch Johnson in the café’s glass walled roasting chamber, and Johnson says future growth will continue to be guided by community-oriented partnerships with other local businesses. “I like to keep things where I can see them,” he says, adding he has no plans to expand outside of Portland.
Not that he’s entirely closing off the possibility of following in the footsteps of local forbearer Stumptown Coffee, which opened stores in Manhattan a few years ago. “My wife is from New York,” says Johnson. “You never know.”