Inside Upper Left Roasters’ New Downtown Portland Cafe

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Originally built in 1909, the iconic Meier & Frank building was once home to some of Portland’s busiest department stores. Now in 2019, with the wrap-up of a multi-million dollar landmark renovation project, the building is now home to the second outpost of Portland’s very own Upper Left Roasters.

“Growing up here, I visited this building to come to Macy’s. Now I own a coffee shop here and it’s very surreal,” says Upper Left co-owner and CEO Katherine Harris. The multi-year remodel in the heart of downtown Portland includes a sprawling 10,000-square-foot outpost of Japanese homewares and lifestyle brand MUJI, as well as mixed-use retail and commercial offices across 15 floors spanning an entire city block.

Upper Left has made a name for itself over the past three years at their original location in SE Portland, anchoring a sun-drenched corner of Ladd’s Addition, the leafy planned neighborhood of parks and stately homes designed in a “wagon wheel” shape inspired by Washington D.C. From the in-house roaster to the sunlit interior, Upper Left has set down roots in Portland and has become a staple in the coffee community—the cafe still feels quite like nothing else in the city. For this new project downtown, going from their own brick and mortar shop to fitting in as a piece of a 40,000-square-foot project came with a host of new challenges. Harris and her team embraced the process as they worked to integrate their coffee company into this brand new space.

“This opportunity to work on this project with Meier & Frank has been fulfilling because of how the team came together,” Harris said. “This project takes a whole team, and we’re getting better every day as a team.”

The teamwork does not begin and end with Upper Left solely; in addition to MUJI, the building is also home to The Nines hotel and its nationally regarded restaurant, Departure, helmed by two-time James Beard Award semifinalist (and Top Chef finalist) Gregory Gourdet. This district of Portland is packed with retail options, restaurants, and coffee bars; with other popular brands in the vicinity, it took a pointed effort from Upper Left, the adjoining businesses, and the design team to make sure each individual brand identities would cut through, rather than blending in.

Katherine Harris.

“Our brand translating was important. We wanted to preserve our minimalism, clean lines, and thoughtful construction,” Harris said.

Although they achieved in bringing their aesthetic to life in the lobby, this part of Portland is very fast-paced. From people going to work or shopping at local retail stores, it’s a toss-up whether customers will get the coffee shop vibe when shortly visiting. With Upper Left, Harris ensured they get the full shop experience in a short period of time.

“No matter where you are, everyone wants great customer service. We want to create a visually appealing place to enjoy your coffee,” explained Harris. “What your coffee tastes like and the experience you have is extremely important.”

One of the highlights of this new location is their menu, and how it caters to the space. Harris felt that they needed to be very intentional when selecting the options. The team checked all boxes when curating their menu, from customers schedules, the size of the space, and even how the food smelled in the lobby.

Speaking of food, Upper Left’s original location is well-regarded for its cafe menu, and at the downtown shop there are some new menu items to check out. Definitely get the new bagel sandwich, featuring ponzu cream cheese, avocado, and Asian chili salt. They also offer avocado toast with nut butter; both are solid food options for people to enjoy in-house or on the go. Whether ordering a cortado or picking up a bag of Guatemala Chapina, the coffee portion of the menu strikes a similar tone to the brand’s original location, focusing on roast quality and sourcing. However, one stark contrast between the two locations is the exclusion of pour-over service downtown, in an effort to minimize wait times. Perhaps to help speed things up and with summer just around the corner, Upper Left are kegging their original cold brew as well as a single-origin cacao nib nitro cold brew, and offering an array of tea options courtesy of Steven Smith and Tea Bar.

Behind the coffee bar, they have a La Marzocco Linea Classic two-group, paired with Mahlkönig EK43 and Mazzer Major espresso grinders. Batch brew happens via a trusty Curtis Brewer.

Since their opening on December 20, the shop has been creating a buzz in downtown Portland. Although the holiday months and start of the New Year can often be slow for downtown—which really comes alive during the summer international tourist season—Upper Left has seen a steady stream of traffic, even with only weekday hours. For Harris, this shop opening in this building isn’t simply a plot in a popular area, it’s nostalgic.

“It’s an honor to have a coffee shop in this historic building. I’m excited to be downtown and encounter new types of customers.” And downtown seems pretty pumped to have them, too.

Upper Left Roasters is located at 555 SW Morrison, Portland. Visit their official website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Giovanni Fillari is a social media manager at Nike and the publisher of @coffeefeedpdx. Read more Giovanni Fillari for Sprudge.

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