Portrait Coffee in West End is all about disrupting the traditional coffee-shop model

The company's goal is "to pour a new narrative of the picture that comes to mind when you think of specialty coffee," says founder John Onwuchekwa

Portrait Coffee
The Portrait Coffee team during a pop-up at Full Commission, right to left: founder John Onwuchekwa, team member Kiyah Crittendon, founder Aaron Fender, and Full Commission coffee manager Brynn del Risco.

Photograph courtesy of Portrait Coffee

When John Onwuchekwa first moved to Atlanta 11 years ago, he parked his car and hopped on a MARTA train. He rode from the airport to North Springs for months to get to know the city, and as the train traveled north, the Houston-born pastor noticed more Black folks getting off, and more white folks getting on.

“Also, the [view] outside of the train changes,” Onwuchekwa says. “The further you go up north, the more the economic conditions of our city improve. So literally, what you see is Black and brown folks getting off the train before they can take advantage of the opportunities that surround them.”

As a coffee enthusiast, he saw parallels to the supply chain in the $225 billion coffee industry: Black and brown folk at the southernmost end literally growing the coffee, yet further “up the supply chain,” predominantly white ownership of brands selling $18 pounds of specialty coffee in a store. To help disrupt this status quo, he and his wife Shawndra, partnered with fellow coffee hobbyist, Aaron Fender, his wife, Erin, and friends Marcus and Ansara Hollinger, to launch Portrait Coffee just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We chatted with John and Aaron via Zoom recently to learn more about the business. 

I love this idea of your tagline, “pouring a new narrative.” What does that mean?
One of the first things Frederick Douglass did when he finally learned how to read and write was [to write] a narrative of his life. It was a way for him to insert himself back into a history that was often too eager to forget the people who helped build it. As we think of coffee, we tend to feel like the industry as a whole is the exact same thing. We wanted to start a shop, trying to pour a new narrative of the picture that comes to mind when you think of specialty coffee.

How did you come together to form Portrait?
I started as barista in 2012 in Atlanta and worked my way up the ranks. I had the opportunity to travel to Africa in 2016, and it was really interesting to see no matter where you are in the world, Black people suffer. Why? It was a burden.

John: We’d become friends, and a few years ago we just looked at the community we were a part of. The West End is an opportunity desert. There are not a lot of ways out for kids that live here, nor ways to improve economic conditions of community. We felt if it was done right, coffee could be an industry that was introduced into our community that could also serve to improve it. We just said, “Hey, what would it look like to start a cafe in the West End, and see what happens?”

You successfully raised about $30,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and then, a pandemic.
We signed our lease two weeks before COVID hit. We were getting ready to build and then March 12: Don’t come into contact with other people. Threw a wrench in the plan.

Aaron: We, as a team, read this article called “Welcome to the Ice Age.” To paraphrase, the analysis was that, you should prepare for the Ice Age—realize the world as we know it will never be the same. As a team, we asked, if this is true, what do we do? Initially our business plan and marketing were built off this idea of building community through pop-ups and in-person events. Very quickly it was like, we can’t do that. Instead, we asked, “What does digital hospitality look like?” We started doing a lot of Instagram Live interviews with entrepreneurs, artists, and thinkers to build community. We started a coffee delivery service to your doorstep. We made a coffee club coffee subscription. Overnight we built our business through e-commerce and are focusing on that while we wait for a vaccine, I guess.

How does the subscription service work?
You can choose to have coffee delivered to your doorstep either once a week, twice a week, or once a month.

John: For a time, if you lived in Atlanta, Aaron would drive the coffee right to your front doorstep. That was cool until we got overrun with support and love from our city. Now we the postman is gonna bring it to you.

You’ve mentioned before your beans go through a pretty intense roasting process?
It’s kind of a strenuous process, but pretty fun. Right now we’re roasting in someone else’s facility. We’ll roast anywhere from 250-350 pounds a day. I have my laptop plugged into the roaster, and I’m studying the data of the different temps and curves. This morning, I tried a new profile for [our blend called] Toni. It’s a naturally-processed Brazilian bean. John and I were doing quality control: Is there the sweetness we want? Is there the acidity we want? Stuff like that.

There’s a funny episode of Curb your Enthusiasm where Larry David opens a coffee shop and is obsessed with procuring the right beans. Can you relate to that?
We saw that! I would say it’s a balance to have the right beans, and the technique. There are over 40 countries from which we could import high quality coffee across the globe. John and I have found a lot of joy in taking coffees that some people would call ordinary—say a Brazilian coffee—making this the best cup of coffee possible. Other beans are more coveted, like [our most popular] Ethiopian guji. Ethiopia is like the motherland of coffee. We put the same attention and energy into making sure that’s the perfect coffee, too.

This Black Lives Matter moment has shined a spotlight on more Black-owned businesses and prompted investment in Black communities. Do you think it’s a trend, or is it going to stick?
As an entrepreneur, and just as a person, I think this is different. With all that is going on, there’s a unique sense of unity and solidarity that has enabled people to empathize more. On the one hand, we’re grateful for the increased support and attention. People are trying to be charitable, though we don’t receive it in that light because we believe in what we do. We’re grateful for whatever reason folks have tuned in and turned the channel to us. We think that we have something compelling that’s going to force them to stick around for a bit.

Your flavor blends are named for iconic Black figures. Tell us more.
Our Toni coffee is an ode to Toni Morrison—my favorite author and my wife’s favorite author. [Morrison] did so much to shape not just Black folks, but also the picture that comes to mind when people think of Black culture. We’re grateful for her unapologetic Blackness. The coffee is savory smooth and unapologetically chocolate.

Aaron: Another is called Barry because Barry Jenkins [director of Oscar-winning film Moonlight] is favorite filmmaker. If you look on our Instagram, he ended up buying the coffee and reposting it. I love the creativity and detail he brings to filmmaking, and that’s how I like to think about business and life. The notes are berry, juicy, and well-balanced.

How do you guys each take your coffee?

Aaron: Black.

Always? Or did you become that as you became more of an enthusiast?
John: I became it. I never took cream, but I started out with half a pound of sugar. Working late nights and early mornings, I just drank so much coffee that I knew unless I go black, it will make me unhealthy!

If all goes as planned, you’re opening the cafe by late fall. Are you creating—or meeting—the demand for your neighbors in the West End?
Maybe a little bit of both. When you tell people that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by people that looked more like me and Aaron, they tend to be a little shocked regardless of their ethnic or socioeconomic background. That aspect would be an education for community we live in. Yet, there’s also a healthy longing for additional spaces like this, by both residents old and new.