The other day, I went searching for a different café in Southwest Portland. I had a couple hours to kill before I picked my daughter up at preschool, and although there are a couple cafés fairly close to the school, I have not been overly excited by either of them. I knew there was another coffee shop in the area I wanted to try out, so I went looking for it. It wasn’t easy to find, though, and I was about to give up when I glanced over and saw the sign for Xpression Coffeehouse to my right. It turned out to be a nice discovery.
As I entered the café, the first thing I noticed was that it felt very welcoming. Soft jazz music was playing and a strong scent of coffee filled the air. The barista greeted me as I came up to the counter. She was working on a drink for the person in front of me and said she would be right with me. I waited, listening to the music that was playing, reading the information screen located behind the register. I was surprised to read that the music was original and composed specifically for the café.
“That’s one way to get around the music-industrial complex,” I thought, recalling an article I had recently read discussing coffee shops and music copyright issues.
I ordered an espresso and sat down to write at one of the small tables. There were not many people in the small café. Two older men sat at a table by the front window, discussing local politics. The café had four tables and a leather couch towards the front. The music was relaxing, and it was easy to concentrate on writing.
In a couple minutes, the barista brought out my espresso. It was Italian-style all the way—low acid and balanced.
Sitting there, I overheard some customers who came in talking about the shop. It sounded like the owners were new, and I could not resist asking them a few questions about the café. It turned out they had an interesting story to tell.
“We’ve only had the café for one month,” said Milen Slavov, who along with his wife Jennie, owns and operates the café. Milen spoke with an accent and I asked him where he was from. He told me that he and his wife are both from Bulgaria. They have been in the United States since 1997 and in Portland for the last eight years. They now consider the Rose City their home.
Milen and Jennie are both musicians by training (he plays the piano and accordion, she is a singer), having studied music at a professional music boarding school in Bulgaria. The couple has no previous experience in coffee—this is their first café—but they are not unprepared to run it, according to Slavov.
“We had some training with the previous owner from whom we purchased the equipment and the business. We consulted with some other coffee people here in Portland, as well as with the people from [Caffè] Umbria. Jennie is the operational manager, and I take care of the marketing and multimedia presentations.”
Although the café had existed in the same location for several years before they bought it, there were still some things they wanted to update when they bought the business, especially the décor.
“The building was built in 1890-something. It’s old,” Milen told me. “Previously, the walls were white and black. We changed that, we changed the [menu] boards. We put a new [wood] floor in. There wasn’t one before. It was only cement. You can also see the multimedia presentations by the counter and by the window we added to provide customers with more information.”
The coffee they serve is from Caffè Umbria, based in Seattle, and it is the second coffee they have offered in the short time they have run the café. Slavov told me that two weeks ago, their previous roaster informed them that he could no longer supply the café, so they had to scramble to find a different source. They tried several different coffees, bringing various roasters’ coffees into the shop to sample with customers. About 80% of the customers liked Caffè Umbria’s coffee the best, so they went with it.
The couple runs the shop by themselves. They did have one employee, but she recently decided to move to Bend, so they are presently looking for a barista. Until then, Jennie works as the lone barista while Milen focuses on marketing and spreading the word about the new café.
As for the music, it is all original. Milen composed, recorded and produced the music for the café himself.
“I composed the music especially to create this welcoming atmosphere,” he explained. “It’s world music, fusion and smooth jazz.” Slavov’s mastery of the piano really comes through in the music.
Their customers have given them positive feedback, he said, and for the first few weeks, business has exceeded their expectations. If everything goes well, they would like to open another shop in the Portland area someday. They plan to be around the area for a while.
“We decided to commit to the place, so people know for sure that they can rely on us.”
If you are looking for a café where the atmosphere is tranquil and the soft jazz music adds a touch of class, check out Xpression Coffeehouse. The café has a new feel to it, but also a familiar feel. In a few years, after the new floor gets a few scratches and the new paint fades a little, Xpression Coffeehouse will also look like a familiar neighborhood hangout.
That, according to Slavov, is their goal. They want to “combine quality drinks with special atmosphere” and make the café a place where the neighborhood gets together.
They seem to be off to a good start.
Address: 4237 SW Corbett Ave, Portland, OR 97239 (map)
Hours: Monday-Friday 7am-5pm
Coffee: Caffè Umbria
Free Wi-Fi? Yes
Recommend it? As a good place for writing and for the original music