Dovetail Coffee Roasters – Changing the Suburban Coffee Landscape

Conventional wisdom says that compared to downtown Portland, the suburbs surrounding the city are a wilderness for good coffee. Suburban coffee culture is best known for its gargantuan lattes, loads of syrups, and scorched beans. The Starbuckification of the suburbs has made an average cup of coffee ubiquitous, and if you want something better, your best bet is to head closer to downtown, where the quality of a café is inversely proportional to its distance from the Willamette River (roughly).

But not all is bad outside the city limits. The coffee landscape is evolving, even in the suburbs, where it is possible to find people who care about coffee quality. Three of these are Cathy Zellmer, Matt Knight, and Adam Reid. Zellmer and Knight own Dovetail Coffee Roasters, a small wholesale roaster in Beaverton, and Reid owns Origins Coffee House (formerly Coffee’s On – Gresham) in Gresham, Dovetail’s de facto flagship café. Together, Dovetail and Origins are improving the coffee scene on both the western and eastern flanks of Portland. I spent a couple hours at Dovetail’s roastery in Beaverton, to hear what’s happening in the hinterlands.

Matt Knight, Cathy Zellmer, and Adam Reid, at Dovetail headquarters

The Original Coffee Brake

Cathy Zellmer’s plans never included owning a coffee business. For many years, she ran her own independent insurance business, and the only thing she knew about coffee was that she needed lots of it to keep her going each day. Fortunately for Cathy, her office was located across the street from the Original Coffee Brake, a roastery/café founded by Ron Davis in 1993 (one article quotes Zellmer saying that she and her husband, Chuck, would spend between $400-$500 each month on coffee).

In 2004, Zellmer went back to school, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. She earned a degree in Women’s Studies at Portland State, graduating summa cum laude. She applied to law school at Lewis and Clark and prepared for a career in law. Zellmer’s plans quickly swerved off the track in 2008, when Davis announced he was retiring from the coffee business and planned to close his café. Cathy was distraught. More than a café, the Coffee Brake was also a gathering place, a community hub. Zellmer was not about to let it close, and even though she was accepted into law school, she decided to purchase the café instead.

The Coffee Learning Curve

Zellmer had a lot to learn about the coffee business, so Davis stayed around to help her get started. He stayed on as roaster for an interim period, and showed her many things about coffee in general. Seven months after she bought the café, Zellmer attended Coffee Fest in Seattle, attending every educational session she could fit into the schedule. She also drank countless espressos from the booths on the trade show floor. The trip inspired her to improve the quality and consistency of the coffee she was serving, especially the espresso.

As soon as Cathy got back to Portland, she called Matt Milletto, working as a consultant out of the American Barista and Coffee School, to come to the store to train her baristas. “I called Matt and was like, we need your services,” Zellmer recalled. Milletto came to the café and did a training session with the entire staff.

Cathy was pleased with the results. “The next morning I came in to my café,” she said, “and the morning barista was covered head to toe with coffee grounds. She was making beautiful espresso shots and was excitedly telling every customer how we had just taken a giant leap forward and could do a better job than we did the day before. She was so excited.”.

Customers greeted the changes with skepticism, but it didn’t take long for them to come around. Zellmer recalled one customer who was very particular about getting only one shot in his drink. Cathy urged him to try something new. “I put one and a half in,” she said, “because I wanted him to be able to taste the coffee, and it wasn’t so bitter. It was smoother, it was better espresso, and he was looking at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ I told him, I just want you to try this.” Cathy explained why she was doing things differently and told him if he didn’t like it, she would make him another, the old way. Not to worry. “He loved it,” she said.

Zellmer said the biggest key to gaining acceptance of the changes was the attitude of the staff. “If you’re café’s a community, and the community loves you and your people, they’ll follow you anywhere,” she said.

Leaving Retail and Gaining a Business Partner

For about three years, Zellmer ran the café (with some help from her husband, himself very busy as an engineer/manager at LSI) before changing courses again. The retail business was not Cathy’s passion, so she decided to sell the café and focus on the wholesale roasting business, calling her new venture Dovetail Coffee Roasters.

Around the same time, Knight, who has his own insurance business (he and Cathy shared an office for eight years), gradually entered the business. When Cathy and Chuck went on vacation, Matt would help out, making deliveries and shadowing Davis, to learn how to roast. “I worked in it for a few months before I said, ‘I like this,’” he recalled. In 2011, Knight became a co-owner, and now splits his time between roasting coffee and running the insurance business.

For Knight, being a roaster fits his personality. “I focus in and drill down—that’s what I like. I can take the raw product and turn it in to something you enjoy,” he said. In addition to learning from Davis, he also got some lessons from Brandon Smyth, Water Avenue Coffee’s co-owner and head roaster. (Water Avenue’s roaster was broke down one time, so Smyth came to Dovetail to roast while it was getting fixed. Knight used the opportunity to learn as much as he could from Smyth.)

Neither Zellmer nor Knight was worried about the business hurting their relationship. “We’ve always been really good work friends,” said Cathy. “We’ve always had a good business relationship, so we got to know each other that way.” If something goes wrong, they can work through it. “We have a nice foundation, and we’re able to communicate,” Matt said.

Zellmer does not regret her decision to forego law school. Although she says law still interests her, the coffee business fits her personality better. “The thing I love about coffee, is that it’s so organic,” she said. “It’s never the same. The business, the product and what I get to do every day is really organic. I get to be challenged, I get to learn something new, I get to experience something new, I get to grow. For me, it can’t get more interesting than that. I can’t imagine being a lawyer.”

Changing Suburban Coffee Culture

Zellmer and Knight’s goal for Dovetail is to improve the coffee in the suburbs around Portland. They have a willing partner in that vision in Adam Reid, who bought his café in 2011. Reid is clear about his focus for the café. “Our core value is around the coffee, and one of our fun points is showing the customers what we can do with it,” he said.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Originally, Reid planned on running a bubble tea shop, but Zellmer says she convinced him to focus on coffee instead. “He hadn’t developed a palate for coffee,” she said. “He hadn’t learned to appreciate lighter-roasted coffee.”

When Reid first bought the café, it was a typical second wave café, with a wall full of different syrups and lots of dark-roasted coffees. One of the first things he did was to reduce the number of available syrups and lower their visibility.

The coffees changed too. For the first few months they worked together, Zellmer said she and Reid pushed each other over the roast profiles. “Adam would call me and say, ‘You’ve got to roast the coffee darker,’” she said. Reid’s customers were used to darker roasts, and they complained. At first, Zellmer went along, roasting the coffee darker than she liked to. Gradually, however, they slowly changed the roast profiles, lightening them up as customers became accustomed.

Adam brought in Brandon Arends (one of the people who piqued my interest in specialty coffee) to train his baristas. To start coffee conversations with customers, Adam placed a Yama cold brew tower on the counter. In addition, Origins typically offers a single-origin espresso alongside its blend, something of a rarity outside of Portland.

Zellmer was pleased with the changes she has seen at Origins. “In the beginning, they didn’t have the greatest equipment, they didn’t have the greatest baristas, and they didn’t have the greatest coffee,” she said. “So we got to the point where we improved the coffee, and trained the baristas. I walked in there one day…to make some espressos with their people, to make sure we were on the same page. It was very clear to me that they had a high level of skill, that they knew what they were doing.”

Although I spend most of my time in Portland, I probably should not be surprised that better coffee is moving into the suburbs, through the efforts of people like Cathy, Matt, and Adam. As more people are exposed to good coffee in centers like Portland and San Francisco, they will come to expect it in other places too. Entrepreneurs will see an opportunity to stand out in the surrounding areas. If the suburban scene continues to improve, good coffee might someday be as accessible in Beaverton as it is in Downtown Portland (in my caffeine-induced, utopian coffee vision). At the very least, it will be much easier to find.


Coffee Note: When you visit a coffee roaster, it is rare to come away without tasting a few coffees. During the visit, Cathy prepared pourovers of two different Ethiopian coffees. The first, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, was almost tea-like, with a light body and hints of peach and citrus. The second, a natural processed Sidamo, stood out for notes of sweet plum. Adam brought some cold brew, a blend of three different coffees—the natural Sidamo, a Flores (from Indonesia), and a Peruvian coffee—that tasted like berries and chocolate. 

Torque Coffee Roasters, Vancouver, WA

While Vancouver does not have Portland’s renown for coffee, our northern neighbor has a burgeoning group of cafés and roasters that care about serving you good coffee. Nor’West, River Maiden (and its sister café, Dripster), Paper Tiger (under new management) and Lava Java(technically in Ridgefield) all call the Vancouver area home. Sophisticated Vantuckians do not have to settle for over-roasted, over-syruped coffees unless they choose to.

The scene continues to improve, too. A new shop called Torque Coffee Roasters recently opened downtown, close to the Convention Center. En route to Vancouver for a Monday morning meeting, I left PDX early to check it out. With a little help from my GPS, I found the café without too much trouble.

Pulling up to the slate gray building, a long row of parking meters greeted me (welcome to Vancouver). I don’t like to pay for parking (who does?), but I accept it as a fact of life in most cities. The problem was that Vancouver’s meters are coin-operated, and I didn’t have any spare change. I could take the chance and park without paying, or I could find somewhere else to park.

Hmmm. . . It was a pretty dead morning in the “‘Couve." Who was really going to care if I parked there for an hour without paying?

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Thatcher’s Coffee (Vancouver, WA)

Out and about, I stopped by Grand Central recently. That’s Grand Central, the Vancouver shopping center, and not Grand Central, the kick-ass Portland bakery. I was in Vancouver for a meeting and needed to do some printing beforehand at the FedEx Office store. After I got my printing done, I had an hour before the meeting, so it was time to look for coffee (free time=coffee time). As I was about to pull out of the parking lot, I saw a sign for Thatcher’s Coffee.


Hmm, I thought. Do I stop in and check out another new place, or should I head up the street to my regular stop?

Most of the time when I stop in Vancouver for coffee, I go to Paper Tiger. Zachary Gray and his team have great coffee, and the location is close to where I work. Thus, I do not have a lot of incentive to go someplace else.

Furthermore, I tend to be biased against shopping center cafés—they often lack the character that smaller shops have, and the coffee can be a disappointment. Shopping centers have high rents, and café owners face the temptation to cut corners on the coffee to improve margins.

Notwithstanding, I remembered that sometimes you can be surprised by the quality of coffee you find in unexpected locations.

Ultimately, I decided to stop and try the café—the allure of exploring a new place was just too much to resist.

Books plus coffee = Love (awww!)

When I opened the door to the cafe, an aroma of caramelized butter and sugar hit me. It was clear Thatcher’s was a popular place—the café was full of people and quite loud—but my impression was that any place that smelled like a cinnamon roll was probably not a “coffee place.”

Dismissing my chances of getting good coffee, I was just about to leave when I glanced over at the back wall and noticed a familiar sight. Several brown paper coffee bags with orange and white labels sat on a shelf. Was that Ristretto Roasters coffee? Indeed it was. The familiar double-R logo stood out across the room.

Well, then. Maybe I should stay.

I took my hand off the door and stepped into line.

Waiting in line gave me the opportunity to look around the café. The café had a very light, bright feel, especially in the morning. Fifteen feet of glass windows rise up towards the ceiling on the south side of the cafe, allowing the morning sunlight to pour into the café. As the café noises echo around off of the high ceilings, smooth concrete floors and exposed wood paneling, the sound grows, magnifying the morning din of the café.

The source of the sugary smell turned out to the large trays of homemade granola that had just come out of the oven. Their aroma filled the café, from one end to another, overpowering the smell of coffee.

Stronger than the coffee

One interesting feature of the café is that it sits in the flight path of the Vancouver airport. From my seat, I looked up once and saw a bright yellow Cessna swooping in toward the café, or so it appeared. The plane looked like it was going to land on the roof, it was so low. If you had small kids with you at the café, the passing airplanes would keep them entertained.

The dark chocolate notes stood out as I slurped and sipped my way to the bottom of the Beaumont Blend espresso. You could tell that the barista treated the coffee with respect.

Overall, my visit to Thatcher’s turned out better than I thought it would. The café might not be the “coffee place” that Ristretto’s Portland cafés are, but you can still enjoy your coffee and, if you are so inclined, eat some homemade granola to satisfy your morning hunger.

The bottom line? Thatcher’s makes a good stop if you are already at Grand Central.

Earth-friendly, too

Leaving the Grand Central parking lot, I met a Stumptown delivery van coming in. I thought to myself, is there a Stumptown café here too?

Maybe Grand Central is just a Portland shopping center masquerading as a Vancouver one, but I’ll have to figure that out another time.

Address: 104 Grand Blvd.,  Ste 100 Vancouver, WA 98661 (map
Phone: 360-258-0571
Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-6pm

            Saturday 7am-6pm
            Sunday 7am-5pm
Coffee: Ristretto Roasters
Recommendations? Get there early for a seat


Clover-brewing at River Maiden Coffee, Vantucky, Washington

My recent search for new and improved coffee experiences took me to River Maiden Coffee in Vancouver, Washington. River Maiden is a coffee shop that plays up Vancouver’s “second city” status with its “Vantucky Strikes Back” logo on cups and shirts. It also has “The Couve Abides” cups and shirts that fans of The Big Lebowski would appreciate.

River Maiden Coffee House

In addition to having an appreciation of pop culture, River Maiden is also one of very few independent (i.e., non-Starbucks) coffee shops in the world to have the Clover brewing machine.

The Clover is a machine that combines the brewing principles of a French press and a vacuum pot. It was designed by a couple of coffee-loving Stanford engineers, who proceeded to build a company around it. Starbucks executives were so impressed by the machine that they decided to buy the whole company. These days, if you want to try some Clover coffee, you either have to go to Starbucks or find one of the indies that had one before Starbucks bought them all. [An interesting side note: When the Clovers first came out, Stumptown had several, but then sold them all when managers heard Starbucks had bought Clover. The rumor was that Stumptown did not want to have any dealings with “corporate” Starbucks.]

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Paper Tiger Coffee (Vancouver, WA)

When you think of great coffee cities, Vancouver, Washington is probably not the first name that comes to mind for Portlanders. Snide PDX residents refer to Vancouver as “Vantucky” (apologies to my relatives in Louisville), implying that the city is somewhat less cultured than its southern neighbor. This is an unfair characterization, however. I live in Southeast Portland and I can assure you it is not more sophisticated than Vancouver.

Fans of Portland coffee can be a bit the same way. Portland has great coffee and it is tempting to look down on our neighbors. However, if you look around some, you can find good coffee outside Portland. You just have to work a little harder to find it.

One way to keep up on what’s going on around the city and in the suburbs is through social networking. Social networking tools like Twitter can be a great source of coffee information. I might never have found Paper Tiger Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, Washington, had they not been on Twitter. Their tweets made it sound like they were coffee enthusiasts, so I went to go see if their coffee was as interesting as their Twitter feed. It was.

(By the way, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe to my Twitter feed to keep up to date with what is going on at Caffeinated PDX. Click on the icon on the right sidebar).

The tiger roars

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