On the banks of the Willamette River in Portland Oregon's Southeast Industrial District, Water Avenue Coffee Roasters, founded by industry pioneers, began roasting coffee in small batches in the winter of 2009.
Seizing the moment in 2009, WAC purchased a vintage, French-built 1974 Samiac roaster from a company in Switzerland, and set about building a new business around it. Having dozens of years experience in training and consulting in the specialty coffee industry, Bruce and Matt saw a great opportunity also to develop and showcase a retail and roasting business in same building as the American Barista & Coffee School, and share with new Water Avenue Coffee customers the decades of combined experience to offer an unsurpassed level of support.
Authentic to Portland and Pacific Northwest
Water Avenue Coffee is all about supporting our local community and embracing the city of Portland. 90% or more of our coffee that we roast is hand delivered to our great partners within a 50 mile radius of our roastery. We believe in environmental, social and economic stewardship, and maintaining a local focus is a big part of what makes Water Avenue special.
Although Water Avenue Coffee officially opened in late 2009, the owners’ coffee experience goes back much further. Bruce Milletto is a Specialty Coffee Association of America “Coffee Luminary,” well-known for a lifetime of work shaping the specialty coffee industry. His passion to see the independent specialty coffee industry thrive is unsurpassed. He founded Bellissimo Coffee Advisors in 1991 and partnered with his son Matt to open the American Barista and Coffee School (ABCS) in 2003.
Matt Milletto grew up around the coffee industry and has worked in coffee steadily for the last twenty years and has helped hundreds of small and large coffee businesses open up and succeed around the world. Since 2003, he has been teaching and training at ABCS, where he serves as vice president and co-owner. Matt is also a past President of the Oregon Coffee Board, is a board member of Dollar For and is on the Headwaters Council of the Freshwater Trust.
Slowly at first
Early on, Water Avenue’s owners knew that growth would take time. “Not only did we prepare for slower days in the cafe and a slower growth rate,” said Matt, “But we also all worked hard to keep our costs down in all areas of the business.” WAC negotiated a favorable lease and started building a much-needed third place for the neighborhood.
Before opening their flagship retail location, the budding company fostered a handful of wholesale customers, and roasted micro batches for a couple coffee bars, 2 pounds at a time.
When the coffee shop opened in June 2010, they fired up the 20-kilo Samiac and began experimenting with coffees on a larger scale. Water Avenue’s coffees quickly gained citywide recognition, receiving the “Best Bean in Portland” award for 2010. The next year, Seattle Weekly recognized Water Avenue’s El Salvador Pacamara as its Best Espresso of 2011.
Find great people and treat them right
One of Water Avenue’s challenges was to stand out in a city already saturated with great roasters and cafés. The solution? In addition to providing a great product, Water Avenue hires great people and treats them well. “A big focus of ours is our employees,” said Matt. “Growing their coffee skills and education, and professionally as well.”
WAC seeks out baristas and coffee professionals alike who want to grow in the coffee industry, often choosing people with a strong work ethic and a positive attitude. In addition to offering competitive wages and performance-based pay increases, Water Avenue also offers employees health insurance benefits and education credits, as well as paid volunteer hours within the community.
The most unique benefit for employees is a program that creates opportunity for WAC's leadership team to travel to origin. Staff get to see first-hand the impact that direct trade is having on farmers’ lives and the communities in which they live. Every year multiple members of our staff travels to coffee farms (mostly in Central America) whose coffee Water Avenue sources. The staff explore the farms and coffee mills, cups coffees and learns about many of the challenges and opportunities for specialty coffee producers. They also get a first taste of some of the coffees they will be roasting and serving in the WAC café later this year, fresh off the drying patios.
Building close relationships with coffee farmers gives WAC better access to a wide variety of the highest quality coffees, something that excites the wholesale team, baristas and roasters at WAC.
A bright future ahead
The spark of inspiration that appeared in 2009 has grown into one of Portland’s most well-respected coffee companies. In September of 2015, Water Avenue Coffee started roasting in a freshly remodeled warehouse on three new Proaster coffee roasters and expanded it's training lab and wholesale offices.
“It’s the culmination for all of our passions for coffee and our expertise of being coffee professionals,” Matt said. “It’s allowed us to really do something from our hearts. We want to be known as a unique and genuine micro-roaster that started in Portland, in the heart of the most competitive market, that people appreciate for the right reasons.”
By bringing together great coffees and great people, Water Avenue Coffee stands out for its incredible products and unsurpassed customer service, even in a city where great coffee is often just around the corner. We thrive on building long term relationships with our customers and wholesale accounts.