Underwriter Profile: Coffee by Design

The economy in much of the country was seriously lagging during the ’80s, and Portland was not immune. It was during this time that two local residents, Mary Allen Lindemann and her husband Alan Spear, moved to Seattle, Washington. During this self-imposed exile a couple of things became clear to them. First, if the economy of Portland was to improve, it would take a commitment from people like them who believed in the town and saw it for its strengths and potential, not its struggling economy and deteriorating neighborhoods. And secondly, the east coast, in general, and Portland, in particular, was in dire need of good coffee. The proverbial lightbulb lit up and the couple was en route back to from whence they came.

Of course their areas of expertise were environmental planning/ landscape design (Alan) and marketing (Mary Allen), not coffee so they began a crash course in the coffee business while choosing a less-than-obvious location to begin their enterprise, upper Congress Street. Back in the early 90s, upper Congress was hardly the enclave of art galleries, performance spaces, restaurants, and funky retailers found there today. Rather, it was home to empty storefronts, porn theatres, and a few hardy souls trying to establish businesses in an area promising little more than low rents. Mary Allen and Alan saw upper Congress as a neglected neighborhood whose revival could be encouraged by a meeting place for its inhabitants that didn’t involve Pabst Blue Ribbon or peep shows. The year was 1994 and Coffee by Design was born.

Immediately, the coffee house became a gathering place for the neighborhood and the transition of the area was to follow. During these early days, Mary Allen and Alan recognized the need for a place for the recovery community to gather after meetings; a place offering coffee, warmth and community. It was the beginning of a long and reciprocal relationship. To this day Coffee by Design pledges to provide a supportive atmosphere for people trying to change the course of their lives away from addiction and substance abuse. The recovery community’s patronage was crucial to the success and growth of the first Coffee by Design and Mary Allen and Alan remain committed to developing that relationship.

Giving back and cultivating community are central tenets in the Coffee by Design mission statement. Alan and Mary Allen are not interested in franchising to malls and strip retail developments. Coffee by Design exists as an anchor in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods and so, as the business has grown, they have pursued locations that others have ignored. Five years ago, after seeing their locations on upper Congress and Monument Square thrive, they searched for a location to serve their needs as both a roastery and retail outlet. India Street offered an intriguing location. Friends and consultants thought Mary Allen and Alan were drinking too much of their product. Once again, however, they proved the nay-sayers wrong. Not only has the location worked well for Coffee by Design, it has become another thriving neighborhood with restaurants and shops moving in.

In the past several years, Coffee by Design’s retail business has remained strong while their wholesale business has thrived. Thanks in large part to word of mouth recommendations and restaurant accounts which have reached the taste buds of visitors from away, Coffee by Design now ships its coffee to many states. Hardly intimidated by larger national coffee retailers and wholesalers, Mary Allen matter-of-factly states, “What makes people think local businesses can’t compete with national businesses?” The secret to success is in the product and treating people well, from their thirty-two employees to the customer fishing for change to buy a cup, to its wholesale customers. It is important to Coffee by Design that they grow by building relationships, Lindemann says, and “don’t lose those relationships.”

Coffee by Design’s relationship with WMPG, while obviously crucial to the success of the station, also reflects the company’s values. When approached by station manager Jim Rand and Karen D’Andrea to partner with the station in its hosting of the national Homelessness Marathon on February 5th and 6th, Mary Allen and Alan jumped at the opportunity. As a result, they are providing space for the broadcast at the Monument Square location and have been invaluable as a place to establish the necessary phone lines and power sources to make the national broadcast feasible. It’s all in keeping with their mission, they say. Coffee by Design is committed to reasonable growth while remaining a Maine-owned business that gives back. This past year they have also been generous contributors to Seeds Of Peace and next year will expand that commitment to a include program called Beans for Peace which will pledge one dollar from the sale of each pound of Seeds of Peace Blend coffee sold during the month of September.

WMPG, and indeed Portland, are lucky to have friends like Coffee by Design.