ENTERING THE COFFEE SHOP Barista is like getting off a plane in Mumbai: The first thing that strikes you is the heat. It's been building overnight, rising from the shop's two espresso machines as the pressure in their steam tanks prepares for the morning rush. Then there's the smell, of course. It's overwhelming.
Barista's barista Marty Lopes is first to arrive, quickly opening a window before grinding coffee for a French press and filling the pastry case with croissants and cookies from Nuvrei Pastries. Lopes is working a "clopen" shift—he closed the shop last night at 7 pm, and he's here again this morning at 6:30 am. He has a tattoo of a key on his left forearm. His wife has a lock, he says.
"People ask me if I'm the owner," Lopes jokes. "And I say of course not. I don't have enough tattoos."
Right on cue enters the heavily tattooed public face of Barista, owner Billy Wilson. "At least you don't have the lock and she has the key," he quips.
"Is your wife a dude?" asks Lopes, putting on a mocking voice. And this is before they've had coffee. I feel slow.
Wilson, 29, opened Barista on February 23. A two-time Northwest regional barista champion, Wilson worked at the Albina Press for three years before quitting to open his own business. He eventually drew investment from a longtime regular, in part thanks to his innovative business plan to offer beans from roasters like Chicago's Intelligentsia and Santa Cruz's Verve alongside Portland's Stumptown. He grinds and tamps a shot of espresso in a flash and runs it through the Synesso espresso machine (the 1981 La Marzocco GS2 machine hardly ever gets used; it's Wilson's "tricked-out" machine, Lopes explains). "It's running a little thick," Wilson says, making tiny adjustments to the grinder. "See that? That's over-extraction."
Unable to follow, I decide to ask more about Wilson's tattoos because apart from the coffee and his obvious good looks, I figure they've landed Barista at least half of its recent press and photo opportunities. Well: Wilson's entire left arm is a depiction of the story of Jonah and the whale, and he also has "Rose City" in gothic script on the inside of his left bicep. The right arm is covered in "more traditional" tattoos. I contemplate stealing a few of the ideas for my own arms but realize that's probably a mortal sin, so I try to forget it. Meanwhile Lopes puts "a little Feist" on the sound system. "Ambience is important, not so much for us but for the customers," says Wilson. "You can't blast people with Slayer at seven in the morning."
Which is where Wilson's attitude differs decisively, for me, from the countless asshole baristas I have encountered across Portland in the last three years—he actually seems to give a shit about his customers. "That's definitely something I try to beat into the people here," he says. "You could have the best coffee in Portland but if you guys are dicks, so what? The whole hipster frown is not what we're about here. I want people to be professional, to be nice, to be able to hold a conversation."
Yes, those are words from the mouth of an award-winning, heavily tattooed barista with a "tricked-out" espresso machine. As Wilson and Lopes "dial in" the different espressos and the customers begin to line up, I'm struck by a courteous professionalism in their service. Lopes even manages to grind and cup four new whole bean coffees for he and Wilson to taste—for potential addition to Barista's range—all while maintaining an attentiveness to customers that doesn't have them hovering at the counter wondering if their existence has even been noticed.
By 8 am, it's time for some Willie Nelson on the sound system, and Wilson is chatting with a middle-aged female customer as he prepares her drink. She's been watching So You Think You Can Dance on Hulu, she says. Cringe. "I've just started to watch The Wire," Wilson responds enthusiastically, without a trace of irony. And I make my exit.
For liquid pleasures, Billy Wilson likes to hit Clyde Common (1014 SW Stark) and Saraveza (1004 N Killingsworth). He often chooses Biwa (215 SE 9th) for food. But he's also looking toward the future. "I'm sure that I'll become a once-a-week guy over at Beaker and Flask [720 SE Sandy], too!" he says.More of the FOOD ISSUE here!