The Oregonian: Why Australian coffee gem Proud Mary built its first U.S. cafe in Portland

Have you heard about Australia’s coffee culture? Among the subcontinent’s other culinary movements, the cafe scene is red hot, firing off trends faster than we can keep up with them. Avocado toast? They created it. Starbucks’ “new” coffee drink, the flat white? It comes from the land down under.

Nolan Hirte hopes to bring a taste of that culture to Portland, one $20 coffee at a time.

Last week, Hirte opened the first U.S. location of noted Melbourne cafe-meets-restaurant Proud Mary on Northeast Alberta Street, hoping to provide Portland with more-genial cafe service, high-end coffee and wholesome plates inspired by a place where “breakfast is the national sport.”

Maybe the centerpiece of Proud Mary is the “warm, genuine and heartfelt” style of service, something that Hirte says many coffee shops in Portland could use some help with.

“It’s pretty brutal, the service in coffee shops,” Hirte said. “How can you let someone be stone cold to a customer as a business owner? You can’t do something special if you’re going to be like that.”

Anyone who’s spent time in Portland’s own celebrated cafes will hear a ring of truth there. But the sentiment that’s already gotten Hirte in trouble, after he told an Australian newspaper he was opening here — just down the street from Portland’s pioneering multi-roaster coffee bar Barista — was that the city’s coffee scene had “nothing.” The quote, Hirte said, was taken out of context.

“What I was trying to say is it’s far riskier to do another three cafes in Melbourne with this model than it is to go to the other side of the planet to an area like Portland where there’s nothing like this model,” Hirte said. “It got taken full stop like there’s nothing in Portland, like anyone in their right mind would say that.”

Far from being the anti-American coffee snob that early quote made him out to be, Hirte credits some of his inspiration to visiting America’s growing coffee scene a decade ago.

“I was totally blown away with what was happening with coffee here, not in Australia,” Hirte said. “I got a menu in Los Angeles at Groundwork Coffee Co. that listed origins, price, descriptives and I just had a moment. I wanted to bring that back to Australia, to treat coffee more like wine.”

What was different in Australia, Hirte said, was it wasn’t just the coffee there. In Melbourne, “we had food, chefs, table service, fresh squeezed juices, smoothies, house-made pasta. We had a different approach, and that blew up for us.”

To help provide a warm and inviting atmosphere at Proud Mary, Hirte designed custom, built-in espresso machines that are sunken into the long coffee bar, so guests can sit and talk to their barista as if they were at a bar. (Barista has two built-in machines at their Brass Bar, as does the Northeast Lloyd Boulevard location of drive-through coffee giant Dutch Bros). He greets every guest he sees come through the door. If you’re not taking your coffee to-go, there’s full table service.

And there’s more than coffee at Proud Mary, which also serves high-end teas, fresh-squeezed juices, tonics, smoothies and milkshakes. The full breakfast  menu includes fluffy ricotta hotcakes with macerated berries and lemon curd cream; the signature potato hash, a crisp tile of shaved potatoes with a kale salad, smoked bacon and a drizzle of bagna cauda; and of course, avocado toast, here tossed with a green tomato salad and sprouted almonds.

Most coffees go for normal Portland prices, with the bulk hovering in the $3.50-$4 range — a “babychino” is $1. But some go far higher. While $10-$30 price tags for a cup of coffee might scare away many regular coffee drinkers, Hirte sees them as a way to educate and support small farms, something he’d like to see more of across the entire industry.

“We go to Sumatra and there’s 12 of us picking coffee cherries for four hours; we get about 12 kilos,” Hirte said. “A girl there could do 70 kilos in a day and get a $1 for it, and I’m at a loss. Fair trade costs $3,000 to get certified; most of these farmers don’t make that in a year. So I set myself a quest: I need to become famous, need to become successful, win competitions and become an industry leader to change how people think about coffee.”

That quest has materialized at Proud Mary as a rotating “origin showcase” menu that features everything from beans from the “world’s first certifiably carbon neutral coffee producer” to a trio of single varietals sourced from the same Costa Rican farm. The tastings are served as espresso, filter or cold drip for $4-$6.50 a cup.

“It became really clear that I needed to get better at that, so selling Geisha — one of Proud Mary’s premium coffees — for $10 a cup is a great inroad to get people to understand that spending more money is buying better coffee,” Hirte said. “It’s the same with wine, beer, bread. Why is it that we expect coffee should be $3?”

Proud Mary, 2012 N.E. Alberta St., 503-208-3475,

— Samantha Bakall

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