Great North Interview

Jon, Georgia, and Matt

Q: Tell me about your business here in St. John’s

Matt:

We started The Great North in January 2016 in a whirlwind of luck, scrappiness, and years of coffee experience. Though we had the idea to open a coffee shop in the backs of our minds for quite some time, it really only came together through being in the right place at the right time and being crazy enough to go for it. The short version is that we saw a business closing, we reached out to the owners and 10 days later we had negotiated a new lease, purchased the previous businesses equipment, got our LLC set up, and our permits & licences in place.

Jon:

The Great North is a combination of many years of experience between both of us. We’ve worked together in a number of different capacities in coffee. Through running shops, training barista’s, and developing wholesale programs for coffee roasters, we’ve gotten to see all kinds of businesses that serve great coffee. It’s such a wonderful product and the people we get to interact with every day in the coffee business are incredible.  That’s what led us to take the chance to open the shop here.  Like Matt said, we saw the space was available and decided that St. John’s was a perfect fit for us..  We were familiar with the standard of quality that we really wanted to offer as well as a shop that welcomed everyone into the space.  It’s so easy and trendy in a city like Portland to have spaces that only welcomed certain kinds of people.  Our entire goal for this space is that everyone feels comfortable whether it’s a mom with her children, a senior citizen, college student or young couples moving into the neighborhood. We wanted a neighborhood shop for everyone in this area and for folks that are visiting St. John’s.  That being said our focus is very much on quality and hospitality. We take both of those things really seriously.  We’re constantly striving to work with our own staff to make this place a welcoming experience and providing a drink that leaves people walking away saying wow that was one of the best coffee drinks I’ve ever had.

Pastries and treats at The Great North.

Q: You guys are obviously community-oriented.  I like the feel of your shop.  Tell me what kind of thoughts you had when designing this space.

Jon:

When we took over the space we spent a long time just sitting in here and thinking.  We wanted to work with the parts of the space that are wonderful. The skylight provides a lot of natural light.  Combine that with the classic crown molding and woodwork and the shop has incredible soul.  So when we got the space our main objective was to  simplify everything down to focus on the light and airy feel of this space.  In Portland we have so many grey dreary days that it’s nice to walk into a place that’s uplifting rather than really dark and heavy. It’s interesting that you bring up design because we’re actually in the midst of a small remodel.  We’re planning where we’re going to upgrade some of our equipment and just continue to clean up some of the static pieces of this space that we’ve been wanting to do since the very beginning. As we grow and the community changes we’ll always consider it a work in progress.

Matt and Jon in action

Matt and Jon in action

Q: You guys are passionate about coffee.  Tell me a little bit about that passion and what coffee means to people.

Matt:

I came from a small town where we didn’t have coffee shops, but when I moved to Portland for college I got pulled into the industry by friends. It was through them that I really started getting excited about learning the ins and outs of what makes certain coffees more delicious than others. I remember fifteen or so years ago cupping Stumptown Coffee. It was full, and sweet. The difference in flavor was something I had never tasted before. It was then that I was sold and not too much longer I started working in that shop.  As I grew in my understanding of coffee I kept feeling drawn toward the cutting edge and who was pushing the boundaries of what it could be.  I love the conversations that happen naturally around it.

Jon:

My interests in coffee actually started before I started drinking coffee heavily in college out of necessity.  I became very interested in the actual business around coffee and the global nature of the industry.  The fact that every single people group seems to have some kind of coffee ritual with a culture around it.  It’s a really widely consumed product and it’s grown in the tropics,  not here in Portland so my curiosity started from that place and then moved into the culinary side.  Matt and I have spent a combined 25 years working in the coffee industry and specifically the specialty coffee industry. We’ve been on the cutting edge of what’s happening and who’s sourcing the best coffees.  Our focus on quality is huge to us.  There’s been an explosion in the popularity of specially coffee and coffee shops and we’ve been right there as a part of that growth.  We spent time at Stumptown Coffee Roasters together in its heyday.  We also spent time working together at Coava Coffee Roasters, where I still hold an active role, and we’ve managed and consulted with countless coffee shops.  We’ve also played roles in wholesale support where we’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of different coffee shops trying to help them make their coffee program successful.  We’ve been so fully immersed in coffee over the last ten plus years and in our own lives that it’s hard to draw a line where the passion starts and stops.  I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen a lot of angles and different models in the industry and we’ve continually come back to the simplicity of genuine people with incredible coffee, which is why we use Coava Coffee Roasters.   We really take a lot of pride in the coffees that they send us to approve and it helps the farmers that they’re working with to bring those coffees to market.  We also have to spend a lot of time with our own staff making sure that those coffees are handled well once we get them.  Our aim is that whatever drink coming across the counter is going to taste delicious and it’s going to taste up to the full potential of what that coffee has to offer so it’s a labor of love in everything we do.  Specifically we want to make every single coffee taste great while always welcoming people into our space.

Jon Felix-Lund, Matt Brown, and Frank Marzetta, author.

Q: Why is it important to support local businesses?

Matt:

I think it’s important to support local businesses because they are the people that are going to be the most invested in improving and protecting a neighborhood. If we see trash out on the sidewalk we’ll be the ones to pick it up because this is our sidewalk and we want to help the community.  I think one of the greatest values of supporting local businesses is what can happen when they come together. Whether it’s to support a local school or starting a fund to help somebody in the neighborhood, people really can rally to do astounding things.  Just recently we had a family here in St Johns whose home caught fire and tons of businesses chipped into a fund to help them get back on their feet.Local business it’s just that, it’s all about the people who live there.

Jon:

Local business is one of the bedrocks of creating a vibrant community in my opinion, especially if you consider it in the context of St. Johns.  Some of the things that people value most is walkability and things to do close to their neighborhood. We have restaurants, concert halls, gorgeous parks, a farmer’s market, annual bizarre, and public pools.  It’s all kind of built upon the backs of local businesses that are there day in and day out.  They’re generally the ones that are supporting those events, either with money or resources or donations and everyone in the community benefits from it.  I think the wonderful power that everyone in a small community has is to being aware of the option they have to change their purchasing habits and know they can buy at local businesses rather than chain restaurants or online.   Everyone needs to make their own decisions, but we highly value the folks that make a conscious effort to support the businesses that are right in their neighborhoods because it really does stay in the neighborhood in a way that it doesn’t if you’re if you’re buying from a big box store.  There’s a lot that goes into running a small business that most people don’t ever see, but it’s rewarding and it’s rewarding mostly for those people that come in the door every single day.  You appreciate what they’re doing and you get to make a connection with them and that leads to a healthy, connected community.

Great menu featuring Coava coffee

Great menu featuring Coava coffee

Q: All three of us have lived in Portland for a very long time.  Why did you choose St. John’s and what do you like about our neighborhood.

Matt:

I love St. John’s because it feels like a small midwestern town. People know each other’s names.  They smile at one another and make eye contact.  They’re not just running off to the next thing to do.  Folks are friendly here and I like that familiarity.

Jon:

St. Johns has always been a unique place in the city and kind of unique place in my heart. There’s been this incredibly creative and strong willed unique culture that’s been birthed here. It’s just a lot of fun to be around.  Many of the folks that live in this area are quirky, passionate, fun and totally weird in the best kind of way.  We’re also close to some of the things that I love, like going to Forest Park or getting out to Sauvie Island.  Honestly, it’s a beautiful escape from the city life rat race. In St. John’s it kind of feels like a little oasis. The rest of the city has no idea how special it is up here.

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