The motto at Portrait Coffee is: “Pouring a New Narrative.” The West End Atlanta-based roaster pursues that idea in every coffee it roasts, working with local and international partners across industries to get coffee drinkers thinking differently about what’s in their cup.
This month, they’re teaming up with visual artist Temi Coker to release a coffee that pushes beyond time — a coffee that evokes past, present, and future. “Our desire is to tap into the notion that Black History doesn’t begin with slavery,” they share. They were drawn to Coker’s art because of his “unique style of art and the accompanying posters has been therapeutic and revelatory to the end of showing the ways color and Black imagery can be used to inspire. Through the concept of ‘Sankofa’, looking back to look forward, he’s found a lens to create timeless art.”
To celebrate the release, we chatted with co-founder Aaron Fender and marketing manager Christine Ramirez. In this interview, we learn more about how these themes — of history, timelessness, and futurism — are embedded in the fabric of Portrait Coffee’s identity and how they express themselves through this collaboration.
What was the early concept behind Portrait Coffee?
Aaron Fender: All of the co-founders of Portrait Coffee live here in the historic West End. Back in 2018, we were looking around and seeing how rapidly the neighborhood was changing. We looked around for coffee and realized that there wasn't a coffee shop in the neighborhood. We felt we had a responsibility to make sure that the coffee shop that did open in our neighborhood reflected the culture and community in which we live.
Can you describe the West End neighborhood of Atlanta?
AF: The West End is home to a few incredible historically Black colleges and universities like Spelman College, Morehouse University, and Clark Atlanta University. This is the community in which the Civil Rights movement was birthed and progressed. Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr lived in and did work here. There's a ton of history in every stone in this neighborhood.
How do you combine history into your brand and identity at Portrait?
AF: Many of our coffees are named after historic or current Black figures that we appreciate here at Portrait — from people making current voting history here in Georgia like Stacy Abrams or literary strongholds like Toni Morrison or innovative artists like Barry Jenkins.
But really, history is everywhere, even in the building we’re in. We roast in the Lottie Watkins Building — she was the first Black real estate agent here in Atlanta. Her family still owns and operates the building. As we were figuring out where in the neighborhood we wanted to be — there were all these up-and-coming developments that we could have chosen — but we felt like this building and its past is part of the fabric of this neighborhood and was the place we wanted to do business.
You do a lot of collaborations — from local coffee shops and breweries to big, international projects. Did you always intend to pursue collaborative projects?
AF: Yeah. We really wanted to sit down with and explore our local community, but we also wanted to work with people that inspired us globally. We want to work with people that push us, whether that’s creatively or through the quality of our product. From day one, we had a list of ideas like, “Oh, we wanna work with this person. Oh, we wanna work with that group.” Over time we’ve been able to do some incredible things and step out of our comfort zone.
How did you conceptualize this current release with Temi Coker?
Christine Ramirez: Marcus (Hollinger, one Portrait's co-founders) sought him out because of his previous work. Coker’s work mostly surrounds Black artists and Black figures. In one of the initial conversations we had, he said something like, “Black is a beautiful canvas.” From that, we just knew that this collaboration would be perfect for this month.
Temi is an amazing artist and the way he involves colors and shapes and his visual designs are so interesting. He's also worked for major brands and companies like Apple, Adobe, and HBO. This is like such an amazing experience for us to work with him.
What sort of feelings do you want this collaboration to evoke?
CR: We want to explore the holistic experience of being Black and look towards the future. Inspiration isn’t just about looking back on what’s happened, but on what’s ahead. With this collaboration, we want to inspire other Black figures to come up out of where they are and get the recognition they deserve.
How do you hope to start these conversations?
CR: I feel like the starting place would be through conversation, which is why coffee is such a perfect vessel for a project like this. We’re also hosting an event on February 19, bringing together Black folks in specialty coffee to discuss what the future of the industry could look like. I feel through conversation, especially within our local community, we can begin branching out and highlighting more people who deserve recognition.
How did you choose the coffee you’re using for this release?
AF: Sometimes when we do collaborations, it’s a flavor-based journey where I want to evoke a certain feeling for the people drinking. I might cup a bunch of coffees until I find the profile I’m looking for.
For this release, we worked backwards. I felt like, for this project, only one coffee made sense: a classic Ethiopian coffee. In a lot of ways, that ties back into the story of Portrait, where we’re having conversations about where coffee comes from. Based on that sentiment, I knew we had to do a classic, naturally processed Ethiopian coffee.
What does the motto “Pouring a New Narrative” mean for you?
CR: Our whole mission is to include the people that have been written out — it’s why we do what we do. I feel like this release, tying it back to Black History Month, we’re emphasizing that mission. We’re here to keep pushing for more, not only in coffee, but throughout our entire community.
AF: When I think about that motto, I like to almost reverse engineer it. We have this welcome email we send to people when they’re first introduced to our brand. Typically, they try the coffee, and that draws them into learning more. And it makes me the happiest when people email us back and they’re like, “The coffee is really great, and we really believe in the work that you’re doing.”
To me, that accomplishes the “pouring a new narrative” goal — it’s that people recognize the work we’re doing. It’s not enough for us to be a Black-owned business. Our product is excellent too. I think putting these two things together is how we're pouring a new narrative. We’re not just Black. We're excellent too, and we’re walking through a lineage of Black excellence.
As you reflect on this collaboration, what do you hope the future looks like?
CR: I’d like to see more Black women running specialty coffee shops and roasting all around the U.S. Hopefully Portrait can seek out and support these women along the way to make sure that happens!
AF: My ultimate aim is for the barrier to entry in coffee to be lower. I want our vision at Portrait to change and evolve with the times. I want to get to a place where it’s not that significant that we’re a Black-owned business that has excellent products, where it’s just the norm.
I want that for all groups: for women, for people in the LGBTQIA+ community, etc… I just hope that, in the future, everyone has a seat at the table. That idea — of pouring a new narrative — would be accomplished, and we could move on to fight bigger battles.