Ristretto Roasters makes its mark

Ristretto Roasters makes its mark with highly designed community spaces — and a great cup of Joe.

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Din Johnson, owner of Ristretto Roasters.
// Photo by Justin Tunis

On a rainy Monday morning, Din Johnson, owner of Ristretto Roasters, is sitting in his newest café located in the Schoolhouse Electric building: a chic renovated space featuring old-growth beams, brick walls and a coffee bar fashioned from repurposed metal. Open since December, the café in Northwest Portland’s industrial district is the third for Ristretto, which got its start in the Beaumont neighborhood in 2005.

“We’re not mapping out a plan saying, ‘We have to be downtown, we have to be in Northwest,’” says Johnson, 45, describing the company’s organic growth strategy. “It’s more we team with local people we respect who have great ideas.” Johnson does prefer to site his cafés in undeveloped areas such as the industrial district, he says. “Those are the neighborhoods we want to be in — where people don’t have things.”

Portland has no shortage of cafés and businesses that roast their own coffee; one count puts the list at 40. But in that crowded category, Ristretto has carved out a niche as one of the few that is expanding and creating simultaneously high-design and community-oriented coffeehouse environments. “My biggest thing is making good coffee approachable,” Johnson says. “I want people to try new coffee without being intimidated by the people behind the counter. That’s my motto and that’s how we’ve hired people.”

Ristretto Roasters
Owner: Din Johnson
Founded: 2005
Headquarters: Portland
Employees: 25
Revenue: $1 million
Fun fact: 10,000 pounds of coffee roasted monthly

Last December, restaurant guide Zagat named Ristretto one of the 10 “coolest independent coffee shops in the country.” The coffee itself has earned national accolades: “What to buy now,” proclaimed national food magazine Bon Appétit. Despite the hip factor, Johnson himself seems steadfastly down to earth. A former contractor, the Portland native had roasted coffee at home for years before deciding to turn his passion into a profession. “People thought I was nuts,” says Johnson, noting that at the time, Stumptown Coffee was thought to have cornered the artisanal roasting market. On its first day, Ristretto’s Beaumont café, located “off the beaten path” on Northeast 42nd, earned a grand total of $56.

Seven years later, Ristretto, which grossed more than $1 million in revenues last year, has three cafés, a separate roasting facility in Northeast Portland, 25 employees and 30 wholesale clients. “Relationship-based” partnerships helped fuel that growth, says Johnson, whose wife, writer Nancy Rommelmann, does the accounting. Architect Jeff Holst, a regular at Ristretto’s Beaumont café, designed the second café located on North Williams Avenue, a bright and airy space that helped usher in Portland’s current modern coffeehouse aesthetic. For the Schoolhouse Electric coffee bar, Johnson hired Accelerated Development as the designer; the firm is the remodeling arm of Bamboo Revolution, a materials supplier that provided the bamboo for the Beaumont site. 

// Photo by Justin Tunis

Both the North Williams and Schoolhouse cafés got under way after the developers asked Johnson to locate in their buildings.

And those unintimidating baristas? Johnson hires employees, many of whom receive health insurance, for the long-term; his very first employee now manages the North Williams café. Nurturing a stable work force has helped Ristretto expand even amid a recession and a doubling of coffee prices in recent years, he says. As margins tighten, employees are expected to grow their jobs, implement “operational efficiencies and bring ideas to the table.” Ristretto’s participatory culture extends to the frequent parties Johnson and Rommelmann host for staff; management and employees also take annual trips to the Sandy River. “We hang out together,” Johnson says.

A family-owned business, Ristretto has grown without investors, says Johnson with some pride, a fact he attributes in part to the relatively low cost of starting up a shop in Portland. “It’s been a bit of a crapshoot,” he acknowledges, singling out the decision to open a store on then-undeveloped North Williams as particularly risky. “But look at it now,” says Johnson, referring to the street’s thriving mix of shops, restaurants and housing developments.

In a town crazy for coffee, Ristretto offers the requisite cuppings — coffee tastings — and Johnson takes the sourcing of his coffee beans seriously, making regular visits to Central and South American growers “to relay standards for cup quality.” But unlike a new wave of elite Portland micro-roasters, accessibility, not exclusivity, is Ristretto’s game. Until recently, Beaumont customers could watch Johnson in the café’s glass walled roasting chamber, and Johnson says future growth will continue to be guided by community-oriented partnerships with other local businesses. “I like to keep things where I can see them,” he says, adding he has no plans to expand outside of Portland.

Not that he’s entirely closing off the possibility of following in the footsteps of local forbearer Stumptown Coffee, which opened stores in Manhattan a few years ago. “My wife is from New York,” says Johnson. “You never know.”

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