Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week…
Kandace: Upper Left Roasters. Right here in Portland.
Ray: That’s right, Kandace. This week, we spoke to Katherine Harris (one of the founders) and Adam Garcia (who designed their identity and packaging).
Kandace: That’s right.
Katherine: I had a really good idea of what I wanted Upper Left to be, and so it’s really just finding people that believe and understand what you’re talking about.
That was the goal from design to branding to roasting the baristas and the cooks in the kitchen. That’s what we set out to do.
I am Katherine Harris, and I’m one of the owners with Upper Left Roasters in Portland, Oregon.
It sounds like you have almost as much of a focus on the food as you do on coffee and preparing that together. What is your food program all about?
I’m from Portland and my parents started a catering company. I loved coffee also.
I always wanted to start a venture with my father (Jim Harris). When we opened two and half years ago, we wanted to create a menu that was fresh and light and more elevated than just a pastry program.
Can we work with a local farm? (Which we do on Sauvie Island.)
And now, it’s become a friendship where he’ll deliver the eggs, and he’s like,”Oh, I’m a little short this week. We had an eagle problem.”
This is what partnering with locals means.
And the coffee…
When I was living in San Francisco, I remember Blue Bottle was a block from my offices. I would get a pourover every morning and I loved that tradition. It is a special moment, something that is brewed by hand.
Thinking about what our coffee program would be like at Upper Left…how can I create those moments for guests that walk through the door?
Chris Alspach is also one of founders, too. He’s been with us since we started. It’s really been Jim and Chris and myself. He was really interested in our food concept as well. He thought that he could bring a coffee program that would really complement our food program.
Tell is a little bit about just the process of designing the identity.
Katherine: I knew from the beginning that I wanted something fresh and bold, approachable. We had to find a branding company.
Adam: My name’s Adam Garcia. I’m a designer and a creative director here in Portland.
Katherine: I met Adam Garcia, and it was immediate. I just knew. I was like,”I’ve seen your work. It’s very different and cool. You’ve never worked in coffee. I don’t know if you really know what you’re doing, but I really like your style.”
Adam: I honestly think she took a big risk by going with a company that had never worked in the coffee field before.
Katherine: We came up with something that was very simple, which was what we wanted.
Adam: To introduce the brand, keep it super clean, try to keep it different than maybe some of the other Portland brands and just use this variable sticker set, basically, with a little bit of hand done type to bring in not only a human element but make it really easy.
This packaging right here, although very intentional and deliberate, they were meant to be temporary because we knew that after ideally six months or something like that, we’d move on to the full packaging system. The cool thing is that Upper Left got really busy, and they had to just keep going and evolving that initial packaging.
When we started this site, it was a little different than what it’s become, and at the beginning, a lot of it was about introducing a new brand concept to the public. The site’s been a constant state of evolution, like any business. I guess it’s not new anymore. It still feels new, but it’s been three or four years?
Our idea was to lead first with the tone and the energy of what we wanted Upper Left to be and for people to be able to see the site and say, “This feels different,” and wonder why and then get in the space and see it reflected in the space itself.
But over time, you realize that there are business practicalities, right? So if it becomes more about product, it becomes more about getting the coffee and the language of the coffee and the experience in front of people, how do you put that forward? Right now, I think it’s more focused on that, and then, we’re going to find a way with the repackaging to bring it back around.
Katherine: This was like the perfect beginning, like,”Hey, this is who we are. This is Upper Left.” But our mission—I feel like with everything we do—is to constantly elevate and develop.
Where does the name Upper Left come from?
Katherine: Naming. I loved representing the West Coast since I was younger. I’ve always loved growing up in Portland. I’m very proud of being from Portland and so it’s a geographic reference.
Adam: It’s obviously location-based when it comes to where it is in Ladd’s Addition, and location’s really, really important for that neighborhood and for the city. There is a kind of macro idea of it being the Upper Left of the United States, so it also represents the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast in general.
There’s also an idea, and I don’t know if I should be saying this, but one thing that Katherine’s dad through out was the idea of the upper left part of the body being the heart, and he actually said in one of the first meetings. He’s like “Don’tever tell anyone that, but that’s why I think the name is important.” I keep that in mind all the time.
What kind of physical space did you create?
Katherine: What’s the experience going to be like for the guest that walks through the front door? How inviting is it? How comfortable is it? And we wanted to work with a design company like Fieldwork that was very intentional.
Adam: Like Upper Left, they are inherently Pacific Northwest. They’re so Portland, but they’re very progressive and way bigger when it comes to what they think the city could be and how they want to introduce new processes and materials and think outside of the city. But that could only happen here.
We had meetings in the very beginning before, when it was still coming out of the bar construction. It used to be called Ladd’s Inn and talking about how to take some of what Upper Left should be and how to take cues from the neighborhood and bring it into the design. I don’t know if you’ve been in, and you’ve seen these beautiful metal angles that go through some of the wood, and all of those angles and all those moments are inspired by Ladd’s Addition.
Ray: Did you do that print that is the Ladd’s Addition map?
Ray: I love that, and I also love on the interior the different directions up from the coffee.
Adam: That idea of the light is bigger than just the sun rays, you know?
Katherine: No matter where you are in the space, how do you feel?
Adam: And when I talk to other people about what the brand has become and what the space has become and to hear people that don’t even know that I’m involved or know the owners or necessarily know the story reinforce that just because they can sense it in the space just makes it even more special.
…the company’s dedication to detail both in programming and branding in order to present a shop that faithfully represents the surrounding neighborhood, the city of Portland and the PNW at large, while also leaving plenty of light-filled room for patrons.- Nick Brown, Daily Coffee News
I think it’s also something about the tone of the brand and the experience with the service and the feeling that people get when they walk away from it and have nothing but great energy. And to me, that’s what’s really cool about the brand and the potential of it.
Ray: Upper Left Coffee of Portland, Oregon.