Moving your headquarters from one location to another can often galvanize a business and create a stir of excitement. However, moving from a small space to a (much, much) larger space can present new challenges. Portland, Oregon’s Sterling Coffee has built quite the following as a shop known for cozy, intimate locations. Their previous space was shared with a wine bar and could fit just ten people comfortably. But in late 2017, it opened the doors to a new location, which is nearly ten times the size of the last shop.
Naturally, the fear that the quality of service would decline was a worry. The former space provided a close consumer connection—would it be possible to retain that chemistry in a larger space? Co-owner Aric Miller and his team quickly quelled these worries, and Sterling appears to be thriving in its new home, right across the street from its former location. Miller says Sterling tried to retain the same sense of intimacy the old shop’s smaller footprint necessitated. “It still feels the same,” Miller says—largely because the customers are still the same.
Originally from the East Coast, Miller jumped into the specialty coffee scene after working in the restaurant industry for some years. He originally wanted to get into coffee roasting, and started working at Coffeehouse Northwest, off NW Burnside Street, with his current business partner and co-owner, Adam McGovern. Fast-forward to 2010 when McGovern and Miller opened Sterling Coffee, an espresso stand in an alley next to Trader Joe’s on NW 21st Avenue. From the moment they first put on their signature vests and ties, their objective was to provide customers with a great coffee experience and outstanding service to all customers.
Despite the formal attire, Miller “didn’t want to be known as the coffee shop that is like the old-school record shop with the condescending record clerk,” he recounted, “where we come off as know-it-alls.”
The community has fully embraced Sterling’s narrative as they’ve hopscotched around NW 21st Avenue. Sterling has great coffee, but the relationships they’ve built through customer service seem to be the key to their success.
The staff of baristas at Sterling are sharp. They quickly remember your drink order after a couple of visits and often present it to you tableside. If their customer service isn’t memorable, their wardrobe just might be—the suits are a departure from Portland’s casualwear norms and an ode to old-school Italian coffee culture.
Miller is focused on every detail. If he himself is not dialing in espresso, he can be seen around the shop conversing with everyone in attendance. “At the end of the day, we just want to be a good neighbor. It’s important because I am a neighbor, I live in the area,” says Miller.
Miller attributes Sterling’s high quality to a prized six-kilo Giesen roaster, located a couple of miles away in their roasting facility. In the shop, baristas pull shots on their Synesso Cyncra two-group espresso machine. They also have three Mazzer Robur E grinders, and a Mahlkönig EK 43 for bulk grinding. Rounding out their gear is a Wilbur Curtis brewer and water tower.
Aside from square footage, hospitality has also expanded beyond normal business hours. Sterling has begun hosting socials on Monday nights that highlight other businesses in the area. These socials range from wine tastings to a slew of pop-up events coming this summer. Sterling is now leveraging every square foot of event space—something that was not possible in their former location. Some might say Sterling has transcended from their initial goal of being a part of the fabric of the community to becoming the blueprint of what businesses strive toward.