In an impressive coffee landscape like Portland’s, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to every corner cafe, the ones that keep neighborhoods humming and make up the wholesale bread-and-butter of the city’s specialty roasters. Then again, it’s often those hidden-gem cafes that tell the most interesting stories.
Recently rebranded Bell Tower Coffee, annexed in a church in the city’s Mount Tabor neighborhood, is one of these. The cafe ups the bar of what one might expect from “church” coffee, and presents a business model that feeds the community in more ways than one. Under the umbrella of Taborspace, the Mount Tabor Presbyterian Church’s non-profit community enrichment program, Bell Tower serves everyone from musicians renting rehearsal space in the Church’s multipurpose rooms, to moms and babies visiting for dance classes, freelancers utilizing the church's free Wi-Fi and ample seating, and now coffee folks, drawn in by the cafe’s offerings and sleek Southeast Belmont Street signage beckoning just down the hill from regal, forested Mount Tabor.
Building on the mission of Taborspace to gather and strengthen the community by repurposing a historic, sacred space, Bell Tower helps raise funds to maintain the church and functions as a job training program. The baristas are all volunteers—mostly students or part-time artists looking for coffee world skills to translate into later employment. Many go on to work in cafes across the city and outside of Portland, or to open their own businesses.
Until recently, Bell Tower was pretty out-of-sight; if you lived locally, you knew about it, but few passersby knew to climb the stone steps to the heavy door leading into the base of the church’s 100-year-old bell tower. Those who did were rewarded with a serene (and undeniably unique) atmosphere in which to caffeinate.
The small, foyer-like bar and counter area at the bottom of the Bell Tower (twisting steps ascending off it lead to offices, a staffroom, and the bell itself) greets customers first. Jewel-toned stained glass windows let in warm light behind the bar (once featured on Portlandia) and over a small pew-like bench lined with tables. Neatly lined bottles of syrup and spicy One Stripe Chai (brewed in the basement by the cafe’s barista trainer, Joshua Weinberg) fill the sills, while a tiny glass case by the register houses goods from Portland’s prevalent Bakeshop. The chalkboard menu is simple, with traditional espresso drink sizes, only a few add-ons, chai, and a curated tea list from the Jasmine Pearl Tea Company. A vegan cocoa-cinnamon chocolate sauce is made in-house, while shots of Ristretto Roasters blends and a guest roaster (currently Nossa Familia Coffee) are pulled on a La Marzocco Linea Classic. Additional eats, including sandwiches from Molly’s Grown to Eat and kid-friendly items, fill a small fridge by the door.
The small area feels more like a clubhouse than a church. Taborspace founder Lauren Moomaw, program manager-in-training Madi Goldsmith, and Ristretto Roasters owner Din Johnson have each worked over the years to establish Bell Tower as a welcoming, albeit whimsical space. (Elegant, etched-wood signage out front, added on last fall to beckon new customers, was the crowning touch.)
The cafe's reach extends into the church’s main gathering space, the Copeland Commons, with colorful stained glass, high ceilings with rustic wood rafters, large leather armchairs, and a massive hearth. The Commons is filled on weekdays and Saturdays, when the cafe is open, with laptop users (long stays are encouraged, as one of Taborspace’s goals is to provide a living room-type office for those who need it), families, retirees, friends catching up, and plenty of folks filtering in from Taborspace’s for-rent community rooms.
Bell Tower’s status as a non-profit sets it apart from the rest of Portland’s craft coffee scene. And though it wasn’t the original goal, Taborspace (by way of Bell Tower) has strengthened the coffee community, too, with well-trained baristas and Weinberg's One Stripe Chai line, which has a growing list of Portland accounts. Goldsmith and Moomaw have a working vision of expanding the Mount Tabor program to other churches, reviving spaces based on the needs of their neighborhoods. That may mean other cafes and training programs, but in the meantime, Goldsmith is excited about organizing trips to roasteries for Bell Tower’s baristas, establishing relationships with organizations helping those struggling to find employment, and working with other local businesses.
“I want to develop more partnerships with coffee shops and roasters because we’re training perfectly capable workers and it would be nice to have a pipeline for all of these people,” says Goldsmith. “I want to focus on partnerships and opportunities for our volunteers to learn more.”
For their part, the volunteers all seem grateful to be there. For some, it’s paid off in ways they never imagined. Weinberg’s trajectory into coffee, and then chai, was a winding one eventually landing him a few days a week volunteering at Bell Tower. Now he laughs heartily while describing the customers that come in off the street, demanding to know where the strong smell of ginger and cardamom is coming from, and jokes about the man-sized mortar-and-pestle he will eventually need to keep up with demand for One Stripe.
Regan Crisp is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. This is Regan Crisp's first feature for Sprudge.