Back in May, we reported on an interesting bit of news: Proud Mary, a coffee roasting & cafe brand based in Melbourne, Australia, have plans to open a wholly owned and operated Proud Mary cafe in Portland, Oregon. It's news that first broke via Broadsheet, an Australian food, beverage, and culture publication with offices in Melbourne and Sydney. In that Broadsheet feature, Proud Mary owner Nolan Hirte announced his intentions for the Portland market and ruffled a few feathers along the way.
“I honestly reckon it’s harder and more risky for me to do another three cafes here in Melbourne,” Hirte told Broadsheet, “than it is to go to the other side the planet and do something I know really well, in an area where there’s nothing.” Hirte went on: “One of the big holes there is service. Not in restaurants, not in bars. In coffee shops and cafes.”
If you'd reckon that coffee folk in Portland, Oregon—an established coffee town if there ever was one!—might not take too kindly to an outsider seeming to knock their service style and declaring the existing coffee scene to be “nothing”, well, you'd be right. Our reblog of the Broadsheet feature was shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, especially by readers in the Pacific Northwest, and the commentary around it was, let's say, not entirely positive.
But as can happen in this fast-moving digital news age, we had questions of our own for Hirte that went beyond his quick hitter in Broadsheet: were those quotes taken wildly out of context? Did he really think the coffee scene in Portland was “nothing”? Was he just, in the great Australian tradition, stirring a bit of shit?
To learn more we sat down for an interview with Nolan Hirte, and offered him a chance to clear the air. What we found was a passionate, excited coffee entrepreneur looking to bring his unique blend of rare coffees and comfortable cafe service to a new and growing market. Inside Hirte's spacious new Alberta Street cafe / restaurant hybrid space, early phases of construction are underway—he could be open in time for Christmas.
Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman spoke with Nolan Hirte via email.
Some of your quotes in the Australian food and beverage publication Broadsheet rubbed folks the wrong way here in the States. Is there anything about that interview you would like to speak to?
Firstly I would like to apologise if you read that article. It sounds like I am having an attack at Portland and the US. There was some truth in the things I was trying to say in that article; however, it was taken way out of context.
I did not write the article. It was written after a conversation with Nick Connellan, a journalist from Broadsheet. I didn’t get the chance to read it over prior to publishing, and he was unaware that it would be taken negatively in the U.S. I think this statement would have been less offensive and have been more accurate if it had said:
“I honestly reckon it’s harder and more risky for me to do another three cafes here in Melbourne than it is to go to the other side of the planet and do something I know really well, in an area where there’s nothing quite like the cafe model we have flogged to death here.”
I’m well aware how amazing and now somewhat saturated the coffee scene in Portland is. It’s considered the mecca of coffee in the States. I’m also aware how competitive it is there. The difference for us is not the coffee, but more the cafe model. When I said the biggest gap between the States and Australia was “service” I didn’t mean I think the service is bad in the States at all. It’s amazing; however, it’s a completely different style to what we have here.
This is the fundamental reason why we want to come over to Portland: we want to surround ourselves with the best in the industry and try and make a difference. I actually couldn’t think of a better place on the planet for it, the audience is right and the stage is set. I am sure Portland will really appreciate all the little things we do that make Prouds special.
What draws you to Portland as opposed to any other US city?
There is something special in Portland, you can see it in the people that live there and in its amazing surroundings. We think the audience in Portland will really appreciate all those little details and extra things that go in to making Proud Mary what it is.
There's a number of Australian cafe brands moving to the US — do you think the work done by Mark Dundon & Russell Beard has helped to blaze a trail? Do you expect more Australian entrepreneurs to open up Stateside?
Mark and Russell are always blazing trails, but to be honest I think the fact that there is a number of Australian café brands moving to the US has more to do with the Australian café model being thrashed out hard here and the opportunities that can be seen elsewhere where this café model is really only just beginning to take off. I think we will see the Australian café model spread Stateside for sure.
You'll be bringing over a chef from Melbourne—will you be bringing baristas from Melbourne as well?
Yes, I am bringing over one of my good friends and old Head Barista Calum Oliver. He brings with him a wealth of experience and passion. After finishing up with us around three years ago he went on to be the coffee director for Jones the Grocer and then most recently helped set up the coffee program for Heston Blumenthal’s ‘The Fat Duck' restaurant whilst it was in Melbourne last year.
For our readers who have never visited, can you tell us a bit about the Proud Mary experience in Melbourne?
The Proud Mary experience starts the moment your foot steps in the door—you are stepping in to our home and we want to treat you that way. We will find you a seat, bring you some water and the coffee and food menu, which will often include specials as some ingredients are only in season for a fleeting moment and we want to be able to show them off while they are at their peak. Our model is closer to a restaurant with table service, but maybe a little more relaxed and loud.
We roll our own oats. We make our own curd, yoghurt, and cheese in-house. We even make our own kombucha and fermented kefir drinks. The list goes on and on. This obviously doesn’t even mention the coffee, which as you know, we also take that very seriously and make every effort to understand where we are buying and sourcing our coffee from and the impact that it can make. We have been supporting and showcasing the hard work of the farmers for many years now.
What parts of the Proud Mary experience do you think will most resonate with Portlanders, and why?
It is really important to us that we know where our ingredients come from, how they were handled, and how they can benefit us all. The way we eat can be beneficial not only to us but the planet we leave behind. We recognise the hard work it takes to produce superior products and we want to support those that care about the bigger picture. I think that Portlanders will really appreciate being able to get a range of genuine artisan products often made in-house all under one roof.
What parts of the Proud Mary experience won't be coming over to the States, and why?
Vegemite because Vegemite.