July 14, 2013

Portland's Coffee By Design growing from the grounds up

Powered by a robust blend of passion and caffeine, the shop is poised to grow again, exemplifying the rare success story that manages to stay true to its 'humble beginnings.'

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Alan Spear and Mary Allen Lindemann, the married couple who co-own Portland’s Coffee By Design, stand in the 40,000-square-foot warehouse on Diamond Street that they’re converting into a “playground for coffee geeks.” Their fifth retail site represents a major expansion, taking the company – and the local coffee culture – to a new level.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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July 1, 1994 – Congress Street coffeehouse opens.

1996 – Monument Square coffeehouse opens.

1998 – India Street coffeehouse and roastery opens, CBD starts craft-roasting coffee beans.

2000 – Wins first Specialty Coffee Association of America’s TOPS Retailer Award

2002- Monument Square coffeehouse is sold to Zarra Hermann to create Zarra’s Coffeehouse

2003 – Washington Avenue single-origin coffee bar opens, roasting operation and offices are relocated here.

2008 – Freeport coffeehouse opens inside L.L.Bean flagship store, later moves from second floor location to Main Street storefront location.

September 2012 - CBD puts warehouse on Diamond Street in Portland under contract for a future expansion

2012 - CBD named one of Zagat’s Top Ten Coolest Coffee Shops in the U.S., with mentions in Forbes and Travel + Leisure’s hipster rankings.

March 2013 – Closes on purchase of 1-11 Diamond St.

June 2013 – Construction begins on Diamond Street.

September 2013 – Construction to be completed, two Loring Smart Roasters to arrive

October 2013 – CBD roastery, offices and warehouse to move from Washington Avenue to Diamond Street location

November 2013 – Diamond Street coffeehouse to open


1. Costa Rica Dota Finca La Pastora

2. Organic Guatemala Quiche Maya lxil Co-op

3. Sumatra Lintong Dolok Sangull Peaberry

4. Costa Rica Tarrazu Hacienda La Minita Cafe del Sol

5. Organic Ethiopia Sidamo Nura Korate


1. Zimbabwe Salimba Estate

2. Panama Boquete Geisha from the Esmeralda Estate

3. Costa Rica La Minita Estate

4. Guatemala Coban La Cascada Estate

5. Papua New Guinea Eastern Highlands Arokara Co-op


The couple moved back to the East Coast in the early 1990s with the dream of opening a coffee cart or kiosk in a major office building. They spent a year in Burlington, Vt., and six months in Providence, R.I., looking for a location, but to no avail.

"It was getting rejected by everybody," he said.

The couple would visit friends and family in the Portland area. At the time, Lindemann said the commercial vacancy rate along Congress Street was 40 percent. When a salon space at 620 Congress St. became vacant in what was unofficially referred to as the pornography district, the couple persuaded the landlord to give them a shot.

"That neighborhood just spoke to us," Spear said.

The couple had saved $10,000 to put toward their business and borrowed another $20,000 from a bank. They got an additional $15,000 loan from a friend of a friend, who was impressed with their passion and business plan.

"I had the money at the time and I really wanted to help them," said John Russell, an entrepreneur who now lives in Connecticut. "I knew they were going to be successful. I kind of saw the coffee thing coming. I believed in it."


Coffee by Design opened its Congress Street location on July 1, 1994. The couple's business plan anticipated 25 customers a day.

Instead, they got 250 -- a number that Spear says was driven by the fact that tickets had just gone on sale for a Bob Dylan show at the newly renovated State Theatre nearby.

Business has been booming ever since.

Even with a part-time worker, Spear and Lindemann each worked 120 hours a week in the early months. They had no apartment, opting to stay with family. But in reality the couple lived at the coffee shop for four months, taking naps in a sleeping bag on a homemade shelf in the basement during the downtimes.

"We were there all the time," said Spear, who was the only trained barista at the time.

The shop became a hub for all walks of life -- artists, students and business people. Lindemann said the company was an early and vocal advocate for equality, and for supporting local businesses.

The couple opened a cafe in Monument Square in 1996. The business struggled to get off the ground, so the couple licensed the location to another owner. But they weren't happy with the way it was being run, so they bought the license back, and vowed that any business with the CBD brand would have to meet certain quality standards.

"That was a learning moment," Lindemann said.

Now, anyone serving CBD coffee by the cup must be trained by Spear himself.

"I don't want to be a coffee dictator, but I want people to prepare it well," joked Spear.

In 1998, the couple purchased a building on India Street, where they first began roasting their own coffee beans. Within three months, Spear was roasting all of CBD's coffee.

Two high-end restaurants in Portland -- Fore Street and Street & Co. -- became CBD's first wholesale clients that same year. Spear delivered coffee on his mountain bike with a small trailer.

Spear said he won the account after a four-hour tasting session and conversation with the chef about the best way to finish a meal. He now makes proprietary blends for these and other select restaurants and cafes.

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Additional Photos

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Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Coffee By Design’s owners pose outside their first coffeehouse on Congress Street on July 1, 1994, the day it opened. Business has been booming ever since.

Contributed photo

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Patrons Brian King of Gorham and Clark Carter of Portland converse last week at Coffee By Design’s Washington Avenue location in Portland.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Asa Korsen roasts Peruvian coffee at Coffee By Design’s Washington Avenue facility on Thursday, Co-owner Alan Spear said the company currently offers 35 different coffees and blends, excluding flavored coffee, from 17 countries.

Shawn Patrick Ouelette/Staff Photographer

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Alan Spear

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Mary Allen Lindermann

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The roasting operation, currently taking place here at Washington Avenue, will move to Diamond Street when Coffee By Design completes its expansion, quadrupling its roasting capacity from 500,000 pounds a year to 2 million pounds.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


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