“There’s a way to make it work.” These honest and direct words resonated with us as we drove away from St. John’s Coffee Roasters, inspired by our recent conversation with Mount Burns. His story is a motivating one that blends life experiences, passion, and the ability to have zero doubt or hesitation. We had the chance to meet with this thoughtful, motorcycle riding coffee roaster at his tasting room and retail shop in the St. John’s neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. Mount took the time to give us a behind-the-scenes look at his roasting process, tasting room setup, and of course, to share his story.
“I had no doubt or hesitation; I knew there was a way…There’s a way to make it work.”
He was a professional photographer for about 22 years before he began roasting, but always had a love for coffee since he was a young boy. His grandmother poured his first cup and he instantly developed an appreciation. Mount would pack his own coffee and brewing supplies when traveling to location shoots so he could rest easy knowing he would have the right start to his day. Despite seeing many amazing places as a photographer, he didn’t feel completely inspired by his work. He was burned out and took a trip to Mexico where his son was living at the time. While visiting a local café, he was intrigued by the artisan approach of a coffee roaster, who was also a friend to his son. He returned home, continued his work in corporate commercial photography, but was still drawn to the idea of roasting. Shortly after this trip, Mount’s son passed away. He returned to Mexico to work through this experience. When he came back to Portland, he found a coffee roaster on Craigslist and started his next chapter.
“It felt right,” Mount tells us about roasting. He was roasting coffee in his basement, while neighbors came by smelling the aroma and began buying some of his blends. At first he was roasting on the side and balancing his career as a photographer. Then roasting grew into a business. It was about seven years ago that it all really started to flourish. He had found a workspace for roasting in his neighborhood of St. John’s and was taking it day by day. While at a local farmer’s market, he met a buyer from Whole Foods who was interested in selling his coffee. He gained more support and worked with New Seasons and other Portland retailers who wanted to carry St. John’s Coffee on their shelves. One thing led to another and the small, original red roaster, which only roasted two pounds at a time, was no longer sufficient for the growing demand. Mount bought a new, dark blue Diedrich roaster in March of 2009 to keep up with his thriving business.
As things progressed, he came up with his own blends and worked with different sources for organic and fair-trade coffee beans. He was roasting nearly 16 hours a day in the backspace of his St. John’s location. On Saturdays he would roll up the garage door and customers, or those just passing by, would purchase bags of coffee or just a cup. Mount had a vision for an authentic storefront and a business that would provide jobs in the community, income for himself and artisan roasts for those in search of “real. good. coffee.”
Roughly one year ago, the adjacent tenant gave notice and the landlord asked if he was interested. It was previously a thrift store and Mount cleared out the clutter, painted, and used his photographer “eye” to design the layout of the tasting room with an emphasis on keeping it light and clean for his customers. He realized he couldn’t do it all on his own, so he reached out for help and became involved with the business outreach program at Portland State University (PSU). They assisted him with a business plan and were instrumental in his current success. When we asked what has been the most challenging part of his endeavors, he tells us “managing the growth of the business.” Not a bad problem to have.
Mount had a vision for an authentic storefront and a business that would provide jobs in the community, income for himself and artisan roasts for those in search of “real. good. coffee.”
He currently employs seven people but still handles a majority of the roasting for the 20+ blends of organic and fair-trade coffees he sells. Mount takes special care with each batch, using a “post-roast” blending method. He roasts each single-origin coffee individually (this can be as many as four to five different coffees) then he blends them together. These steps take additional time, but create a more complex and fresh cup of coffee. With originals like “St. John’s Blend” or “Misty Mountain Hop Espresso,” it’s no wonder his roasts are so popular.
Everything Mount does is about following his passion. After spending time with him, you can see his personality and interests represented in many areas of his work. He loves being part of the St. John’s community and rides into work most days on his red motorcycle, even in the rain (his motorcycle has a “parking spot” right by his desk). From 6am to 8am, Monday through Friday, he hosts a“Grumpy Hour” where customers receive $0.50 off their coffee. He laughs as he tells us this idea stemmed from his “wacky sense of humor” to offer something opposite a bar’s Happy Hour, but equally fun. He even has a bicycle for local deliveries, a clever novelty the community enjoys. And the tasting room is home to Bestow, a floral shop that adds to the overall ambience and experience.
Mount has a knack for remembering names. While chatting over his well-balanced and flavorful coffees, we were interrupted as he said hello to his regulars. He estimates he knows 75% of his customers and told us this was a skill he learned as a photographer. He found it helpful to quickly recall the names of his subjects so he could move and place them while he composed his photos. Fast-forward to his roasting business today, this ability to get to know people is at the heart of what they do each day. He tells us that at St. John’s Coffee “we don’t project an attitude of any kind, other than just being friendly.”
… At St. John’s Coffee “we don’t project an attitude of any kind, other than just being friendly.”
To find success on a similar path, Mount suggests you create your niche, set yourself apart, determine your style and pricing, and above all else, you make it work. “I had no doubt or hesitation; I knew there was a way.” As we are learning from so many who are defining extraordinary, “there’s a way to make it work.”
St. Johns Coffee Roasters/7304 N Leavitt Avenue/Portland, OR 97203
Written by: Angelina Lusetti
Photos by: Andrea Garrity and Angelina Lusetti of Sentiero Photography