Travelers enter airports toting predetermined angst, expecting the typical airport experience—one spent wrestling security lines, funneling into terminals filled with sub-par, overpriced snacks. Airports have also been a barren wasteland when it comes to finding good coffee. But Portland International Airport (PDX) quashed this idea, thanks to the recent addition of local coffee roasters like Portland Roasting Coffee.
Portlanders are quick to brag about the relaxing environment of PDX. They’ll likely mention the beloved teal-patterned carpet, soothing live music played at all hours, and prices set to match retailers outside the airport. (Full disclosure: I am one such proud Portland native.) These are just a few of the amenities that helped PDX secure the title of Nation’s Best Airport for four years running. Now the city’s great coffee is available beyond security checkpoints, much to the delight of bleary-eyed travelers.
Keeping Lines Moving
As part of an agreement with the Port of Portland, the airport’s governing body, Portland Roasting Coffee recently opened two locations in the terminals of PDX. The arrangement is part of an ongoing effort by the Port to invite more local businesses to operate at the airport. The roaster-retailer debuted their third location late last month, situated in the wings of the passenger pick-up area outside security.
One café stands just beyond security lines, greeting travelers heading to the D and E terminals. This location tends to see a rushed crowd as passengers hurry to re-loop their belts, organize luggage, and grab a quick cup a coffee as they race to their gate.
The second café sees a much different crowd. Situated near the far end of the C terminal (currently hosting gates for Southwest Airlines), the general traffic flow is much slower. “People are hanging around waiting for flights, so there’s a lot more time to interact,” says Nathanael May, Portland Roasting’s director of coffee. Customers may want to chat about coffee, or just make small talk to help pass idle time.
Both cafés operate on a barista-first model, running one or two production lines, depending on hour-of-day and customer flow. The shops are situated so the bars run in a modified “V” formation; customers can approach from either side, placing their order with the barista, then collecting their drink where the two bars join.
“We knew barista-first had the capability to provide great customer service,” says Maggie Davis, training and education manager. While the barista-first model takes a little more training up-front, an experienced team can easily handle long airport lines. Customers place their order directly with the barista who will make their drink, minimizing chances of error and providing a more direct service connection.
Each side of the bar features a two-group La Marzocco Linea and a set of Mahlkönig K30 Twin grinders. Taps hold Portland Roasting’s nitro cold-brew and a sparkling tea-on-tap from Steven Smith Teamaker. More local flavors come in the form of baked goods. Portland-based Marsee Baking keeps the cafés stocked with an assortment of pastries, muffins, scones, and cookies—all easy for travelers to take to-go.
Managing Airport Logistics
Operating a specialty coffee shop in the airport certainly has its challenges. “If something breaks or goes wrong, it’s very different than at headquarters, where everyone is next door in the office,” says Davis. The requirement of security escorts adds time and red-tape to repairing any damaged equipment.
Deliveries also present a challenge. Drivers have to obtain a special badge allowing them to drive on the tarmac; all deliveries must adhere to a schedule, and are inspected upon arrival. Any emergencies that would require a non-badged driver to make a delivery must be accompanied by an escort—and be scheduled twenty-four hours in advance.
But the benefits are plentiful. “It’s a total community here,” Davis says of the other local businesses operating tarmac-adjacent. When Portland Roasting opened their first airport locations in July, customers kept asking for sugar packets, but they only had spouted dispensers. Port concessions managers jumped into action, and a basket of sugar packets appeared on the bars of each location shortly after.
Another benefit is the steady flow of passengers through the airport’s five terminals, providing plenty of business for each café.
The bustle of foot traffic through the terminals of PDX was just one motivation for opening the new locations. May explains that another incentive was creating brand awareness for locations outside the airport. “It’s two-fold,” he says. “We have a captive audience and access to volume, then the opportunity to introduce people from Portland to the brand.”
According to May, many customers come to visit Portland Roasting’s headquarters after first learning about them at the airport. With a third location now launched outside security, even more Portlanders will have the opportunity to discover the brand as they wait to greet friends and family. They’ll also have one more reason to brag about having the best airport in the country.
—Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s editor.