Essay Project 2021: Courageous Coffee
By Ellen Pohl
Like many people in Portland, when it was open, I often went to Cheeky Monkeys, a cafe that was once where Studio 176 is today. When it was in operation, this cafe seemed as if it was always busy, always with people coming and going, always buzzing with conversation. As one walked through the building, boards creaking underfoot, the entire place felt welcoming. It was a large part of Portland. People could go down, get a coffee or a pastry, and chat. It played a major role in the community, as coffee houses have in our society for centuries. But in 2013, after having recently been sold to new management, the cafe shut down. And for a while, that was it. Portland no longer had someplace to serve as that hub. Until March of 2020, that is. In this past year, Tanya Schneider’s long-running home enterprise, Courageous Coffee, has opened for business. Paired with the baking of Erica Sheehan and assisted by the cafe’s other employees and friends, Courageous has opened successfully in the midst of the pandemic, and has since been an asset to its patrons and community.
Since its beginning, Courageous Coffee as a whole has always had a love and determination at its art. Schneider has spoken about how she loved coffee since her early childhood. She had her first sip of coffee with her father as he had his morning cup, and fell in love. The company that she shared through this experience made it all the more special. This sort of spirit is palpable from the decor of the cafe and the people that are surrounded by it. The room is filled with a gentle grey, but is accented and complemented by merry reds and greens that exist in the cushions, signs and plants around the walls. On the wall are some framed bags, the ones that carry the still-green beans to the cafe to be roasted and served, as well as pictures of businesses such as Portland Dairy that once inhabited the building. And behind the counter, one of the cafe’s baristas works in front of a wall painted the same bright red, adorned with a large chalkboard menu. The entire room is often splashed with sunlight from the windows lining the front.
This cafe, charming as it is, wasn’t always the base of Courageous Coffee. Once upon a time, the business was just a shed and a roaster in Schneider’s back yard. Even before that, it was a tiny Behmor 1600 roaster, a machine small enough that Schneider said it would only be able to roast about a half cup of beans at a time. Despite its small size, this tiny little Behmor was the seed that grew into what Courageous is today. It initially was purchased to support a hobby, Schneider’s aforementioned love of coffee. One day, she was asked to help assemble military care packages for troops overseas, and she offered to send her roast coffee. In an interview, she said that this was the turning point. She said that “I decided to branch out and share with the rest of the world. I didn't know how I was going to do it or how to even get started but I know my ‘why’ and that was to give back to our communities, military, and to anyone in need through my love of coffee.”
Through the following five years, Schneider saved up for a larger roaster. When she purchased it in 2016, she also bought a small, Amish-built hut to house it. With that, Courageous Coffee was born. It was distributed to five different locations around Portland, such as the Portland Party Store and the Blue Mason Jar. In the first year, they were able to contribute to various charities and organizations, including, but not limited to, the local police and fire department, Homeless Angels, and Blue Star Mothers. Even before it had a public location, Courageous was a force of good in its community.
After having been a distributor for a while, the business took its next step. On August 3, 2018, Schneider announced on the Courageous Coffee Facebook page that they would be opening a store. The new shop would take the corner building that was formerly Sunkissed Tanning, and those who worked on it expected the process to take about six months. However, many unexpected obstacles were met along the way. It turned out that the entire building would have to be completely gutted and redone. By the end of the construction phase, it had ended up being three times as expensive as they had budgeted for and had taken four times the estimated period. Throughout those two years, Schneider said that there was a lot of mental struggle in the form of frustration and worry to accompany the physical challenges. However, she made it through, and was very glad that she did. She described her great sense of pride and accomplishment, how it made those years feel finally worth it. She went on to say that she was “actually thankful for the struggles we ran into during the renovations because they helped shape me for the future.” When the mostly-empty building was opened up for Portland’s 150th anniversary, I heard a comment on how it sometimes seemed like Courageous would never open. I can only imagine what it was like to be invested in the process. But despite all of this, they began to serve from the building in March of 2020, and become an even more solid force in the community.
Ever since that March, many lives have been ever so slightly changed for the better. On virtual Wednesdays, often I will go with some friends to grab something in the morning. In even those brief moments of being present in the building, I am able to see the life that comes with the shop. I can see it in the barista, who is so often friendly and smiling, in the woman that often meets her friend or the teenager getting orders for a group, in my friends, as we order warm drinks and enjoy our ability to get out of the house and see each other. Even though it feels very quiet now, as people can only come and go, that community feeling is still present.
Having a place of social gathering is good for a community. Socializing has been proven to have both present and long-term benefits, such as extended cognitive function into old age. To have a place where people can come together easily is almost nothing but beneficial in this way. That people can break out of their regular spheres, for even just a moment, is an asset. I really love that something like that can exist, and I hope that others appreciate it too.
These are things that nearly any cafe can bring to the table. However, as mentioned, Courageous does more than just bring coffee and pastries to the masses. Since it’s beginning, Tanya Schneider has worked to contribute to charity through her coffee. The very act that sent the entire enterprise in motion was an act of charity. And now, this generosity can happen more actively than it ever could before. One example of this can be spotted on the counter in the building. To the customer’s left side, there is a basket that contains various slips of cardboard, all with the name of a category of product. The label explains that these are prepaid, and that anyone who needs them can take one. Looking a bit closer around shows even more of this charitability. On every coffee bag and business card, it says that ten percent of every purchase is donated to a non-profit organization. With this statement and the act that it describes, Schneider’s “why” can finally come to be. So far, Courageous has donated $15,000 since its launch to various charities in and around Portland. As far as determining who to donate to, Schneider says that she typically follows her intuition to decide. On top of what it brings to the community, it brings this strength to other organizations trying to do good.
I am very excited to watch this business grow. The incredible amount of good that this business has generated has been done during a limiting pandemic where just getting people through the door was challenging enough. Looking at older pictures of the building full of tables, I am excited to see what sort of community begins to fill them, after the tape has finally been removed. While I look forward to those times, the present shows me that no matter what happens, this cafe will still be a great force of positivity to its staff, patrons, and local organizations. Hopefully, the good that it does can continue for some time to come.
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.