Interview – Billy Wilson: Barista Coffee

Billy Wilson

Sure, you thought that you’ve been in Portland’s hippest coffee shops, sipped on single-origin French press while enjoying the pour over bar, sleek furnishings and espresso equipment that likely is worth more than your car. But now that’s water under the bridge. Add all of that to a high definition surround sound system (need to hit the restroom? Yeah, there’s a speaker in the ceiling there too), custom woodwork tables, and French inspired wallpaper with coordinating custom wrap around leather benches. Throw in a few taps of fine beer and you’re close to picturing the space Billy Wilson has been working on over the past few months. Barista II is not just another coffee shop; it’s a coffee shop with a strong speakeasy nod that answer’s the question, ‘Oh – this is where I’ve wanted to hang out and didn’t even know it.’

Billy: It looks good in here. We just pulled the paper off the walls – it’s like unwrapping a present. (He’s showing it to his friend Matt)

Let’s talk about the design of the place

Billy: It’s kind of a funny thing how we designed this. Ben (King – the architect) and I work really well together. I initially sat down with him and was like, ‘This is my idea.’ I wanted to do more of this style in the Pearl shop but when that came around it was just not the right space. It was really small – we just needed to be really clean. I’ve wanted to do something a little more classic for a while. I’d really love to open a speakeasy to be honest. Leather booths, everything’s wallpapered. To me that sounds like a good place to hang out.

The other aspect of it is that there are a lot of places I go, bars and stuff, where it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s drink a beer here.’ Which makes sense because it’s a bar, BUT I would also drink coffee here. Like in the daytime, it’s got cool light. Then I was like, ‘Well what about coffee shops?’ There are a lot of coffee shops that try to sell beer… but I wouldn’t want to try and sell beer out of the Pearl shop. It just feels stupid. So I was like, ‘I want to design a place that looks good in the dark.’ Having it look good in the light – for a coffee shop – is one of the easiest things. That’s why we designed it like this. I just love this style.

Barista Alberta. Photos: Tim Roth

As far as everything else, the equipment layout is my design. When it comes to the materials – how to achieve a certain thing, that was Ben.

Ben King: We did a lot of computer models. Like the last one, he mocked up the whole thing in his basement. I do a lot of coffee shops and bars (ie. Albina Press on Hawthorne, Barista in the Pearl, Coffeehouse 5, Extracto) and nobody thinks about flow like he does. He’s pretty hard core.

Billy: I feel bad because this is going to be sooo nice to work on and the Pearl shop is one of the most difficult bars to work on because the grinders are down the line. Whereas here you can go back and forth in a flurry.

What have been the challenges with this one?

Billy: Honestly, it’s kind of gone smoothly.

Ben: We started in the beginning with a lot of work to make sure things go smoothly. So there haven’t been the ugly surprises.

Billy: I mean, it’s going longer than we expected – but that’s to be expected.

So those are speakers (I’m looking at a lot of them). Are you wiring for a full audio system?

Billy: We’re going to give it some time, but we’ve got it wired for high-def. But I want to break the space in first a little bit. I don’t want to be that guy with a TV in his coffee shop, but in the evenings? I’m going to be selling beer here from 6-10pm, so who knows what we’ll end up doing.

Billy: Oh there’s all kinds of things… a film night… Again, it’s all family. One of my dearest friends Peter, his dad owns a video/audio installation company, so he gave me the massive hookup on these. We got eight JBLs in the main café here; we got one in the bathroom. We got ‘em going in outside. I’m trying to make the best space I can.

Why here on Alberta St.?

Billy: I live in North Portland. I was always trying to get Kevin (Fuller, owner of Albina Press) to open up something out here. We really couldn’t find anything for a while. And we weren’t ready to open up a second store. I mean, the Pearl shop’s only been open a year, but the landlord came to me with a screamin’ lease. The numbers looked right… it was really hard to turn it down.

I’ve said it once; I’ll say it a thousand times: I have the best staff… the best employees I’ve ever worked with. Within six months they were totally running that shop. I was just in the way. So that freed me up to really pursue, ‘Well, what if we do another shop?’

Are you planning the same roasting menu here?

Billy: Yeah, it’ll probably be the same coffee with a little variety I suppose.

A while ago you made some waves in your Twitter account when you asked what the reaction would be if you didn’t allow wifi. What’s the update on that? Are you going to have it?

Billy: We’ll have wifi. But if you look around, there’s only like three plugs in here. You’re more than welcome to come in here – hey, people gotta work. You’ve got your smartphones and people need access but I don’t want people to sit here all day. I don’t want it to be like a library in here. I want this to be a place where it’s loud – people are talking – I don’t want people studying all day. There’s no laptops allow at the bar. Unless you own the place. I want to have fun; make lots of coffee.

What’s the neighborhood reaction been like going in here? Such as with the other coffee shops.

Billy: Here, yeah, there are multiple coffee shops on this street. I could throw a rock and hit one right now. But look at this. It’s a total different vibe. I think there’s definitely room for everybody.

Are you ever surprised about how well coffee does here?

Billy: It makes total sense. Portland is full of foodies. I can’t give an exact answer as to why people serve so much coffee here – Stumptown helps. If there hadn’t been Stumptown here I think we’d be a few years behind where we are now. Duane’s (Sorenson, owner of Stumptown) one of the front-runners. He’s really influential in my life. He’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed on the path.

In terms of competing, are you still in that world?

Billy: (eyes widen – head down) Oh my God. You know… yeah, we’ve got competition coming up. Depending how this thing goes, I’ll do my best to compete. But I’m fifty fifty right now if I’m going to compete or not. Next year will be easier for me. There’s just too much going on right now. If Barista’s going to succeed at what I want it to be, then I have to make sure my baristas compete and do well. For me it’s important to support them. My goal with Barista is to really turn the job into a profession – really make a living making coffee for people. The build out here is reflective of that seriousness.

  • Barista Pearl District is located at 539 Northwest 13th Avenue, Portland
  • Barista II is located at 1725 NE Alberta St. Portland
  • Barista SW Portland will be opening Summer 2012.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. shawn says

    Hey Billy, can you open Barista III down here on SE Division? There is a new building opening up on Division & SE 31st.

  2. Tommy says

    Stereo speakers in the bathroom? We had that 20 years ago, in flyover country, no less. Handmade tables and leather upholstered benches? Wow… thank God the discovery of quarks and leptons paved the way for that…

    I went to Extracto this morning and ordered a “coffee for here.” Ten minutes and a hell of a lot of effort later, I had cup of coffee in my hand. I saw them pour a freshly boiled pot of water through the grounds at least four times. Admittedly, it was very good, but c’mon, people, it’s friggin’ coffee. You cultivate a bush. Collect the fruit. Extract the seeds. Dry them, grind them up, soak them in water and drink the result. Must *evertything* be turned into some kind of value added Food Network wet dream?

    Okay, okay, so I can go somewhere else and get slightly shittier coffee in a hurry and be perfectly happy with it. And more power to Billy, Duane, Din and whoever else is out there turning coffee into wine these days for those with the patience and disposable income to enjoy it. But am I wrong here? Really? I can’t be the only person in this town with fair trade french press single origin fatigue…

    • mzwong says

      I hear you. I like really good coffee. But I like it fast. I am willing to have marginally less great coffee if it can get to me in under 4 minutes. Someone has got to be able to do this. Maybe there can be two lines at the cafe: one for stare at your navel coffee and one for people who just want to drink a cup of coffee. I’m sure there’s room for both of us.

      • Tommy says

        Thank you! I was expecting a s**t storm of disagreement on this (and believe me, I can handle it, if it’s forthcoming), but it’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels this way…

          • Tommy says

            Yes, airpots! As long as the coffee doesn’t sit in them for too long, they’re fine! And I hit up Ristretto from to time when I’m heading up Williams, you guys are doing a great job, Nancy. Another place that does the single cup poured through a filter thing is Blend up on Killingsworth, which surprised me a little the first time I went in there, as the original one on Burnside is a bit funkier (jeez, I remember when it was the Burnside Bean, and Jon Neufeld, of Jackstraw fame, was one of the baristas… think I’ve been in this town too long!). At the Kw shop, they have four or five airpots lined up, but there’s nothing but hot water in them, which they then pour through the filter when you order your coffee. Again, nothing against people taking coffee really seriously, but if they threw some grounds in there with the hot water in those pots, they’d have, well… *coffee* in them!

          • January Vawter says

            I’m really surprised at the comments slamming Portland coffee culture. You’d think people on a website called “An Exploration of Portland Food And Drink” would be . . . I don’t know. . . interested in food and drink?

            It seems like you’re confusing fast food coffee with craft coffee.

  3. Steve says

    I think Billy Wilson has the best PR operation in the entire city – there must be dozens of serious baristas in Portland (including a bunch that have opened their own shops) but he’s the only one who’s constantly interviewed, pictured on magazine covers, etc. Why is that? (And no, I’m not a competitor.)

    Also, is it my imagination or does Barista I (I haven’t been to the new one) not post their drink prices? What’s up with that?

  4. reflexblue says

    I thought Barista II was a fake Starbucks – like Circadia in S.F. was – when I first went in. It was nice though. I guess the default for cappuccino is “wet.” I will try my luck with with a macchiato next time. I am looking forward to using their air conditioning this summer. I think they will be busy.

  5. James says

    billy’s shop on alberta is truly beautiful. the barista’s are top notch and the coffees he runs are excellent.

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