Compassion by design: Portland's coffee community, others come to Preble Street's aid

PORTLAND – When word got out a few weeks ago that Preble Street would have to temporarily close its soup kitchen, more than two dozen local businesses, churches, schools and other organizations rallied to help.

Preble Street was being forced to shut the kitchen for four days to replace aging floors and make other renovations. But who would feed the kitchen’s clients, who often number more than 500 for a single meal?

Portland law firm Verrill Dana volunteered to make 1,000 sandwiches. Hannaford Bros. supermarkets donated food. Sacred Heart Church on Mellen Street agreed to serve as a temporary kitchen, and the U.S. Coast Guard offered to move supplies.

A week before the kitchen’s scheduled closing on Sept. 13, preparations seemed on track. But one problem remained, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann realized.

There was no coffee.

In desperation, Swann turned to Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design, which operates three coffee houses in the city. Forget the espresso in a demitasse cup: Swann needed gallons of coffee, enough to serve hundreds of diners at a total of 16 meals.

"We realized it was a pretty big ask," Swann said Monday, as volunteers prepared to serve a final dinner at Sacred Heart. "It was a lot of coffee, a lot of meals, plus we were asking for it to be brewed."

Coffee By Design regularly donates its wares to Preble Street, but the request was just too much to handle alone. So Lindemann turned to her competitors.

"I didn’t say no, I said, ‘let me figure out how we can make this happen,’" she said. "And I started making phone calls."

Almost overnight, some of the leaders in Portland’s piping-hot coffee industry joined forces to roast and brew an estimated 80 pounds of donated coffee – about 3,200 cups.

Besides CBD, the coffee coalition included such well-known roasters as Arabica, Bard Coffee, Crema, Matt’s Coffee, Tandem Coffee and Wicked Joe. A local paper distributor provided cups, and Oakhurst Dairy volunteered to supply the milk and cream.

Each coffee company contributed what it could, some more, some less. "Coffee is expensive … you give what you can, what is meaningful to you," Lindemann said.

The alliance led to some unlikely scenarios. Competitors teamed up to deliver the coffee on time for each meal. Some roasters didn’t have the equipment to brew large volumes, so others stepped in to help.

On Monday, CBD head roaster Dylan Hardman found himself brewing a vat of decaf – from beans supplied by Arabica.

"That’s OK, it’s all good," he said with a smile.

The surprising pairings aren’t that surprising to Swann.

"People said, this is a critical need, there must be something we can do," he said. "(The coffee donation) fits with Portland’s sense of generosity. People here want to help, to step up, and make a statement about the kind of community we are."

The makeshift kitchen was serving slightly fewer clients than Preble Street’s usual mealtime crowd on Monday, a result of some clients probably wanting to remain in a familiar neighborhood, according to Swann.

"But everything has gone smoothly," he said. "People are getting fed. That’s the important thing."