Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters Fosters Hope and Resilience in a Once Overlooked Neighborhood

“The neighborhood surrounding Rocky Butte has points of beauty and brokenness,” began James Helm, Founder of Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters in a video created for the 2019 IMPACT Pitch competition. James, an Army medic deployed to Iraq from May 2003 to July 2004, founded the coffee roasting business in Portland’s Rocky Butte neighborhood in 2017. The launching iteration of the business was a coffee delivery service, through which James roasted, shipped and hand-delivered coffee to people’s front doors. Amongst those who subscribed to the delivery service, was Bryan Atkinson, now a co-owner and the roasting company’s sales and marketing lead who is working to find a location for their first café and roastery. Nathan Dunbar is the third co-owner of the company, offering financial guidance. James’s daughter Lily, rounds out the team by roasting, delivering and serving coffee at Rocky Butte’s new farmer’s market. “It’s been an amazing privilege to see my daughter learn each aspect of the business,” added James, who recently competed against his daughter Lily in the Cascadia Roasting Competition.

Since November 4th – 8th is Veteran Small Business Week, I asked James to share how his experience in the military has prepared him for entrepreneurship: “No matter the situation, the camaraderie in the military gives you confidence in each other, you have each other’s backs, regardless of the outcome, we were a team. We’ve been building a team with Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters, and it’s much the same, while the stakes are not as high, we are risking everything to see our community be a place where people decide to stay.”

Photo courtesy of Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters.

Rocky Butte has historically been an “overlooked and underappreciated” neighborhood known for crime, but the coffee company is working alongside their neighbors to slowly transform “new narratives of hope and possibility in the neighborhood.” This summer, Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters provided the seed money to launch the community’s first farmer’s market. In a neighborhood where there isn’t even a grocery store, offering fresh produce and coffee locally was a big deal, especially for those living in Rocky Butte without a car, Bryan Atkinson added. Incorporating Bryan’s real estate experience, next year, they plan to localize roasting and open a café that provides a permanent point of connection for their Rocky Butte neighbors.

While Rocky Butte has been open for only a few short years, James, Bryan and Nathan have helped create positive change through their business and beyond. “People who used to be standoffish or have grudges against neighbors have let their guards down and started participating in summer barbecues on the block again,” mentioned Bryan. “It’s kind of tricky to say what the coffee company has done vs. what have we done individually…The coffee company kind of feels like an extension of who we are, but some of those things we’ve done aren’t specifically branded to our coffee company. It’s kind of like the coffee company is one more way we’re trying to bless our community, but not the only way.”

Business Impact NW was proud to award Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters the title of Best Veteran Small Business and a check for $2,000 at the 4th annual IMPACT Pitch competition this past September (in collaboration with sponsors Foundry Law Group and IBA), and be able to honor James’s military service this Veteran Small Business Week and Veteran’s Day.

If you don’t want to wait until their café opens to try Rocky Butte’s award-winning coffee (James’s coffee made it to the judge’s top five favorites at the 4th annual Cascadia Roaster’s Competition last month), you may order it online. Also, be sure to follow Rocky Butte Coffee Company on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Want to know more about the work Business Impact NW is doing in the Veteran community? Click here to check out the in-person and online events the Veteran Business Outreach Center at Business Impact NW is offering this Veteran Small Business Week.

About the author

Megan V. Torgerson

Megan is Business Impact NW's Communications & Outreach Officer and a candidate for Seattle University's Arts Leadership MFA program. She holds a BA in English with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Montana and is passionate about storytelling of all forms, nature and cultivating community by elevating our unique stories. Megan grew up on a farm and ranch in Montana and is especially inspired by empowering small business owners from underserved rural communities.

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