Business that perks: Coffee by Design in Portland gets national nod for being cool

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PORTLAND — Alan Spear and Mary Allen Lindemann don’t think they look particularly cool.

“I mean, look at us,” Lindemann said, pointing to her simple gray dress and  straight, brown hair, pulled loosely back. Spear, her husband, was wearing a black sweater and jeans.

But their business, Coffee by Design, was recently called one of the 10  “Coolest Independent Coffee Shops” in the country by the Zagat rating guide.

The designation was based on customer service by baristas, the atmosphere of the shops and the quality of the coffee served.

Lindemann said those three things define Coffee by Design. The company has had opportunities to expand beyond its four shops, on India and Congress streets and Washington Avenue, and in the main L.L. Bean store in Freeport – but they don’t want to.

“We don’t want to be huge,” she said. “That’s not our vision.”

Coffee by Design opened 16 years ago at 620 Congress St., after the couple moved back to Maine from Seattle, in the days when Starbucks was still only a Seattle company and small, independent coffee companies were rare in Portland. Although the original plan was to sell coffee out of a small cart, like many of the Seattle-area vendors, the couple decided a shop would be a better fit for Portland.

“The goal from day one was to provide a great product and great service,” Spear said.

Back in 1994, people in Maine didn’t know all that much about coffee, Spear said. In fact, he hadn’t known much about it until he moved to Seattle. But they were passionate about bringing great coffee east, despite the recession the country was in at the time.

They both admit Starbucks’ rapid expansion helped pave the way for small, independent shops like theirs to find success.

“They created the niche market for all of us,” Lindemann said.

At first, they were buying roasted beans from the West Coast. However, it wasn’t long before Spear started getting into roasting beans himself. In 1998, he started the commercial roasting operation at the 67 India St. location. For a while, there was no storefront. It wasn’t until the city approached them and asked them to open a coffee shop there that they did.

For seven years, they also operated a small shop in Monument Square, but sold the operation to Zarra’s, which sold Coffee by Design coffees, but was its own independent business until it closed. Coffee by Design’s wholesale market has grown from there, to 450 wholesalers throughout the state.

“We don’t have a salesperson. It’s all just word of mouth,” Lindemann said.

Most recently, they opened a shop inside the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport after the company approached them.

“They wanted a Maine-owned coffee company to run the cafe,” Spear said.

Initially, they were just serving coffee upstairs at a small cafe area, but now, Coffee by Design has a full cafe on the first floor with an entrance on Main Street. Coffee by Design employees work there and the company designed the space.

“We have a great relationship with L.L. Bean,” Spear said. “What they stand for, we stand for.”

Even though what started as a small dream of a coffee cart in Portland has grown to a nationally recognized company that helped launch the Portland Buy Local movement, Lindemann and Spear said they have no intention of expanding any more than they have.

“Our business is about building relationships,” Spear said. “Serving a cup of coffee isn’t unique, but seeing the passion of our roasters, the dedication of our baristas – people are attracted to that.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

Sidebar Elements


Coffee by Design owner Alan Spear, left, checks out the coffee beans master roaster Dylan Hardman just released from the roaster in the company’s small roasting room on Washington Avenue in Portland. The business was recently named one of the 10 coolest coffee shops in the country by the Zagat rating guide.

Coffee by Design owner Alan Spear holds the company’s newest gourmet coffee, part of a new “Harvest Reserve” category of high-quality – and expensive – coffees. The Panama “Geisha” coffee will be sold in glass jars for $25 per half-pound.

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