From URL
to IRL
How to meet your customers where they are
Words by Travers Johnson
Photos by Samuel Trotter

In today’s economy, it’s more important than ever to meet your customers where they are. Whether online, in person, or a hybrid of both, retail channels that started as short-term strategies to survive the COVID-19 pandemic have now become long-term sales verticals for many companies. From brick-and-mortar establishments that are now embracing e-commerce to online-only brands that have pivoted to in-real-life (IRL) storefronts, businesses are bridging the gap between the digital and physical.

In this Bloom Season case study by Travers Johnson, we explore how Portrait Coffee, a specialty coffee brand in Atlanta, GA, has diversified their retail channels and embraced change to build vital new verticals for their business.  Keep reading for details on how this company went from URL to IRL, as well as best practices for how your business can, too.

Aaron Fender, Co-founder and CEO of Portrait Coffee
I. How Portrait Coffee embraced the “ice age”
Single-origin of an idea

The Portrait Coffee story has been brewing for nearly a decade. Co-founder and CEO Aaron Fender has traveled across the globe and worked in various parts of the coffee supply chain over the years. “I've had the opportunity to travel to Africa, to go to the origin and see how coffee is grown, processed, exported, all of that,” he explains.

What he learned in his travels both irritated and inspired him. Despite much of the world’s coffee being produced in Africa and South America—often grown by small, independent farmers—people of color were not reaping the benefits of their labor. “Whether it was a Scandinavian minimalist coffee shop or a neighborhood café here in America, I realized who was profiting from trading coffee—anyone but the Black & brown folks producing the coffee,” he says.

“Whether it was a Scandinavian minimalist coffee shop or a neighborhood cafe here in America, I realized who was profiting from trading coffee—anyone but the Black & brown folks producing the coffee."
Portrait Coffee’s roastery in Atlanta, GA

And so began Fender’s quest to pour a new narrative for specialty coffee. The company aims to offer exceptionally roasted coffee and culture in a socially conscious way.“

We want to change the picture that comes to people's mind when they think of specialty coffee,” he says. “We think that Black folks really have been cropped out of that photo.”

Physical location played a big part in that vision. Being based in the heart of Atlanta’s West End—a historic neighborhood with a rich history of Black entrepreneurship and culture—was important to Fender and his co-founders, Erin Fender, John and Shawndra Onwuchekwa, Marcus Hollinger, and Khalid Smith.

“The heartbeat of Portrait has always been in the context of community.”

“The heartbeat of Portrait has always been in the context of community,” Fender says. “We are all residents of Southwest Atlanta, and we really wanted to have an impact in this community considering the rich history of Black folks in this part of town.”

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the team began to build Portrait’s brick-and-mortar shop in January 2020. “We really wanted Portrait to have a home, and so our physical space was always a part of who we really wanted to be, to deliver on that promise of community,” he shared.

However, just 2 months into the construction process, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Atlanta and their plans for a physical café were brought to a screeching halt.

Khalid Smith, Co-founder of Portrait Coffee
Aaron Fender, Co-founder and CEO of Portrait Coffee
Welcome to the “ice age”

The same week that the lockdown began—and his team’s dreams of a physical storefront seemed to end—Aaron happened upon an article that would change his outlook and the course of his business. Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic represented a fundamental disruption to business and our world. Crouch urged business leaders to “treat COVID-19 as an economic and cultural beginning of a ‘little ice age’ a once-in-a-lifetime change that is likely to affect our lives and organizations for years.”

Fender and his team took Crouch’s words to heart. They recognized that they were at the beginning a period of disruption not unlike the Great Recession, and reflected on all the successful companies—Uber, Airbnb, Lyft, Facebook—that took off during that time.

“Our team realized that how people drink coffee might change forever.”

“Our team realized that how people drink coffee might change forever,” he explained. “So that was really the impetus to shift our focus from being a physical business to being a digital brand.”

The fact that Fender had recently left his job to focus on Portrait Coffee full-time certainly added a sense of urgency, and surprisingly, freedom to the situation. “All of a sudden we weren't afraid of failure anymore,” he says. “There was the freedom to try new things.”

Embracing e-commerce

And they tried lots of new things. Like many food and beverage businesses, they initially dipped their toes into e-commerce via a mobile delivery service. This served them well for the first 8 weeks of the lockdown while consumers stayed home. But as people began to venture out more and rely less on delivery, they realized that their time and energy would be better spent focusing on another revenue model: their “Coffee Club” subscription service.

In the Coffee Club, they found a long-term hit. Club members receive a 12 oz.-bag of coffee at delivery intervals of their choosing—options range from once a week to once a month—and are able to try new coffee varieties before anyone else.

The success of the Coffee Club has led them to offer other e-commerce products, including 9 varieties of specialty coffee bags and a variety of branded merchandise including coffee mugs and hoodies.

“E-commerce has become a leading vertical for our business, which is really cool,” Fender says.

Portrait Coffee's roastery in Atlanta, GA
Portrait Coffee's roastery in Atlanta, GA
Expanding and reimagining

With their Coffee Club and online merchandise sales proving to be sustainable, the team has now directed their focus to expanding into wholesale and revisiting physical retail. “We’ve had a few wholesale partners that have been phenomenal for offering us a whole lot of demand,” Fender shared.

The team is moving forward with the preconstruction of their physical café , but has reimagined its purpose. Initially, the physical space was to serve as the primary source of retail, but Fender and team now realize that the physical location can also serve a more symbolic purpose. “We think that the physical space will be an extension of storytelling for our brand,” Fender says. “So we're really excited about that.”

But don’t think that the future of Portrait Coffee means the end of their burgeoning e-commerce empire. In fact, it’s the opposite. “We'll always have a digital presence,” Fender assures. “And not just that—we plan on doubling down on digital.”

Portrait Coffee's roastery in Atlanta, GA
Know whether you’re in a blizzard or an ice age
Andy Crouch’s article “Leading Beyond the Blizzard” made a major impact on how the Portrait Coffee team viewed the COVID-19 pandemic and their retail and sales channels. They recognized that external factors were changing the fundamentals of their business and they needed to act quickly.
Similarly, when business circumstances force you to consider if, how, and when to move into a new revenue channel for your business, ask yourself: Is this a blizzard, a long winter, or an ice age?
Listen to your heartbeat
“The heartbeat of Portrait has always been in the context of community.”—Aaron Fender
The pandemic reminded the Portrait Coffee team that their primary product was coffee and that their mission was to positively impact their community. They learned that they didn’t need a physical storefront to realize their mission of changing the face of specialty coffee or to serve their community. Physical retail was just one channel toward achieving their goals.
Similarly, reflect on the heartbeat of your business. Focus on your core mission and products first, and your sales channels second.
Experiment and iterate often
One of the keys to Portrait Coffee’s success is their determination to keep trying new things. In less than a year, they tried multiple retail and sales channels—delivery, subscription, wholesale, e-commerce retail, and physical retail. “We just kept trying new things. Our approach was, ‘Let’s stick with whatever sticks,’” Fender says.
In your business, you must remain agile and able to pivot quickly. Some retail channels will work for the long haul, some will work only temporarily, and others will fail. Experiment with new sales and retail channels, stick with what works, and discard what doesn’t.
Go where your people are
The current business climate requires companies to meet customers where they are, whether in person or online. As Portrait Coffee shows, that can mean building a café in a historically Black neighborhood or literally delivering products to their doorstep. The brands that are nimble and can embrace changes in customer needs and behavior will win.
Think Again, by Adam Grant
“It's one of those books that, in a really healthy way, makes you reexamine and question a lot of how you think or process the world. And so whether that's team dynamics or, you know, how to run a business, I just found it really, really helpful.”—Aaron Fender
Range, by David Epstein
“We live in an age of specialization, where a lot of our culture says you have to do one thing and be extraordinary about it. But Range makes the case for dipping your toes into a little bit of everything and how those experiences can actually be collaborative in the way that you think or operate. So all of a sudden, you could have a more holistic viewpoint on how to do something like roast coffee. So when I roast coffee, I'm honestly, pulling from how do I barbecue? How do I taste wine? Like how do ...all these different experiences influence how I think about developing coffee profiles?”— Aaron Fender
Google for Startups Black Founders Accelerator
“This was a really awesome opportunity and they offered a lot of resources like mentorship and coaching on everything from how to raise capital to how to use Google ads.”—Aaron Fender