Rocky Butte Business Spotlight_James and Bryan roasting coffee

Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters Brings Community to an Underserved Portland Neighborhood

On June 1, 2020, against all odds in the time of COVID-19, the Rocky Butte Espresso Bar opened for business in the mostly forgotten Madison South neighborhood of Portland. The OnPoint business member represents one of the growing number of bright spots on the east side of town by serving ethically-sourced specialty coffee.

Founder James Helms understands how to overcome obstacles. He’s optimistic about opening a second location within a year—a new fully built-out coffee shop in the Parkrose neighborhood. It took a lot of hard work to get to this level of success. The close-knit team at Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters is prepared to take everything they’ve learned to make a positive impact on communities throughout East Portland.

Building connections with neighbors

Rocky Butte, from which Helms’s business, takes its name, is an extinct cinder cone that last erupted in prehistoric times. The mountain was home to Rocky Butte Jail, as well as the Hill Military Academy. Today, the neighborhood is often overlooked and underappreciated, but that is beginning to change.

While some were looking for ways to leave the Madison South neighborhood, James and his wife Sheryl began making friends with their neighbors and joining them in serving the community. Not satisfied with the coffee beans on local grocery store shelves, the pair started to source beans from around the world and roasted them with a small batch roaster in their garage. They loved the results, and it turned out their neighbors did too.

James and Sheryl started taking orders from their neighbors, and their fledgling business took flight. They made friends along the way, and those friendships soon blossomed into a stronger community. Due to their success, Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters was able to provide the seed money needed to launch the Rocky Butte Farmers Market⁠—providing new opportunities for other small business owners. By working together toward a shared vision, the once isolated neighborhood has become a place where people can gather and invest in the local community.

An entrepreneur brings his passion for community to his neighbors and the world

As Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters grew beyond the confines of the Helms family home, two of their close friends became co-owners of the business. Nathan Dunbar, an accountant, joined to oversee the financial and accounting activities of the business. Bryan Atkinson, a real estate agent, started as a loyal coffee subscriber and then joined the company to lead sales and marketing. Together, the three entrepreneurs have grown the business and taken it to new heights. In 2019, they placed above several established roasters at the Cascadia Roaster’s Competition.

Rocky Butte Business Spotlight_Bryan serving coffee wearing mask behind safety shield

Today, the company sells high-quality, ethically-sourced specialty coffee to local restaurants, coffee shops, churches, businesses, homes and community-minded people worldwide. The new espresso bar at 8505 NE Fremont Street is just the beginning of the business’s plans to reinvigorate the neighborhoods of East Portland. Helms, Dunbar and Atkinson hope to operate multiple coffee shops throughout the area within the next five years.

A vision of fellowship becomes a reality

The Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters team dreamed that the immediate neighbors to their new espresso bar would embrace the space as their own. In the first month, neighbors gifted the shop with artwork for the wall, potted plants, extra hand sanitizer, and honey from beehives just a few blocks away. Receiving these gifts confirmed that entrepreneurs could flourish by being actively engaged in their neighborhoods and creating an opportunity for shared success.

OnPoint has been a trusted partner in the mission to create healthy communities throughout the Portland area. James, Sheryl, and their daughter Lily are regulars at the Rose City Branch. With assistance from OnPoint, Rocky Butte Coffee Roasters has been able to obtain a company vehicle and secure business credit cards. The team members at Rose City love to hear about James and Sheryl’s trip to Honduras, where they met with local farmers. The only thing better than a fresh cup of coffee is knowing that it was roasted locally from ethically-sourced beans.

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