Proud Mary Keeps On Rolling: Australian Coffee Company Expands to the U.S.

April 16, 2018
Byron Beck

Byron Beck

PDX Correspondent

Proud Mary Coffee is a specialty coffee roaster and café—as well as educator and retailer—based in Melbourne, Australia.

So what major city did this popular Down Under hotspot pick to be their first location once they decided to expand outside of their native Australia?

Was it Paris?…London?…New York?

Nope, it was none of the above. In fact, Proud Mary traveled over 8,000 miles away from home to open its latest outlet in the coffee-obsessed town of Portland, Oregon.

Founder, Nolan Hirte, recognized as a pioneer in the specialty coffee and café industry, recently launched the first Proud Mary Coffee cafe far from his homeland on a busy street in Northeast Portland. But this unusual move shouldn’t really come up as much of a surprise for those who know Hirte, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who has traveled all over the globe to meet coffee farmers face-to-face.

Hirte grew up in the Pilbara in outback Western Australia, in a small, mining town called Paraburdoo. “It’s known as one of the most remote towns in the world,” said Hirte. “It was a great place to grow up and explore the bus,”

His wanderlust for exploring led this self-described “creative” person to get into the coffee business…well..eventually.

“I always wanted to be an artist…and go to art school,” said Hirte. “I’d figured if I was going to be a successful artist then I would need to draw some inspiration from my perspective on life. I realized I needed to travel the world to gain that perspective. So before studying art I decided to study “Hospitality,” as I wanted to be able to work anywhere.”

From dishwasher to cafe owner

Hirte first job was washing dishes. “I washed those dishes faster than anybody,” said Hirte. “They called me ‘turbo.’ It just so happened that the first place I worked was an amazing all day breakfast place with a good coffee program. I had been slowly learning to make coffee for myself, one day they asked me if I would like to make a coffee for one of the customers. I was so excited I put all my energy into that one cup of coffee, anxiously I watched as it was delivered to the table, as the customer took her first sip I could see her shoulders roll back and that sweet sigh of relief. She was happy! That made me feel so good inside. It is still like that for me today, I still love to make coffee for customers 20 years later.”

Hirte is the CEO and Managing Member of Proud Mary, his coffee brand that he founded in 2009 with his wife Shari in Melbourne. “I’m that passionate coffee guy who goes to great lengths to find the best coffee on the planet and deliver it to the customer in the ultimate café experience.”

The Proud Mary brand includes wholesale coffee roasting, cafes, retail spaces and coffee education. Hirte’s cafes offer breakfast, lunch and of course coffee. It’s PMC’s chance to really connect with the customer and educate them on the importance of paying more for coffee – to improve the lives of coffee farmers and their families.

“I’m constantly thinking of ways to improve and innovate what we do,” said Hirte who operates only two Proud Mary Cafes, one in Portland, Oregon and the original one is in Melbourne, Australia. They also have a coffee roasting facility in Melbourne that roasts coffee for retail and wholesale right around Australia. PMC’s roasters space also includes a training school, a big office space, a commercial kitchen for baking bread and cakes and doing prep for the café and it also houses an intimate retail shop called Aunty Peg’s.

“Aunty Peg’s is like the cellar door to the roastery space,” said Hirte. “It is a very special coffee experience there.”

Asked where he came up with the unusual name for the business Hirte offered a simple explanation. “It was from a road trip with my wife,” said Hirte. “We had just sold our last place and was trying to come up with a name for the new venture. I was explaining to her that it annoys me when people name their café a name that means something very special but it’s really hard to spell and half the time I can’t remember it. It just needs to be a really strong name, Proud Mary came to mind as I had just seen it the written on my Creedence (Clearwater Revival) record the week before. I said Proud Mary to my wife and without hesitating she said ‘Yes’! That’s it and obviously it stuck. Plus my wife, Shari, is a big Tina Turner fan so it just made sense for both of us.”

And on the unusual decision to open so far away from his native homeland?

Hirte shared that there is “some weird kind of connection” between Melbourne and Portland. “Melbourne definitely likes to ‘keep things weird’ too. We really felt that the Portland community would really get behind what we do, we could just tell that it would be appreciated,” said Hirte. “Plus It’s no secret that Portland is one of the most beautiful cities in the world to live, we just love it here. For us, to open another Proud Mary café was a big step as we go to great lengths to make everything just right for the customer…we feel right at home here.”

And Hirte is getting used to his new home-away-from-home and a new and slightly different way of doing business. “Obviously there are lot of new rules to get your head around although for the most part (the business side) is pretty similar,” said Hirte.

Cafe cultures differ across continents

Hirte indicates there are definite differences when it comes to service. “In Australia coffee is usually served in cafes that serve a full breakfast and lunch menu too, that also includes an extensive drinks list of juices and smoothies etc…It’s also pretty normal for it to be table service in Australia. Here in the U.S it is more common to visit a coffee shop that just serves coffee and a few cakes and it is most likely counter service….”

Making good coffee, wherever they may serve it, is priority for Hirte and his crew. Hirte says good coffee depends upon a lot of very important factors: where it was grown, the altitude, the varietal, the weather it received for that season, the soil it was grown in. Also when it was picked and how ripe it was, how well it was handled during it’s processing stages of drying it down to a good moisture content—and, wait there’s more—a stable environment for it to be stored in, the way it was roasted to not impact it’s inherent character in a negative way. Finally, how well it was extracted to balance all those attributes, and then delivered to the table.

“Many things go into making a good cup of coffee,” said Hirte. “It is actually a really special thing to drink a good coffee. If you stop for a moment to consider all the different people along the way that could have ruined that cup it really is a blessing to be able to drink a good coffee.”

Hard work and dedication to craft are keys to success

And it’s not the easiest business for those looking to get into small business to dunk your toe in. “To be honest, I have never recommended anyone to get into hospitality for small business,” said Hirte. “Not unless you are willing to give up your life to it. There are no shortcuts or tricks to success in hospitality, just a lot of grueling hard work. However it is so satisfying to see happy customers, it makes it all totally worth it.” Hirte adds: “There is always room for someone that is absolutely dedicated to their craft, anyone that is friendly and welcoming and really cares about what they do can do well in coffee. However it is not a walk in the park and it really takes some serious grit and determination to stand up and deliver in such a developed market.”

Proud Mary’s prices are in line with other Portland coffee retailers, but they do serve some high end beans too which Hirte sees as a chance to educate his customers as well as benefit his coffee growers all over the globe. “It is no different to spending more money on ancient grain fire baked sour dough, craft beer, boutique wines, whiskey or cheese,” said Hirte. “There are some pretty special coffees out there too and if you’re willing to spend some money you could find yourself drinking some mind blowing shit.”

Hirte also believes that Portland was the right place to pick as the first spot outside his beloved Australia. “People here in Portland are really passionate and appreciate a great cup of coffee,” said Hirte. “This is the town that Stumptown was born from and it is something for Portland to be really proud of. However, those glory days were a long time ago now and coffee has really evolved since then. Now it’s places like Los Angeles that are really starting to bloom for coffee and it seems to be pushing a lot harder and making more noise than Portland is.”

Hirte admits that his commute from Melbourne to Portland has been a bit of a grind. “Getting the U.S. café off the ground was definitely a mountain to climb,” said Hirte who only recently went back to Melbourne for the first time since he moved here. “The commute is pretty grueling to say the least. We are about as far away from Melbourne as we can get. I think a lot of people thought I was crazy, but at the same time, close family, friends and the Australian Proud Mary staff really believed that it would be a huge success. We love it here. There are endless opportunities here. Also, the Portland community has been very welcoming. We know all of our neighbors’ on our street… this weekend is a block party on our street. We just love seeing the kids grow up around community like that.”

And Proud Mary is a community that Hirte is…well…proud of. “Cafes are such a great place for the whole community to come together, all ages, all races, all genders, all beliefs and so on,” said Hirte. “What better way to unite people through eating, drinking, music, and a nice space to hang out.”

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