At the beginning of 2020, Deadstock Coffee, a tiny, energetic cafe in Portland’s Chinatown, was selling 10 bags of coffee each week. Six months later, in June, the shop sold nearly 2,000 bags in one week. But if you talk to Deadstock owner Ian Williams, that skyrocketing sale wasn’t about his coffee; it was about white guilt.
A former Nike shoe developer, Williams opened Deadstock as a cart, which he described as a “snob-free coffee zone,” in 2015. Its slogan: “Coffee should be dope.” And in the minds of many, his coffee is: For years, customers have strolled up to the cafe to order different blends of iced tea and coffee, drip coffees, oat milk lattes — and a slice of cake baked by his mother. In the last five of those years, Deadstock has gone from a stand within the Compound Gallery boutique to a small cafe space in Chinatown with a loyal fan base and an impressive slate of house roasts.
The shop has never had a formal menu, so the inclination when you approach the counter is to simply order what you want, hot or iced. Deadstock devotees have learned the cafe’s vernacular: “Slow jamz” is code for decaf, while ordering a “Luther Vandross” will get you a smooth, silky lavender mocha.
In the winter of 2018, Williams began slowly roasting beans in small batches, teaching himself to roast via what he calls “YouTube university.” Williams applied the ethos of Deadstock’s cafe to his process, making accessible, fun, and fruity roasts labeled with such descriptions as “cinnamon toast crunch” and “tastes wealthy.” Williams’s current favorite Deadstock roast is called No Skips, a natural-process coffee sourced from Bali with notes of rose water and sake; its name is a nod to the rapper Oddisee, who is a fan of Asian-grown coffees.
In the past, Deadstock Coffee has been recognized for its sneaker- and NBA-themed decor, selling athleisure apparel, and making shoe-shaped latte art. But don’t let its aesthetics and vibe distract you from the main truth: Deadstock is a bold and inventive coffee shop peddling some of the city’s most exciting brews. Coffee blog Sprudge described it as “unlike any other cafe in Portland right now,” with bright and singular roasts and drinks hard to find anywhere else. But in the spring of 2020, Williams found himself attracting a lot of attention — not for his coffee, but for his identity as a Black-owned coffee shop owner. “I am just a coffee shop owner,” Williams says. “I’m an owner of a business [who] just happens to be Black. I’m not ashamed of it; I just don’t want that to be the identifier for people.” Nonetheless, that’s exactly what happened.
In the late spring of 2020, a new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement began to crest in response to the police killings of Black American civilians like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As a Black man, Williams has long been aware of the injustices the Black community faces, too often at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them. The history of white supremacy and violence against Black Americans by police is long, and only now is the issue starting to get the level of public investment and scrutiny needed for institutional change. “This is not new to me, this is not new to us,” Williams says. “This is new to everyone else, or just brought to the forefront. Because it’s not like these things haven’t been happening, and it’s not like they weren’t happening before George Floyd, before Breonna Taylor, a lot of these individuals who unfortunately have either been abused or who have been killed.”
In Portland — one of the whitest major American cities — protesters began to flood the streets nightly; once the sun set, police officers declared riots downtown, using tear gas and rubber bullets on the crowds gathered there. Those protests roared through the night less than a mile from Williams’s cafe. In the light of day, social media posts highlighting Black-owned businesses in Portland — including Deadstock — began circulating.
Blackout Tuesday emerged as an effort to collectively protest white supremacy, encouraging folks to spend money exclusively at Black-owned businesses on June 2, 2020. Deadstock was high on the lists of Black businesses mentioned, and Williams began to see his sales numbers climb: Pre-pandemic, the cafe would sell around 10 bags of coffee each week in the physical store; in the early days of the pandemic, those numbers were closer to 130, including sales on the new online shop. But in May, Williams watched the online orders creep upward. During the week of Blackout Tuesday, he sold more than 1,800 bags of coffee online, plus a few hundred more in the shop. “It was crazy. And it went like that for two or three weeks.” TV news stations showed up at Deadstock three days in a row. “And they all ask the same question: ‘What’s it like to be a Black business owner?’ Been Black my whole life. ‘What’s it like to see this influx of support? Isn’t it amazing?’”
But Williams didn’t necessarily feel amazing; he felt tokenized. And the work became overwhelming; he began spending long nights at his roasting facility to keep up with the soaring demand — then turn around and go into the shop and make drinks all day. “How do you forecast roasting 300 pounds a week to then needing to roast 2,000 pounds?” he says. “I’m thankful, but when you post a picture of the coffee or the bag and you say, ‘I love supporting Black businesses,’ no, you don’t — or, maybe you do now. But a lot of it is... I guess ‘performative’ is the word. A lot of it’s not to help me, it’s to help you. It’s for you to feel better.”
It was soon afterward that the attention started to peter out; Williams says the surge of business was not sustainable. To him, the performative nature of the support felt like a trend: superficial and temporary. Despite the momentary boost, Black-owned businesses were still hit harder by the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Williams’s frustration is a feeling shared by many Black business owners, as well as protesters who have watched their numbers — and media attention — dwindle.
Williams says the week following Blackout Tuesday, the shop’s online coffee orders went down to 500 bags, then 400 bags the next week, then 300 bags, until the shop dropped down to 200-bag weeks. Williams watched brand-new customers step up to the counter in the weeks following Blackout Tuesday; they’d stock up in a way that suggested they weren’t going to become regulars.
“I used to call it the ‘I’m never coming back again starter pack.’ They come in like, ‘What’s your favorite coffee?’ ‘Oh, well, we like Nenemar and Breezy,’ and they’ll be like, ‘I’ll take one of each of those, let me get another bag, mugs, three T-shirts... you want a shirt, too? Okay, let me get a hat.’ And they end up spending $200 to $300, and I’m thankful, but I’m never seeing you again,” Williams says. “A lot of people see us as a gimmick ... We don’t get respect for coffee.”
Since 2020, Williams has collaborated with a number of local cafes, restaurants, and businesses: His coffee appears on brunch menus at places like Cafe Rowan or Psychic; he’s roasted beans for an Away Days coffee-infused brown ale; and he has appeared as a guest barista at a number of different food events, rallies, and coffee shops. But he still has that eyebrow raised, unsure of when the interest will falter. “We’ve picked up a lot of wholesale customers now, which is great, but then the question is, ‘How long will y’all be working with us?’” Williams told Eater in 2020. “Are you doing it because you like the coffee or because you want to say you have Black-owned coffee?”
Instead of banking on these wholesale accounts, Williams has been putting money aside to invest in himself — specifically, to expand into new neighborhoods. He signed on to a new cafe space within Alberta Alley, an incoming development from Portland-raised NFL player Ndamukong Suh. “One of the owners was like, ‘When I’m in town, I want a place where I can sit and be with my friends,’” Williams told Eater in 2020. “I went, ‘Oh, I can do that. You want to chill? I can make it so you can chill.’” Beyond Alberta Alley, Williams is considering locations in new cities or temporary residencies in Portland suburbs, though the roaster says he’ll keep his current location in Chinatown. “The businesses and the people who frequent our neighborhood do everything they can to make sure that we’re all good,” Williams says. “We really look out for each other and have each other’s back and make sure that we’re all successful ... We got a lot up our sleeve just as a whole. Not just Deadstock, but the neighborhood.”
Whether it’s at the original cafe in Chinatown or at one of his new shops, Williams wants to keep innovating and keep making coffees that are both accessible and exciting. He wants the success of his cafes to be centered on his skill, not the white guilt of flighty new customers, collaborators, or reporters. “When people pull up to the place, I want them to look at us like we are at the top of our game,” he says. “We are leaders in this coffee thing.”