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Café transition is smooth as silk

As Café Delirium closes second location, Silk Espresso opens its third in same spot
by: Shannon O. Wells, Leah McMahon, owner of Silk Espresso, enjoys a fresh cup of java while showing off her café’s logo on Tuesday, Jan. 21.

If the clamor for coffee before a café opens is any indication, the new location of Silk Espresso in Gresham is destined for success.

One day before opening at 6 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, the door swings open frequently for would-be customers ready for a jolt of java or homemade pastry. When owner Leah McMahon encourages them to come back tomorrow, the slightly crestfallen faces give way to hopeful smiles.

'Based on the foot traffic alone, and the disappointed faces as we turn them away, we will be a welcomed opening,' she said. 'I think they're anxious to get it back open.'

By 'back,' McMahon refers to the well-established Gresham business Silk Espresso is replacing at 3030 N.E. Hogan Ave. at College Square. Café Delirium owner Cody Clark recently closed his College Square location to focus on his shop at 308 N. Main Ave., a mainstay in downtown Gresham, McMahon said.

McMahon, 33, plans to continue the tradition of quality, hand-crafted espresso drinks established by Clark's shop as well as the Silk Espresso locations she operates - a drive-through hut at 401 W. Powell Blvd. and a café in East Hill Church, 701 N. Main Ave. The café also will feature homemade pastries and free wireless Internet, a service that replaces the desktop Internet stations featured at the outgoing cafe.

As much as she enjoyed running the other locations, McMahon has thought about expanding Silk Espresso for some time. Actually, 'feeling' is a more apt description for what she experienced.

'I had been looking to grow,' she said. 'I felt a nudge inside of me. When you get those nudges, you've got to keep your awareness level a little higher.'

While perusing the online marketplace craigslist.com, she came across a 'cryptic,' two-sentence posting about a café sale. McMahon was pleasantly surprised when she dialed the number and Clark answered the phone. The two coffee entrepreneurs got together for lunch and worked out a deal.

'We both felt like, OK, this is it,' she said. '(Clark) put a year of hard work into this. He wants it to succeed.'

Inheriting a well-established local business has benefits but also presents challenges.

'The bonus of this location is that the people before have done a great job,' she said. 'I hope we can be worthy.'

Rather than remodel a relatively new shop, McMahon concentrated on cosmetic upgrades, such as painting and minor repairs. Most of her energy is channeled into maintaining the quality standards she established with the Powell Boulevard location opened in 2005.

Committed to buying locally, McMahon gets her pastries, including the Silk Signature cheesecake, from Laura Salazar of LaSala Sweets in Portland, who caters exclusively to Silk Espresso. Her coffee comes from Coffeebean International in downtown Portland. She and her baristas brand the Silk logo on each cup with stamps from Gresham-based StampConnection.

'We want to be committed to sustaining what we love about this community,' she said. 'Maybe people will want to drive a block or two further' to support a local coffee house.

The Oregon State University graduate worked for years in corporate-oriented marketing jobs before finding her true calling. She'd had one too many unsatisfying experiences in the 1990s dot-com maelstrom.

Her husband, John Wallace, a production director at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, led McMahon to an epiphany. He asked his wife when the last time she was truly happy with her work life. McMahon hearkened back to high school and college years, when she worked as a barista.

The next day, they spotted a boarded-up former coffee house on Powell. Three weeks later, Silk Espresso was up and running. In May 2007, as part of an effort to create a more communal worship house, they opened a café at East Hill Church. Nowadays, when her alarm sounds at 4 a.m., McMahon bounds out of bed with vigor reminiscent of her earlier stints behind the counter.

'My husband is amazed,' she said. 'It's changed my whole way of working. This is the hardest I've ever worked, and I love it.'

She is quick to give credit to the seven baristas she works with, as well as the loyalty of her customers. Aware of the stigma some have of overpriced 'gourmet' coffee, McMahon's goal is to nurture repeat business. She charges $3 for a 20-ounce latte.

'It's less about someone dropping $20 every time they're here than creating habitual behavior,' she said. 'Because they can afford it, they can come every day. That's more important to me.'

Choosing a name that reflected her philosophy while describing the product was also crucial.

'Silk describes what I think a good cup of coffee tastes like, the way it finishes,' she said. 'It describes everything we're trying to do. Silk, to me, describes a high-end fabric. We really have to have our drinks perform at a high level. Otherwise, it's poor branding.'

McMahon sees her success with minimal experience, as well as the fact that silkespresso.com was unclaimed as an Internet domain name, as signs she is on the right path in giving something back to her community.

'It's a testament for this being the right thing for us,' she said. 'Small miracles never cease to amaze me. We have been absolutely blessed.'

Silk Espresso

Silk Espresso, 3030 N.E. Hogan Ave. in College Square, is open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Call 503-666-4716 for more information.

The drive-through location at 401 W. Powell Blvd. is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 503-705-9986 for more information.

Log onto www.silk

espresso.com for more information.