Southeast Grind brews comfort for night owls
Where in Portland do you go when you want a cup of Joe and do some work after a certain hour — say, post 7 or 8 p.m.?
Surprisingly, in one of the nation's top coffee towns — second only to Seattle, according to a recent WalletHub study — there are not many options for night owls. Full cafes are often cleared out once closing time approaches, leaving unfulfilled desires for a work space that isn't home.
The question comes up fairly frequently on Reddit.com's Portland threads:
"I'm looking for a place where I can study and use wi-fi for several hours during the evening and late evening. Any of you guys have recommendations for comfortable spots that are open late? Good coffee/snacks is a plus," writes user amagicannamedgob1.
"I live near Portland, and whenever I want to go into town, I commute (I don't drive or anything). Of course, public transportation shuts off around 2 a.m., and practically earlier as far as the light rail is concerned. So, I've been looking for venues open past 2 a.m.," another user writes.
"I'm also up rather late and lament the lack of options at 10 p.m. (why am I having coffee at 10? Uhm, why not?)," writes yet another.
"Anything that resembles a Starbucks is out," says another.
On several of these posts, the first suggestion is Southeast Grind, one of the city's only non-chain 24-hour cafes, at 1223 S.E. Powell Blvd.
It's unclear whether it's truly the sole 24-hour non-chain cafe in the city limits; calls to different bureaus in the city of Portland, Multnomah County and even Prosper Portland determined that such information is not tracked.
It's true, though, that staying open 24 hours requires much more manpower and it can be tough if it doesn't have the clientele to sustain that. East Portland Coffee Roasters recently scaled back their hours from 24 hours to closing at midnight because of money, according to a store employee.
But whether Southeast Grind is unique in its open-24-hour status or not, it certainly is unique in other ways, including the story of its owner, Kacey Birch.
Sporting a bob-style haircut and plain purple shirt, Birch, 34, has a smile as warm as the herbal tea I'm sipping during an interview. The cafe is busy for 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight, as many studious youths are buried in their work, coding or writing, or whatever activity their work dictates. The glow of laptop screens illuminate faces in just about every occupied seat — a few books — while large headphones are worn to mute outside noise. Busy bodies at that later hour is usual for Southeast Grind.
The cafe itself is comfortable and inviting with its mismatched furniture and no discernible theme.
"The goal would be like you're just hanging out in someone's living room. You should be that comfortable, definitely. A lot of things on the inside have been in response to what we've heard over the last 8 1/2 years," Birch says.
She started the cafe in 2009 — an unplanned endeavor not related to her design studies while a student in Los Angeles.
But an incident in nearby Santa Monica would change her life forever, ultimately leading her to the little corner shop that's become loved by many.
As she tells the story, on Jan. 9, 2005, while walking, she was hit by actor Peter Graves (known for roles in the "Mission: Impossible" television series in the 1960s and 1970s, and Captain Clarence Oveur in "Airplane!"), who was driving.
The ordeal was settled in a lawsuit after a long, drawn-out process. Birch says the story was kept out of the media.
"Doctors told me, 'You couldn't function in society' and gave me this detrimental diagnosis that I wasn't very accepting of," Birch says. Though she had brain damage, she pushed through anyway.
A native Oregonian, she then had to leave school in Los Angeles to live with her parents in Portland in order to be taken care of, since she couldn't walk or drive on her own.
Suffering from severe migraines, she says, "I knew I wasn't ever going to work for anyone else, anyway, but that settlement gave me the nesting to start the cafe."
Before the shop was Southeast Grind, there was another 24-hour cafe there called Fireside. It closed down, and Birch picked up the space after a few years of healing, shortly after the financial crisis of 2008 that caused some Portland cafes to shutter, according to Birch.
These days, when not spending time with her family at her nearby home, she can be found working the graveyard shift, which she says is often the most fun.
On occasion, they'll get in homeless folks, or people on their way home from a late-night shift and looking for a bite to eat before bed.
She has plenty of strange anecdotes, including the time they found a severed coyote head in a backpack behind the cafe. Or when gamers would spend over 24 hours straight in the shop and employees found bottles of urine in a small room they often let people use for work privacy. But those are extremes — usually, it's just people hanging out.
"People in the night, you get to see people in different pivotal moments in their life. Maybe they're going through a breakup and needed to get out of the house to vent, or maybe they went out dancing and need to sober up," Birch says. "They can come here."
She notices there's something about the middle of the night that breaks down the social walls between people.
It's also the time when she met her husband. She says he did software technology and taught classes, and the shop was often his office.
But lately she's worried about the future of the shop. They're on a month-to-month lease with the building's owners, Stacy and Witbeck, a California-based company that Birch says owns several pieces of land in the area. Recently, the owners indicated the possibility of Birch having to move within a few years to make way for new development, causing her to scout out possible new locations. They're not cheap anymore.
"All the other places we look at are sparkly and brand new, and like three to four times the cost," she says. And she believes there's just nowhere better than the Brooklyn neighborhood of Southeast Portland. A move from that neighborhood, where she has her nearby home, would mean a massive change. She's built a lot for herself since the accident — which she is actually thankful for.
"Everything good in my life came from that traumatic incident: starting this cafe that I love; where I found my husband that I love; I was able to buy my house that I love," she says.
Coffee Fest Portland
For those immersed in Portland's coffee industry or looking to start a coffee shop, be sure to check out the upcoming Coffee Fest Portland at Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. from Oct. 13-15.
From a "Latte Art World Championship" to "Coffee Business Startup Seminar," and tons of opportunities for trainings and a large list of exhibitors and 2,500 coffee retailers, cafe owners and baristas, attendees will get a well-rounded experience of how to thrive in Portland's booming coffee environment.
The trade-industry-only event costs $40 for general admission.
Find out more at coffeefest.com
Reporter, Portland Tribune
Tribune on Twitter: @ThePortlandTrib and Facebook
Subscribe to our e-newsletter