ABOVE PHOTO: Guzman is a member of the Shosone-Bannock tribe of Fort Hall, Idaho. From the coffee she serves to the art on the walls, she sees Bison Coffeehouse as a way to respect her heritage and Native people.
PMG PHOTO: STEPHANIE BASALYGA
THROUGH BISON COFFEEHOUSE LORETTA GUZMAN PROVIDES GATHERING PLACE, SUPPORTS NATIVE ENTREPRENEURS
Loretta Guzman has been through some tough times.
A few years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. She’s been involved in several serious car accidents. And more recently, in October, as she was preparing to host a Coffee with the Cops meeting for residents of Portland’s Cully neighborhood at her coffee shop, Bison Coffeehouse, the business was damaged by vandals. In addition to breaking the large plate glass windows on the storefront of the building, foam from a fire extinguisher was sprayed in the interior, damaging both artwork by Native artists and the mounted bison head that holds a place of honor on a wall of the coffee shop.
If the vandals thought they would stop the meeting from happening, they clearly didn’t know Guzman. She’s an entrepreneur, which means she’s also a survivor. She set up a Go Fund Me account to help cover the cost of fixing the damage. She boarded up the windows. Then she went ahead and held the meeting.
Tenacity and perseverance — and even a touch of pure stubbornness — have been key to Guzman’s success, both in life and in turning an old warehouse building into a coffee shop that has become a gathering spot for the Cully community. In other words, she’s not one to give up easily — no matter how big the challenge in front of her.
Guzman renovated her father’s old storage warehouse into a much-needed neighborhood coffee house.
PMG PHOTO: STEPHANIE BASALYGA
Owner: Loretta Guzman
Address: 3941 NE Cully Blvd, Portland
Facebook: @Bison Coffee House
From warehouse to coffeehouse
Guzman is a member of the Shosone-Bannock tribe of Fort Hall, Idaho. From the coffee she serves to the art on the walls, she sees Bison Coffeehouse as a way to respect her heritage and Native people.
Her coffee comes from roasters owned and operated by Native entrepreneurs on reservations. She works with one local roaster, but is also continually connecting with roasters across the country. One of the first roasters she picked up for her store, Native Coffee Traders, is located in New York state. Guzman’s sister met a woman from the roaster at a powwow and passed her name to Guzman.
“I called (the woman), talked to her. We had a four-hour conversation. I wrote down all my questions. I had and we just went back and forth,” she said. “The next day, she called me because her uncle is the chief of their tribe and he also owned their roaster. She was able to talk to her uncle and get back to me, answered all my questions. We’ve (developed) a really good relationship. I’ve made a point to go and meet her.”
Another Native roaster, Star Village in Nevada, reached out to Guzman after hearing about her search.
“It’s two brothers (who) had been roasting for five years, (but) their roastery had been open just two weeks,” Guzman said. “They got clearance from their tribe, they sent me samples and then we went back and forth until I got the roast I wanted.”
Unique coffee isn’t the only menu item that keeps customers coming back to Bison Coffeehouse. The cafe also features an array of mouth-watering sweet and savory baked goods made on-site with recipes created by Guzman. Her baking skills can be traced back to the women in her family. Her mother and grandmother always made everything from scratch, with many ingredients sourced from a garden, and Guzman grew up cooking and baking.
“We never got candy until we were old enough to sneak off to the store to and buy it for ourselves,” Guzman recalled. “We grew up with eating in-home cooking. By growing up and cooking your own food, you learn about good food, fresh food.”
Guzman learned her entrepreneurial chops from her father, Gary. In addition to running his own successful motorcycle shop, he served as a sounding board and source of advice as Guzman moved forward with her dream to open her own coffee shop. He also owned the 1920s building that Guzman eventually would turn into Bison Coffeehouse.
While Guzman seems to have a natural knack as a small business owner, it wasn’t her first career choice. Instead, she began working in coffee in 2003 as a barista and later, as manager of a coffeehouse.
For a time, she thought about switching careers to become a teacher. Then, she decided to go to school to become a dental technician. She had to leave school for a while to battle stage 4b cancer, but after recovering, she returned and graduated at the top of her class. However, an economic recession came as she was preparing to look for a job. Her field created a competitive market that made it hard for someone fresh out of school to compete with those with experience under their belts.
It was then that Guzman realized she wanted to open her own coffee shop. She even knew what she wanted to call the business. After being diagnosed with stage 4b cancer, Guzman had a dream in which she stood face-to-face with a bison. When she shared the dream with her stepfather, he told her he had been praying to the spirits of her deceased grandparents in the spirit world to watch over Guzman as she fought for her life.
He said the bison represented her grandfather. The bison was a symbol of resilience to Guzman’s tribe. After she triumphed in her battle with cancer, it became a personal symbol her own journey of perseverance and healing. To Guzman, the only fitting name for the business was Bison Coffeehouse.
Guzman also knew where she wanted to open the business. Her father owned a 1926 building next to his motorcycle shop on Northeast Cully Boulevard. Guzman told her dad she wanted to renovate the structure for her coffee shop. He agreed but cautioned her that fixing up the building, built in 1926, would be a big job.
Guzman knew her dad was right. Because he had been using the building for storage, he had never bothered to do much to fix it up. Heavy drapes hung over the main windows, blocking daylight. Windows along the top front of the building had been boarded up. There was a big dip in the floor.
Still, Guzman was determined to turn her vision for what the building could come into reality.
“I got all of my dad’s stuff out. Me and my daughter and my nephew, we put respirators on. We just came in and started tearing things out. We tore out the walls. It had a kitchen area, and we tore out the plumbing. Me and my godson, we power-washed the building. We scraped it, we primed it ourselves, we painted it. I took out the drop ceiling. Took out all the lights,” she said. “When my dad saw me tearing (everything) out, I think he thought I would never finish it.
In order to pay for the renovation, Guzman supplemented income from her day job with making and selling tribal bead art. Because she had to do the renovation work as she had money available, completing the building took two years, and forced Guzman to tap her tenacity and determination.
“I put in new windows. I installed new lighting. I would work every day (at my full-time job) and then come here and work evenings and weekends,” she said. “I did what I could and hired what I couldn’t do.”
She ran into problems, though. For example, she hired a contractor, but ended up having to figure out for herself how to navigate the city of Portland’s complex and often confusing permitting processes. In addition, the building was in Multnomah County when it was originally constructed before eventually being brought into Portland’s city boundaries. As a result, there were almost no records or drawings of the building to be found in city records and almost nothing to be found at the county. Guzman’s mother finally ending up going online and finding a site where they could create a floor plan by entering room dimensions.
“My mom … got a template for $10,” Guzman said. “She came with a clipboard and some paper and a pencil. I took the measuring tape and I just started measuring everything. I’d tell her numbers … and (she wrote) them down. She took it home and punched in all of my numbers and there was my building.”
Eventually, Guzman was ready to place the mounted bison head she purchased from a seller in Portland in a place of honor on the wall, surrounded by a gallery of art by Native artists.
As the renovation progressed, people in the neighborhood began to take notice of the transformation of the building. Their interest told Guzman that her feeling that Cully needed a small business like Bison Coffeehouse might be right on target.
“The day I got my windows done … literally, people were pulling up, trying to run in with their mugs, and I was like, ‘No, no, we aren’t open yet,” she said.
Even knowing people were eager to visit the new business, Guzman was nervous when she prepared to open the doors for the first time. She held a successful soft opening and then closed for a couple of days to work out the kinks. When she opened again, she felt confident Bison Coffeehouse was headed for a bright future.
That future seemed to dim in early 2020, when COVID forced the closure of most businesses. Guzman closed for one day, brainstormed how to continue to serve customers given the limitations related to the pandemic, and then began providing customers with takeout service. She turned a window on the side of the building into a walk-through. When restrictions on serving customers in-house eased up for restaurants, Guzman reopened for regular service. The walk-up window, however, had become so popular that she decided to let it remain.
While some aspects of business have to be felt out by trusting your gut or intuition, Loretta Guzman is precise in every aspect of Bison Coffeehouse that can be controlled, such as in the area of baking.
“If I make a mistake, I correct it and make it into something else because everything is money,” she said.
Her commitment to find a way to turn a “mistake” into success led Guzman to create one of the coffee shop’s most popular items.
A customer asked Guzman if she could make what she thought was a biscuit made with green chilies, pepper jack cheese and bacon. She obliged, creating her own recipe, and presented one of the biscuits to the customer the next time they came in. Although the customer had actually been asking for a quiche, they gave the biscuits a thumbs up.
“I’ve made them ever since,” Guzman said. “They’re probably our best seller as far as the biscuits we make.”
Accommodating requests from her customers is something Guzman takes seriously. Her basic recipe for biscuits, for example, uses sugar. But when a customer asked if she could make some without sugar, she willingly gave it a try. The biscuits turned out slightly denser than with the original recipe, but they’ve earned rave reviews from people who come in looking for something from the array of muffins, biscuits and other made-on-the-premises baked goods that isn’t made with sugar.
“They sell out every single day,” Guzman said.
Putting the bison in Bison Coffeehouse
Even before Guzman began renovating the Cully neighborhood warehouse building that would become the home of Bison Coffeehouse, she knew she wanted to find a mounted bison head to hang on the wall.
“I can’t be Bison Coffeehouse without a bison,” she said.
She started her search online, but she kept getting outbid on auction sites like eBay. She thought she had finally found success when her sister located a bison head in a trading post in Montana. But when Guzman contacted the place, she learned they had just closed for the winter season.
“I knew exactly what I wanted,” she said. “I had saved a bunch of money, but I was having no good luck.”
Then, her sister called and told her there was a mounted bison head for sale on Craigslist and it was in Portland. Guzman checked out the photos online, but they were a little blurry. So, she called the number listed and set up a time to meet the buyer at a warehouse along Northwest 23rd Avenue where the bison head was stored.
“I went in and looked and saw (the bison head) and I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s him,” she said.
The man selling the bison head told her and a friend he had planned to use it as decor in a restaurant that they were going to open but the plan had fallen through. He told Guzman that the bison, whose name was Geronimo, had been used for breeding and had died when he was 11 years old.
He also told Guzman he was firm on the price. She had seen mounted bison heads sell online for between $3,500 and $5,500, and she was ready to pay that amount. But it turned out the man only wanted $870, a price Guzman happily agreed with.
“We really had to maneuver him in (my mom’s minivan),” Guzman said. “When we got him here, my dad pulled out a rolling cart to move him inside. People were driving by honking at us.”
At first, she kept Geronimo at her dad’s shop while construction was going on, and later she eventually moved him to the coffeeshop building and put him on the back table until she could hang him on the wall.
“I’d go over and lift the sheet and look at him all the time,” Guzman said.
Finally, the time came to put Geronimo in a place of honor. Guzman’s dad, who had a background in welding, designed a mount and had a friend fabricate it. Then, the two men and Guzman set the bison head in place.
Since then, Geronimo has been the subject of more than a few photos and videos. Guzman cleans him regularly and has outfitted him with brass beads, hawk feathers and an ermine wrap.
“My sister saw him when she was (in the Sun Dance ceremony), and she said he wants to look beautiful,” Guzman said.
The bison isn’t the only item on the walls of the coffeehouse that catches the eye. Guzman features a rotating gallery of pieces made by Native artists. Some of the artwork has been gifted to Guzman. Some is on loan from family members. Some she buys direct and while she will buy from trading posts, she prefers to purchase straight from the artists. Friends and family also keep an eye out for new art when they’re on the Powwow Trail.
“I believe our people are very artistic and have some of the best artwork in the world, but they don’t get the recognition that they deserve,” Guzman said.
Even as the challenges related to the pandemic have eased for Guzman and her business, new ones have popped up. Among the latest hurdles Guzman faces is trying to keep costs down in the face of inflation that currently shows no signs of ending.
Each time she goes to pick up supplies, she finds prices have jumped — and not just by a few cents. Year-over-year, the price of milk has doubled. Flour has increased from pre-inflation prices by more than 70%. Although Guzman usually shops around to stretch her dollars, she’s finding that deals are hard to come by these days.
In order to avoid sliding into an economic hole, she’s made some changes. Portions have been cut back slightly and the amount of baked goods produced have been reduced to avoid waste. Still, Guzman is only willing to cut back to the point it doesn’t affect the quality of what she provides to customers.
“I’ve just been trying to process it in my head, because I’m the only decision maker on everything. I’m still trying to keep it affordable for people,” Guzman said. “At this point, I haven’t raised my prices yet, but if this keeps up, I may have to do something soon.”
Like a lot of small business owners, she has also struggled to find reliable employees. She’s been lucky, however, to find help she can count on. Walk into Bison Coffeehouse on any day of the week, and it’s likely you’ll find a member of Guzman’s family somewhere on the premises, chipping in to serve customers and keep the business running smoothly.
Guzman can be found in the kitchen turning out baked goods four day a week. Her niece handles the baking duties the other three days. Her daughter serves as coffeeshop manager. Her mother, a retired accountant, handles the books. Her brother, who returned to Portland to help with the business, can often be found behind the counter balancing filling orders with checking to make sure customers have everything they need. Even Guzman’s grandson gets into the act.
“He thinks he runs the place,” she said.
Having family to count on has benefits beyond just having consistent staffing. Splitting baking days with her niece, for example, helps Guzman keep costs down and control the impact of inflation.
“If I outsource my baking, I’m going to pay a lot more. Then my prices will be higher — a lot higher,” Guzman said. “This way, we have more inventory control. We bake every single day, so we really monitor it and are able to keep things fresh, where we don’t have much waste.”
But even with the support of her family, she knows that running a successful — and profitable business — ultimately rests on her shoulders.
“In the end, it’s all on me. I’m the one who has to make the decisions,” she said.