By: McKenna Stack, Mark Roetcisoender, and Drew Haugen
While the city of Portland has emerged as a leader in specialty coffee over the last two decades, Augusto Carvalho Dias Carneiro’s family has been engrossed in the art of coffee making for three generations.
The University of Portland alumnus belongs to a century-long lineage of coffee farmers in Rio, and has turned this traditional family trade into a successful local business as the owner of Nossa Familia Coffee Company, located on Johnson Street in the Pearl District.
Carneiro graduated in 2001 with a degree in engineering, but found his new career as an engineer unfulfilling. “I like to say it started out of frustration. I started getting up in the morning and dreaded going to work,” he explained. “I would get excited about the big picture of the projects we were starting, but then the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day… it just wasn’t me.” After voicing his discontent during a visit home, his cousin encouraged him to bring their family craft stateside. Upon returning to Portland, Carneiro partnered with fellow UP graduate Jason Lesh to found Nossa Familia in 2004.
Despite his enthusiasm for this new project, the transition from engineering to coffee roasting was gradual. “We started the company without any know-how, or money,” Carneiro recalled. For nearly a year, he maintained duel jobs as an engineer and coffee roaster before quitting the former in 2005 and committing to his passion.
Three years after founding the company, Carneiro was able to take home his first paycheck as a full-time coffee entrepreneur. In 2008, Nossa Familia hired their first employee and began expanding exponentially. Today, the Familia team consists of 20 members who oversee every step of the production process at the company’s roasting warehouse, and serve the carefully crafted end-product at their espresso bar.
Carneiro believes that his family’s deep connection with coffee, in conjunction with the company’s commitment to sustainability, sets Nossa Familia apart from other Portland coffee roasters. “I’m really lucky because my family settled in what we call the ‘Napa Valley of Coffee’ in Brazil,” he explained. “It’s a great microclimate… not only do we have this 100-year-old tradition, but it’s a really good quality as well.”
Nossa Familia purchases their beans directly from farms in Brazil. Approximately 85 percent of these farms belong to Carneiro’s family, and those that do not remain locally owned and operated. Their main sourcing region is known as “Sul de Minas,” and is located a few hours north of Sao Paulo. Located in Brazil’s highlands, this fertile setting gives the coffee an intense flavor profile.
The company prides itself on acquiring beans from growers that run sustainable operations and enable workers to earn a livable wage. Each farm the company partners with houses between 20 to 50 families, which provide their employees houses with water and electricity, their children with schooling, and families with enough disposable income to purchase amenities such as a car or television.
These ethical practices are especially important to Rob Hoss, the Director of Coffee for Nossa Familia. “My favorite part about coffee in general is the ability to make a difference,” Hoss said. “Through purchasing practices, you have the ability to make a farmer’s life in a third-world country better, just by paying them an actual, livable wage for their product instead of underpaying.”
Nossa Familia uses this ethically-focused approach to inform their consumers as well. “We as the retailer get to help educate the customers about what it’s like to farm such a great coffee,” Hoss continued, “in addition to being able to work with the farmers, do development work, and also make sure that their being taken care of.”
Customers have taken note of the company’s holistic approach to business. Art, a customer who visits Nossa Familia regularly to enjoy his favorite roast on their patio, was initially drawn to Nossa Familia because of their environmental emphasis and fair-trade practices. “I used to run my own coffee shop in Portland, Maine but I worked with brokers to purchase my coffee,” he said. “It’s exciting to see they’re working directly with the growers.”
The company continues to work closely with their network of growers to improve their production and infrastructure. As Director of Coffee, Hoss personally visits these farms to connect with the communities and further their progress. “It was really eye opening… The people of Guatemala are a fantastic people, but a lot of the farmers who we were buying coffee from at the beginning weren’t even able to get their product to market,” he said. “They were running 75 thousand pounds of coffee through a de-pulper by hand, by manually cranking and spinning… It’s been really cool to see how much effort they’re putting into it on their side, and how much better their coffee is getting year after year.”
Even in Portland’s crowded coffee scene, Nossa Familia has received increasing attention. Carneiro credits healthy competition with other shops as a factor in the company’s success. “There’s now over 50 roasters in Portland, so it’s a very competitive market,” he said. “It’s really forced us to focus on our niche and to up our game.” The community has taken notice of their efforts, and this year Nossa Familia was ranked as the thirteenth best coffee shop in Portland by Eater PDX.
The next step Carneiro sees Nossa Familia taking is becoming “B Corp certified.” According to the B Corporation’s official website, this community of businesses promote “transparency, accountability, and performance,” and “are distinguishing themselves in a cluttered marketplace by offering a positive vision of a better way to do business.”
“The beauty of competition is that it forces everyone that wants to do well to improve, be creative, and constantly think of the next thing,” Carneiro concluded. For Nossa Familia, focusing on what’s next means continuing their commitment to fair-trade, producing outstanding products, and nurturing an ever-growing family of farmers, employees, and coffee enthusiasts who embody the company’s core values and uphold their high standards.
Categories: North PDX