With Dovetail Coffee, Aloha woman segued from cafe owner to roaster-mentor

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dovetail Coffee's Cathy Zellmer tests different brews during a cupping at her roasting facility on Southwest Nimbus Avenue in Beaverton.A handful of adults loudly slurping dark liquid from shared tablespoons around a stainless steel table may not be the picture of grace, but for Cathy Zellmer, the taste test is a crucial part of the coffee roasting process that should be approached properly.

The correct coffee slurp — “cupping” in roaster parlance — she demonstrates, involves extending one’s upper lip over the spoon and quickly inhaling a small amount of liquid upward, so it cascades across the roof of the mouth.

“It should go across your entire palate,” she says, “like you’re trying out soup that’s a little too hot.”

This meticulous attention to detail is indicative of the care and passion Zellmer puts into Dovetail Coffee Roasters, the business she opened in April 2012 at 7901 S.W. Nimbus Ave.

An Aloha resident, Zellmer employs six part-time workers at the small but efficiently run warehouse-like space. As a wholesale operation, Dovetail’s front desk is often unmanned while the real action takes place in the back. There the tall, bulbous roaster heats beans to varying temperatures. The beans are then brewed, tested for flavor, and packed and shipped out daily.

In addition to selling 15 varieties of roasted beans to cafes, Zellmer, the self-described “Queen Bean” of Dovetail, focuses on mentoring and assisting those getting started as coffeehouse entrepreneurs.

Some of the newer retail clients with whom she’s formed synergistic relationships include Scott’s Coffee Brake at 18647 S.W. Farmington Road in Aloha, Goodness Coffee House at 4925 S.W. Angel St., and Coffee’s On at 12320 S.E. Sunnyside Road in Clackamas County.

“I like to partner with a cafe,” she explains. “I try very hard to do everything I can to help them succeed. There’s so much more than coffee that goes into success. It’s hard to have a sustainable business model based on that model.

“I can say that with a lot of conviction,” she adds, “because I did it.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Erik Knudsen, coffee steward at Dovetail Coffee Roasters, tests different brews during a cupping at the roasting facility on Southwest Nimbus Avenue in Beaverton.

Front counter to roaster

A loyal customer of The Original Coffee Brake in Aloha, Zellmer, 50, and her husband, Chuck, in 2007, rationalized purchasing the cafe based on their weekly coffee consumption.

“I was their No. 1 customer,” she says. “My husband spent money on golf, and I spent it on coffee. We already spent $400 to $500 on coffee a month. I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ So, we bought it, and I entered the coffee business like some of the people I’m trying to help. The difference is I didn’t have people like that trying to help me.”

Running her own roaster-equipped cafe as the Great Recession took hold, however, proved more than Zellmer bargained for.

“I got a little discouraged. I thought, well maybe I’ll quit all this,” she says. “Maybe coffee’s kicked my ass.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dovetail Coffee lead roaster Matt Knight gets coffee ready for a cupping, where different coffee beans are tested on site for quality and consistency.

When she discovered more people were interested in buying the cafe than the roasting equipment, Zellmer had an epiphany.

“You mean I could get rid of the parts I don’t want and keep the part I want?” she excitedly recalls, waving her arms for emphasis. “Ding! Ding! I went with it. It allowed me to stay in coffee and do the parts I was passionate about.”

Zellmer shared her passion with friends, including Matt Knight, who came on board as Dovetail’s lead roaster and a co-owner.

“Before this, I was a non-coffee drinker,” says Knight, a Beaverton resident. “I went from non-coffee drinker to coffee snob overnight.”

Calling Dovetail and its crew “independent artisan craft coffee roasters,” he admits not every batch of beans from the roaster turns into the magic flavor.

“Sometimes we miss,” he says. “There’s experimentation. A new crop is going to be different from a prior crop, and we have to start all over again.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Monty Knudsen pours roasted coffee beans into retail bags at the Dovetail Coffee Roasters headquarters on Southwest Nimbus Avenue.

Bean buddies

While competition is fairly stiff among coffee roasters and cafes around Portland, Knight sees signs that Dovetail’s devotion to the perfect roast is making a mark among the java-consuming public. Unexpected customer demand, however, sometimes has to take a back seat to the roasting process.

“Sometimes I’ll be in the back roasting, and someone will pound on the (front) door, saying ‘I know you have coffee in there!” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s hard, because when that roaster beeps, you better be paying close attention.”

To fulfill her coffee mentorship mission, Zellmer is working with two women who plan to open a local cafe in the coming months that gives those from abusive situations an opportunity to reclaim their lives and careers.

“Their mission is not to become a retail coffee enterprise, but to use that as a mechanism to train women from abusive situations so they can get back to life,” she says.

Recognizing that quality coffee comes down to personal taste, Zellmer and her crew plan to focus on helping startup cafes while letting Dovetail’s carefully considered nuances speak for themselves.

“I’m not going to go on a limb and say we have better coffees than others,” she says. “What I can do, that I don’t see other large coffee businesses do, is that relationship piece. The key is finding people as partners to work with hand in hand, to help them so they can thrive.

“We’re not going to be successful if they’re not.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Erik Knudsen, coffee steward at Dovetail Coffee Roasters, tests different brews during a cupping at the roasting facility on Southwest Nimbus Avenue in Beaverton.

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