A Portland Cafe Builds Its Local Community

This is a two part look at Portland, Oregon’s the Arbor Lodge and its sister nonprofit Vocoform.

By Jeremy Martin

Scott Davison likes to say that good coffee makes good conversation, and great coffee makes great conversation. For Davison and the Arbor Lodge neighborhood of Portland, Ore., the coffee being served at his cafe has led not only to conversation, but also to quite a bit of action. œIt creates opportunity to find out what’s needed in the neighborhood and to respond to that,  says Davison, owner of the Arbor Lodge.

Within the last few years, Davison has seen a neighborhood with few gathering places, and fewer incubators for new, progressive ideas turn into a hot bed of learning, vocation and civic empowerment. Through his coffee shop, and also the nonprofit, Vocoform, which he runs with his wife, the Northern Portland community around the Arbor Lodge has become a place for experimenting with new ideas about how to feed people, teach life skills, and run small businesses.

œIt was interesting to see how out of a coffee shop we were really able to start creating opportunities in the neighborhood for other people and for youths,  Davison said. Give Pizza A Chance, for example, is a pop-up pizza stand started by Vocoform that gives interns between the ages of 18-25 a chance to run a business and gain valuable work experience.

Give Pizza A Chance is pne of Vocoform's projects to give young people in the neighborhood around the Arbor Lodge Cafe real-world work experience.
Give Pizza A Chance is pne of Vocoform’s projects to give young people in the neighborhood around the Arbor Lodge Cafe real-world work experience.

A second, similar concept, a creperie and smoothie stand located just across the street from The Arbor Lodge is currently in its soft opening. œTwo youths are working at the stand one on an internship the other going through an apprenticeship,  Davison said.

A small urban farm started by Vocoform gives local youth an opportunity to learn about sustainable agriculture.

But all of this may not have been possible without the coffee shop, and Davision knows that all these community and experience building enterprises are in many ways indebted to the shop. œLife takes place somewhere, so in my opinion, place has a lot of meaning. I’ve spent 20 years around coffee shops. My thing about coffee is, it is the thing to ground people to a place. It’s so apropos that so much of what has happened in this neighborhood has happened because of a coffee shop,  Davison said. œIt can be dangerous when coffee becomes its own end, but we do coffee because it’s the medium that allows us to do bigger things in the community. 

The Arbor Lodge urban farm.
The Arbor Lodge urban farm.

It also allows employees of The Arbor Lodge to go and do bigger things when they leave the shop.

“I ask (my employees) when they sign on, ˜what is this job a stepping stone too? What is next?’ After we’ve established a relationship and they know they can trust me, I say ˜OK, what do we need to do to get there?’ I allow the coffee shop to be a platform for people to do other stuff. Everybody’s at a different point though, some people just want to work in a coffee shop, and that’s OK. Some people want to do more and I try to create that platform for them,  Davison said.

Whether it’s sending an employee to business school so she can learn how to manage her own shop, or partially funding a young employee’s ambition to become a master roaster, Davison wants The Arbor Lodge and Vocoform to be an incubator for ideas that will benefit the community.

Part 2 of this article will focus on some of these ideas and take a closer look at Vocofrom and the projects the non-profit is working on in Portland and beyond.



Jeremy Martin

Jeremy Martin  is a freelance writer and photographer who has reported on coffee, craft beer, college sports, and business for a variety of publications over the past six years.  A veteran of the café industry and graduate of Western Michigan University, Jeremy lives in Seattle where can often be found making sandwiches from whatever is left in the fridge and cracking wise for the amusement of his adoring wife Amanda.

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