Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: My Nature and Theirs

Being a nineties young adult necessarily meant being an eighties child and a seventies baby. As a seventies baby, my young mind absorbed the earthy seventies lifestyle, which involved shopping at health food stores. Some of my earliest memories contain snapshots of the original Nature’s grocery in Portland, of the enormous bulk bins filled with nuts and raw honey. The remembered smell of my dad’s fresh-baked granola, made with Nature’s honey, oats, and roasted nuts, brings tears to my eyes. These early visits impressed an ideal of grocery shopping, as well as eating, on my soul, such that Wal Mart is anathema to me in its mode of low quality food, staleness, and warehouse chic. For contrast, I could wax poetic about Wal Mart’s complete opposite, outdoor marketplaces–of which, Nature’s was not. But at least Nature’s was an attempt at progression toward a regressive notion of fresh food and community.

At some point in the nineties, Nature’s sold out to the GNC, which then sold out to Wild Oats, which then sold out to Whole Foods. Whole Foods, although adequate for purchasing organic produce, is a greener version of Wal Mart with (occasionally) healthier food options on the store shelves. Whole Foods is a corporation without a soul that doesn’t often stock local produce. I don’t trust them. When they claim to avoid GMOs, I sniff in disgust. If they wanted to rid their shelves of Franken-foods, they would test products and refuse to stock brands with GM ingredients. Any product containing canola, soy, or corn would be suspect.

If you’re wondering whether this drift in thought has anything to do with coffee and my childhood, then the answer is yes. Corporations have overtaken the homegrown health food stores of my youth, as well as local coffee shops, and re-branded them with shiny green paint and ink meant to trigger fluffy feelings of health and nature in the minds of customers, rather than the lack of feelings triggered by sterility and soullessness. I’d be willing to bet money that the Whole Foods manipulation extends to their website: Go look and see how many shades of green they use. [I checked this for myself. Yes, green, green everywhere. The blog is virtually unreadable because of the green background set with white lettering. Squinting at their gloating posts makes me feel as if I’m loping through a meadow! Um, no it doesn’t.]

Turning the clocks back to the early nineties, however, Portland still had its own brands. I worked at Coffee People in its glory days, when Jim and Patty owned the chain of stores. In fact, I first worked at the Beaverton store, which was in a strip mall right in front of the Beaverton Nature’s store. Although Nature’s hadn’t yet sold out to the GNC, they’d built stores at several locations and revamped their image with an early version of the eco-friendly-lodge-warehouse that Whole Foods loosely follows to this day. Imagine green banners hanging from the Warehouse rafters, and you’ll suddenly detect the fragrance of savory herbs and lavender. Occasionally, when on shift at Coffee People, I grabbed lunch at Nature’s deli. I preferred chicken salad with a mess of gloppy guacamole. If sun existed–a long shot in the Portland area before June–I sat at an outdoor table and soaked up the sense of security created by pseudo health food and Willa Cather novels. Pseudo–yes, the deli was rife with falsehoods. They served SunChips with their sandwiches, for heaven’s sake! Have you ever read the original ingredients on a bag of SunChips? [Only recently, Frito-Lay has removed the hydrogenated oils and also claim the chips contain no msg, which is unlikely. And don’t forget that the Frito Lay brand doesn’t avoid GM ingredients.] But, perhaps, the word sun is simply another manipulative sales tactic, especially for Oregonians in the Northwestern part of the state.

Back at the coffee shop, I washed away the chicken and avocado, but couldn’t wash away the finely ground espresso from the cracks and pores of my hands. After retying my apron, I stood at the espresso machine, jerking shots for fancy drinks, which I decorated with whipped cream wreaths. I also ran the register and sold bags of gourmet treats. The Coffee People bakery made exquisite loaves of banana bread, trays of rich brownies, and cookies that melted in the mouth due to the high butter content. When the phone rang, I answered it with the ever-chirpy, “Coffee People, best coffee in Portland.” This was also a popular catchphrase: “Coffee People, good coffee, no backtalk.” And how could I not remain chirpy, as jacked up on caffeine as I was?

Coffee People sold out on the corporate level, just as Nature’s did. Now, if you search for them on the internet, you’ll find something called Donut Coffee–yes, donuts, instead of delectable baked treats. All this selling out gives me a deep sense of loss. Where are Jim and Patty? I’m sure they’re enjoying their retirement. But I really want to know, where is the essence of the hippy couple whose faces benevolently smiled from the Coffee People cups and t-shirts?* Where has my youth gone? Corporations sucked it up and churned it out and left me with a life painted green–no cluttered Nature’s shelves and rooms filled with bulk barrels and bins–no charming Portland chain of coffee shops to create a hedge against the encroaching Starbuckian universe.

These days, I turn to my books to express the loss of these places in my life. I write about them. In the original version of my book Franklin’s Ladder, the female protagonist runs a fictional version of the Coos Head health food store pictured above. That co-op grocery still exists, as far as I know, in its original beauty. The fruit mural says it all in images: We are not Whole Foods.

Thank God for a continuity of fruits and vegetables. Thank God for books, where authors pack away losses and preserve them for the future.

*Jim and Patty live! I discovered, while searching for an image of one of their old stores, that they opened up a shop on Fremont (in Portland) called Jim & Patty’s Coffee. Thank God for Jim and Patty.

Share

5 comments

  1. I like your memoirs, though it looks like, timewise, I may be about a decade older than you are. I remember the dead hanging fly-blown rabbits and the old Black man cutting orange-meat watermelons open with his machete for us to taste in the real French Market of the New Orleans French Quarter, 1960s. Long ago forgotten by most, and unknown to many, I am sure. Lord, the lost visions and things and times… will You one day give us rest? Yes, You will. You will.

    1. I was born in 1973 and, alas, Oregon didn’t have any French markets. Yes, looking for rest, too, just not until my kids are grown.

  2. Whole Foods may have been the first health food store I ever visited…down in Austin, TX. The fact they they are in Indiana now is actually a sign of progress! I didn’t know until college that there are more types of lettuce than iceberg and romaine. Sad. I’m glad you were introduced to real food at an early age.

    1. I probably take my health food for granted. And I also admit that I’ve done a fair amount of Whole Foods shopping over the years. But I find it sad that corporations are taking over the world and obliterating uniqueness and small communities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Me