BY: ANGEL DIONIO
A few years ago I started wondering whether Southern California had any "real" coffeehouses and not just the same cookie-cutter Starbucks coffee shops you see on every corner. A quick look online turned up Portfolio Coffeehouse not far from the Cal State Long Beach campus, so off I went to the corner of Fourth St. and Junipero Ave. It impressed me then for its European café looks, its homely feel and it's great online reviews, so when Portfolio celebrated its 20-year anniversary in September, I went back to find out more about its history and its future. Portfolio was started around September of 1989, but it wasn't a coffeehouse - it was an art gallery, says owner Kerstin Kansteiner. Born in Germany, she immigrated to the United States but had a hard time meeting new people. Back home in Europe, coffeehouses were everywhere, and almost all of them were independently owned and the place to meet friends and new people. And at the time, there wasn't anything like that in the U.S.
So Portfolio, while an art gallery, still had an espresso machine and Kansteiner started to notice that people were coming back for the coffee instead of the art, which eventually led her to convert the art gallery into a coffeehouse instead. As odd as it might seem, when Starbucks came onto the scene in the early '90s, it really helped Portfolio out, Kansteiner says. "Without Starbucks we would have gone out of business," she says.
Starbucks helped bring espresso and other kinds of coffee to national attention, which commercialized it throughout the '90s. Although Starbucks' commercialization of coffee helped Portfolio's business, it also challenged them to take a proactive approach to their business. Kansteiner explains that they had to do their homework in order to keep the business running well, and not get complacent after experiences a little success. They went to coffee trade shows and educated themselves on the best way to a good cup of coffee. Kansteiner's forsight to continue to improve helped them stay in business, while other coffeehouses in Long Beach went under.
In 1993, they expanded into the backroom and started a poetry night, which quickly became one of the most popular aspects of Portfolio. "There were people even sitting on the floor," Kansteiner says.
The poetry nights eventually started to phase out in the early 2000s, but Portfolio constantly evolved with the times, changing poetry nights to open mic nights and offering live music. When the Internet revolution came, they became the first coffeehouse in Long Beach to double as an Internet café with a bank of computers for customers to use. With the popularization of laptops, there is no longer a need for Portfolio to host computers, but they still offer wireless Internet for customers, Kansteiner said.
The economic recession also did not affect her business much. She says that people have to have their cup of coffee and that coffee is way for people to connect. "They still need that comfort zone, and we know all the customers," Kansteiner says. "Many have been coming here for years."
She also has done a lot of volunteering in the community, focusing mainly on neighborhood and environmental work.
"You have to put yourself in the community," she said.
She volunteered for the community so much that other volunteers started to recognize her and nicknamed her "Coffee Girl." One volunteer even joked that it was a surprise to see she had legs, because at Portfolio they would only see her from the waist up behind the counter, seeming to float from one end to the other.
Her commitment to the community helped Portfolio thrive. It also earned opportunities in the spotlight. "Joan of Arcadia" filmed a scene there, and AT&T, All State and State Farm shot commercials there. Kansteiner limits filming to only twice a year, so that customers won't be inconvenienced, but the extra income from filming has helped them afford improvements to the coffeehouse, such as air conditioning, which was installed early this year. They also made the switch to Italian-based coffee distributor Illy, who invited Portfolio to serve their coffee a year ago.
In 2004, they received their first Zagat survey sticker and have been Zagat-rated ever since. Portfolio has also been featured in local publications such as the Long Beach Press Telegram and OC Weekly, and once even received a review that was mailed to them all the way from Japan. Two years ago Kansteiner opened a second location just down the street called Portfolio Annex, which is a mini-version of Portfolio, but also serves gelato. And later this year they will open their third location also on Fourth Street near downtown Long Beach, helping make Portfolio even more of a Long Beach fixture where all kinds of people from different kinds of cultures, backgrounds and ages meet to feel welcomed, comforted and to get a good cup of coffee.