Proud Mary founder to open cafes in Portland and Austin

Nolan Hirte hopes to shake things up stateside.
Nolan Hirte hopes to shake things up stateside. Photo: Greg Briggs

It's no secret Melbourne coffee pioneer Nolan Hirte, of cult Collingwood cafes Proud Mary and Aunty Peg's, upset the highly caffeinated community of Portland, Oregon, when he told a journalist he was moving there as they had "nothing".

What he meant was they had nothing like Proud Mary, and as it turns out, he has a point.

Portlanders love their brunch almost as much as their coffee, and at a popular cafe down the street from where he is setting up his first stateside operation in the artsy district of Alberta, a queue snakes out the door.

Proud Mary's ricotta hotcakes are part of Nolan Hirte's arsenal.
Proud Mary's ricotta hotcakes are part of Nolan Hirte's arsenal.  Photo: Supplied

The food here is southern comfort; variations on scrambled eggs, biscuits (scones) and gravy, and no espresso in sight. You serve yourself percolated coffee, clear your own plates, and if you want a decent latte, you'll have to get a take away from the specialist roasters next door.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, this is the way brunch is done in Portland.

"In Australia, a cafe represents a place to eat as well as to get caffeinated, and we take it very seriously," says Hirte. "The menu is just as considered as the coffee program. It has become a very competitive national sport." "

Combine great food and coffee with a relaxed environment and professional, efficient service and you have a winning formula, says Hirte, who is on a mission to bring some of that Melbourne cafe style to Portland.

But to correct any misunderstandings among their passionate, independent producers, Hirte has no desire to divide and conquer. He wants to bring the cafe community together to improve standards not just in Portland, but right across the US.

And although Proud Mary Portland, almost twice the size of his Collingwood operation, won't open until the end of May, he's already planning a Portland roastery and a second cafe in Austin, Texas, where he will eventually move his family.

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Despite setbacks, a driven Hirte lights up with the thrill of this challenge and is not at all sorry to say goodbye to Melbourne now the market is saturated with 1900 cafes.

"Customers have become so accustomed to good food and coffee they've become almost ungrateful," he says. "At Proud Mary, we spend so much time doing things like growing our own grains and rolling our own oats in the kitchen (but) the customers are no longer impressed. They don't understand the work that goes into the food."

Hirte has brought in a former Proud Mary chef to run the Portand kitchen, and will introduce Portlanders to Proud Mary staples such as potato hash with bagna cauda and ricotta hotcakes.

But for now, he has his work cut out building the Portland cafe and trying to win over the coffee community.

So what are they expecting in Oregon? "Locally sourced heartfelt produce, great coffee without too much fuss, and a beard or at least a tattoo."

Proud Mary Portland is due to open in late May at 2012 NE Alberta Street, Portland, Oregon, proudmarycoffee.com.au