When Portland, OR native Zak Davis decided to open his cafe, NEVER Coffee Lab, he could have settled on many places around the bustling city. But he opted for a location at the base of Mt. Tabor Park where he lives with his wife, Cait. Mt. Tabor park is significant in their lives — Cait and Zak met there and, on both sides of their families, the park has been home for three generations. Cait’s father grew up on Mt. Tabor, and Zak’s parents and grandparents met on Mt. Tabor. “It’s home and significant and it needed a neighborhood cafe,” Zak shares. “We absolutely love our neighborhood and community. It’s a fantastic combination of young, creative types and established families. That combination creates a really genuine community with a ton of energy and momentum. It’s Portland so the standards are high, but it’s Portland so everyone is open to try new things and bump shoulders in the morning with new ideas, new flavors and different perspectives. We have a YES policy for supporting our [borough]’s non-profits and schools.”
Once the location was settled, it was time to start designing the space. He worked with art director and fine artist Sarah Simmons and designer Grace Potts to create NEVER. Zak knew that he wanted to step out on a limb and craft a bright, five-color-palette coffee shop that took a turn away from the white-box, minimal cafes. “We took a lot of design risks. There was no case study for it. We wanted a really bright, colorful atmosphere that instantly showed that we were thinking a bit [differently] but also payed homage to our favorite third-wave cafe elements. Sarah and Grace had to balance our love of minimal, clean design with a totally wild color aesthetic throughout every part of the design. The result was perfect but we had to learn to listen to our gut and enjoy the risk taking. NEVER has a distinct design language and it really stemmed from following our instincts,” Zak recalls. From the hand-painted STRADA logo on their espresso machine to the hand-painted letters on the menu board, it was all created with such precise purpose. Sarah and Grace custom mixed paints and hand-airbrushed so many little details throughout the shop to give it exactly the vision you see here.
Zak leaves us with a great piece of advice: “If you are starting or building a cafe, let it be an expression of your values. Yes, there are [wonderful] cafes all over the world to pull design inspiration from, but if you try something really different it is more rewarding. Scary and risky, but rewarding. Also, create something holistic. Let your space, your drinks, your customer service and your communication all come from your same set of values. Don’t compartmentalize. And, buy really strong floor tiles because you are going to be busier than you could have ever imagined.”
Photography by Brenton Salo
“This is the view from the front door. Yep — super small. But I love walking in greeted by the smell of coffee and the smells of all the unusual spices and ingredients used in [our] signature lattes. Best spot to see Sarah Simmons’ mural,” Zak notes.