This Portland Coffeehouse Is a Celebration of Women and Indigenous Culture

Owner Loretta Guzman strives to promote Native American culture through coffee.

Owner Loretta Guzman serving customers at her coffeehouse. | Photo courtesy of Bison Coffeehouse
Owner Loretta Guzman serving customers at her coffeehouse. | Photo courtesy of Bison Coffeehouse

Upon walking into Bison Coffeehouse, you’ll be greeted with artwork on the walls done by various Native American artists from different tribes, many of which were gifted to the owner, Loretta Guzman. As a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, Guzman strives to promote and uplift her people in a positive way through her coffeehouse.

But even though many patrons celebrate and embrace the Portland, Oregon coffee staple today, the beginnings of Bison Coffeehouse started with Guzman’s tragic cancer diagnosis in 2008 following a car accident.

“My dad sent me to the hospital after my car wreck and they released me. Four days later, my dad sent me back to the hospital because the arteries in my neck were bulging,” Guzman says. “I saw the same ER doctor and he knew something was wrong.”

After multiple medical tests were performed, a stomach-dropping reality came crashing down: Guzman was battling stage 4B cancer that had made its way to her heart. She immediately requested her parents be by her side and decided that she would move to the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho, where her Shoshone-Bannock tribes reside, to live with her sister and other relatives there.

During her time at the reservation, she was extremely ill. But one fateful night, the vision that would eventually lead to the creation of her coffeehouse came while she slept.

“While I was sick, I had a dream of this bison and it was trying to get close to me,” she says. “My stepfather told me that was my grandpa healing me. He said, ‘You'll get better, my girl.’”

The bison holds great significance in the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Guzman explained that the Bannock tribe followed, hunted, and used every part of the bison to survive. The tribe never stayed in one place, and, instead, traveled where the bison were.

Guzman eventually went into remission and moved back to Portland where she continued her schooling to be a dental lab technician. After toying with the idea of becoming a teacher upon finishing school, Guzman realized that she didn’t want to go that route and decided to pursue the world of coffee.

“I had been working in coffee since 2003 to pay my way through school. Then I said, ‘I'll just open my own coffeehouse.’ But I wanted it to be a coffeehouse—I didn't want it to be a cafe or a coffee shop,” she says.

With this new goal on the horizon, Guzman proceeded to bring her dream to fruition. Her dad owned a building in Portland that, although needed a lot of work, was available for her to turn into a coffeehouse. Over two years, she quit dental school and devoted her time and money to the building.

“It was nice because my dad owned it. In a lot of places, you'll be under a lease, so you have to get in there and open right away. I was working and paying my way for everything I needed and started to study coffee,” she says.

Her studies first involved figuring out what the vibe of her coffeehouse would be, including what food to serve, if at all. Guzman was determined not to have her coffeehouse be one that sold things like soups and sandwiches like a typical cafe would. She knew she wanted coffee to be the mainstay.

Since quality coffee would be the focus of her business, Guzman made intentional decisions about what types she would serve and where she’d source from. “I felt deep within me that I needed to have bison in the name. I wanted to serve Native roasters and Native roasters on reservations, if there were any, so I had to do research,” she says.

The three Native American roasters she currently offers at Bison Coffeehouse are Native Coffee Traders, Star Village, and Spirit Mountain Roasting, which she says are all on reservations. Her relationship with these roasters extends beyond just a business transaction, though. She values the importance of building a strong connection with them and expanding their reach. For example, when she started working with Star Village, she told its team she wanted to include its coffee in her shop and had back-and-forth conversations about how to create roasts and flavors that wouldn’t compete with other coffees she stocked.

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I felt deep within me that I needed to have bison in the name. I wanted to serve Native roasters and Native roasters on reservations.

“I was for our people because I know we’re kind of shy. [We’re] a little held back because we've had a lot of rejection in our lives,” she says. “I share the knowledge I've learned over the years freely with them because I want them to be successful, too. If they're winning, I'm winning.”

Guzman’s idea of communal success for her people also includes her relatives, several of whom work at the coffeehouse with her. Her daughter, Charlomiya, is the manager, her niece is a barista and baker, her nephew is a barista, her little brother works there occasionally, and her mother is the accountant.

“Even when the pandemic first happened and they told everybody to close their doors, I was trying to figure out how I could stay open,” she says. “My family helped me figure [that out]. When I laid people off, my niece and daughter still volunteered to help because we didn't know what was going to happen. They helped me make it through all of this.”

Unlike many shops that shuddered at the onset of the pandemic, Bison Coffeehouse stayed open the entire time. When asked how she did it, Guzman simply says, “Like the bison, you just gotta push through it.” And as one of the best coffee cities in America, pushing through is exactly what she continues to do.

In addition to coffee, the shop also serves a variety of in-house baked goods, including an espresso coffee cake, quiche, sweet cream scones, muffins, savory biscuits, and cookies shaped like bison—keeping true to her dream.

Loretta Guzman working behind the counter at her coffeehouse. | Photo courtesy of Bison Coffeehouse

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2019, out of roughly 34.4 million businesses in the United States, there were an estimated 26,064 American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses. Only about 20.9 % (1.2 million) of all businesses in the country were owned by women. These statistics are part of why Guzman wants to see more women and Native Americans step into the ownership ring.

“I hope to see more of our people look at me and be like, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ I'd like to see more Native people expand on their dreams or find something that they can live off so they don't necessarily have to work for somebody else for the rest of their lives,” she says. “Follow your dreams and put all that you have into it because you only fail if you don't try.”

As for the future of Bison Coffeehouse, Guzman hopes to continue serving her community.

“I've been offered a lot of different places to open another space, but I like this place because I can monitor and control it, and give to my community. Sometimes, if you grow too much, it wouldn’t be so community-oriented,” she says. “People come and have meetings—from politicians to judges to someone just looking for a job. We get everybody in there, so it's not one class or color of people. I like that about my shop—I want everybody to feel welcome.”

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Kristen Adaway is a former staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @kristenadaway.