On this episode of Racist Sandwich, we talk with sneaker maven Ian Williams, who owns and operates Deadstock Coffee, a sneaker-themed coffee shop in downtown Portland. We discuss what it means to take up space, why sneaker culture is integral to urban life, the ways in which Portland has changed since Ian's childhood, and the whiteness of the coffee scene here. And of course, a little bit about basketball too!
LINKS DU JOUR
SOLEIL HO Welcome to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, class, and gender. I'm Soleil Ho.
ALAN MONTECILLO And I'm not Zahir Janmohamed.
SOLEIL Who are you?!
ALAN Alan Montecillo. I'm the producer. Zahir's been overthrown. It's a brand new day at The Racist Sandwich podcast.
ALAN Zahir's out of town, so I'm just gonna fill in for this week. So, Soleil, during the time between we recorded our first episode and now, you've actually gotten a new job, right? Now you work at a ramen shop now, is that right?
SOLEIL Yeah. I actually work at a ramen shop, and it's nice to work at a place where I have to speak in Japanese for like half of my day.
ALAN You speak Japanese?
SOLEIL Yeah, I do. It's sort of child-level, but I can definitely say like, "I need to boil this," or, "How long do I cook this for?" Or, "He fucked up."
ALAN Yeah [chuckles].
SOLEIL "It's that one. That guy."
SOLEIL So, it's pretty fun.
ALAN Cool. Had you worked at a place that served Japanese food before this?
SOLEIL No, actually. I've always felt like Asian food was the final frontier for me because I was so comfortable within it and with that palate that I'd wanted to learn European cooking first. Which, I don't know. I mean, it's complicated, right? I didn't wanna be pigeonholed as an Asian-style chef when I started in this industry. But now I'm at the point where I'm comfortable, and I feel like I can learn more in-depth Asian techniques and Asian flavors and styles. And I've definitely learned a lot about things that I had assumed to be truth, which is always good.
ALAN What do you mean by that, things you assumed to be true?
SOLEIL Or just, I thought I knew how to make broth.
SOLEIL I thought I knew how to really get all the flavor out of an egg, but I don't. I'm learning. It's amazing.
ALAN That's awesome. And where does Japanese food fit in for you when you think about Asian good, because it's such a large category?
SOLEIL Man. So, it's definitely-- You know, I'm Vietnamese. I grew up eating Vietnamese food. So, Japanese food is a lot blander and not as spicy. But there's also some really great qualities to it too, like being able to wring out the meatiness, right? Like, umami, which is such a phrase, right? It's such a very pregnant phrase nowadays.
ALAN Has it gotten Columbused? Has umami been Columbused?
SOLEIL It's definitely like the foodies' $5 word.
SOLEIL But it's true; it's also really amazing how you can wring it out of things like roasted tomatoes and seaweed and mushrooms to make something. We have a vegan ramen on the menu. We can make that taste just as good. So, it's like those sorts of manipulative techniques that I find really interesting. And [chuckles] I shouldn't say this, but we use a lot of MSG also, and I get really excited about that.
ALAN Sound the alarm.
SOLEIL Yeah. I can open the lid on the container and just like huff it, and I'm just like [dramatic inhale], "It's like a steak is in my nose!"
SOLEIL It's so cool.
ALAN Oh, that's fantastic.
SOLEIL [laughs] But anyway, what's new with you, Alan?
ALAN So, I got a Filipino cookbook in the mail, and it's one of the first cookbooks I've ever gotten. It's definitely more for beginners like myself, and I'm really excited about it. I've really only learned to cook for myself in the last couple years, as a young "adult." Most of the things I cook are just standard American, Western fare like pasta and things like that. And I've always thought about the Asian foods in my life. Again, Filipino food's a big part of this. Dim sum is a big part of it for me, 'cause I grew up in Hong Kong, but I'm Filipino. And I've always thought of those foods as like a special space where I go to make myself feel better. Filipino food means big family reunions, and dim sum means crowded groups of Cantonese-speaking people. They're kind of pushed to the corners of my mind as I live in Portland, but one thing I'm trying to do for myself is just to have those parts of myself more consistently as part of my regular rhythm.
SOLEIL Have you made anything from the cookbook yet?
ALAN I have some ingredients that I'm gonna make either today or tomorrow. It has a really simple bell pepper adobo recipe, which is kind of interesting because Filipino food is very heavy and lots of meats. And there's a whole section on adobo, which means cooking things in vinegar. And there's a bell pepper version where it's kind of stewed in garlic and soy sauce and vinegar. So, I think I'm gonna try that before I get to all of the very fatty pork dishes.
SOLEIL Cool. How exciting for you.
So, today you'll be listening to an interview between us and Ian Williams, the proprietor of Deadstock Coffee in downtown Portland. Deadstock Coffee is an interesting kind of coffee shop. It's themed after sneakers and sneaker culture, which is something I don't know anything about as a flip flop girl.
ALAN Yeah, that's what's interesting, 'cause Zahir is actually-- So, it's with you and Zahir. So, I'll be getting out of the way pretty shortly. Zahir's a huge basketball fan. You were coming out this with slightly different angles. So, actually, I'm curious though, Soleil, what did you learn in this interview? What was surprising to you?
SOLEIL Ian has a presence within coffee culture as well, and he also makes a point to be himself. He's an African-American guy, and he just represents sneaker culture, which is very urban; it's very hip and basketbally. And it's such a contrast to the typical image of the barista or the coffee snob. But he takes it seriously, and I love how he reconciles those two sides of his work.
ALAN There's a lot in there about space and what it looks like and how you connect people and communities through that space. You'll hear him talk about his decision to open up a coffee shop instead of a bar, for instance, and what it means to be in Chinatown, which is a part of Portland that has generally been hollowed out. So, look forward to that. It's a great interview. Soleil and Zahir did a great job.
SOLEIL I do wanna say something about space, though, actually. So, actually on my walk here, I was thinking about the events in Orlando, Florida and about what it means to have your own space within a world where you're a minority, right? So, the shootings in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub took place at a gay club during their Latin night, and I'm thinking about what it means to carve out your own space as a queer person of color. What it means to me as a self-described queer shut-in, and how important it is to have a place where you feel safe. So, when you listen, I want you to think about where you feel safe. Do you feel safe ever? And what does it take for you to make a space where that's possible?
ZAHIR JANMOHAMED So, tell us, what inspired you to start a coffee shop with a sneaker theme?
IAN WILLIAMS Honestly, I just wanted to create a place where I could hang out with all my sneaker homies. So that is really the essence of why I started it. It was to create a place where it was OK for us to all loiter and hang out and talk about shoes. And the coffee part was just the community aspect. I felt like we lost the community part with the way that sneakers have been going lately, just with everything being about money. You know, you buy a pair of shoes, and you kinda hold onto them for sometimes minutes. And you turn around and flip it. So, it's all become about money, and I wanted to bring the community part back.
ZAHIR I know you grew up in Virginia. How did you get into sneakers, and what was it about sneakers that interested you?
IAN Yeah, where I grew up, sneakers were kind of a way that you expressed yourself, and you kinda were saying that you had extra money. So, it was a lot of people who were doing not-so-great stuff who were wearing really nice sneakers. But yeah, it was a way to express yourself and to kinda prove, y'all, I'm doing OK; I'm doing good.
ZAHIR Yeah, I read an interview where you talked about how when you had to wear a uniform at school, sneakers was the one way to express yourself.
IAN Yep. Yeah, yeah. It was my opportunity to be different than everybody else. Part of the reason that we're here on Racist Sandwich is because yes, I am different than everybody else, especially at that school. Or at school, very quickly, I realized that I was the only Black kid in most places. So, as I went through elementary school--I think we got here--I was going into 4th grade, and I remember sitting in class one time, and somebody was like, "Uh...can I touch your hair?" And I was like, "I guess, man, but why? That's weird." And then middle school and high school, I went to private school, and I was definitely the only Black kid.
ZAHIR Out in Portland suburbs?
IAN Yeah, out in Hillsboro, yep. About 30 minutes outside of Portland. So, I'm already different, but I don't wanna be different because the way I look; I wanna be different because of what I like or whatever. So, I just always embraced it. It was a little bit different, so just kinda roll with it.
ZAHIR Yeah. When did you start working at Nike?
IAN I started at Nike the winter of '05. I found a temp agency that had a job at this place called IHM, which is where we make the air bags, right next store to the employee store. So, I was a temp there for a little while and realized that I'm not gonna be seen at IHM. Like, you work 12-hour shifts on a manufacturing floor. Nobody of any importance that I knew of came through IHM. So, what's the best place to be seen? Was to be in everybody's face every single day. So, I took a janitor job, or I found a janitor job on campus so that I would constantly run into people. So, I'm seeing people every single day, the same people every single day, and I would get to know them as friends. And then hopefully one day, it would turn into some sort of job.
So, that was actually how I got onto the campus. And I assumed that it would take only about maybe 3-6 months, and somebody'd be like, "Yo, that dude. Here's a job." But I didn't know what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. So, after about three years, I finally landed a position. But that was once I figured out I need to actually have some sort of skill. I need to actually have some sort of direction so that people know how to help me. One day, I approached the guys who worked in skate and was like, "You guys know I know what I'm talking about. You should let me design a shoe." And they were just like, "All right." And so, that's really how that worked out.
ZAHIR So, what is Nike like on the inside? That campus is so hard to get passed to go to campus. What's it like? Is it a diverse place? Is it young? Is it old? What was it like to be on campus?
IAN Yes, it is all of those things. It's both diverse but also the same. I'm gonna be pretty honest, and I mean, it's kind of a lot of fabricated cool. You're told that you're the man or the woman or whatever. Like, whatever you're working on at the moment, whatever you've been researching it, you are now the--for lack of a better term, like a corny term--subject matter expert. And so, that was a little bit difficult for me because I kinda did know what was going on. I am the one reading the blogs and stuff like that, and they're the ones who are being featured on the blog. But I'm kinda like, "Yo, you don't actually know anything."
On the flip side, there are extremely passionate people who spend their whole life trying to get into that place, to get inside the berm and to figure out what they wanna do. You know, there are people who came from in the middle of nowhere Canada who knew that they wanted to be a shoe designer, and they got there, and they're killing it. So, it's a mix of both of those sides. But at the end of the day, with any of these big companies--not Nike only--you gotta make money. And you gotta do better than what you did last year. So, it was really difficult for me because all I wanted to do was make dope product and get the heck outta there. And not in a bad way, like, "Yo, let's make shoes and go have a good time." But a lot of times it was, "Let's make some money and then stay here and figure how to make some more money." And it was really difficult for me.
SOLEIL So, to go back to the path that you chose then, which is totally not that, why a coffee shop?
IAN Coffee shops are the pulse of the community, and so, in Portland--just like a bar or a barber shop or anything like that. You've been in the coffee shop.
IAN And hopefully, you felt the vibe of community and just kinda comfortable and information and stuff like that just kinda swirling around. Not in a bad way. I just wanted to create a place that wasn't pretentious, 'cause most coffee shops out this way are. Portland is very serious about food and coffee and beer and all that stuff. It's very easy to get conceited or to get high and mighty about it, and I didn't wanna be that.
ZAHIR You're one of the few baristas I've seen that isn't wearing like--for the guys--a plaid shirt and suspenders or something!
IAN Nah, nah.
ZAHIR Do you feel left out that you're not wearing suspenders?
SOLEIL Yeah, and would you describe yourself as a barista?
IAN So most of the people that work for me at the coffee shop, we all did not start in coffee. And so, we're all either self-taught like myself, and I took some classes and whatnot through Dapper & Wise, who's the main roaster that I carry. But we all are just sneaker dudes, and we're all like, "Hey, man." I asked a couple friends like, "Yeah, you need a job? Come work with me for a little bit. I'll teach you how to make coffee." It's extremely easy. It's not as serious as it seems.
IAN You put some beans in a little basket thing, and then you put some hot water on it.
IAN You push it through into a cup, and you put some milk in it. Like, it's that easy. And they would ask me a lot of questions. I'm like, "Just watch YouTube. Watch YouTube how to learn." But we are all pretty good at it now. 'Cause we all take it seriously. But yes, I do look different than most baristas. We call ourselves hypebaristas, which is kind of a joke on hypebeast, you know?
ZAHIR Yeah, yeah. Hypebeast, yeah.
IAN Yeah, yeah. I like that I don't look like everybody else. When I go to coffee events, I purposely dress a little bit more out there. I just wear baggier jeans [chuckling] and like a little bit more to make it look more like I'm an urban dude. Because I like for people to recognize that I'm different. I'm still very professional. I'm still very honest, and when I'm trying to make a business transaction, I'm trying to make business. Like, I had one guy who turned me away. I was looking to make coffee bags, get them printed, and I heard him talk to a customer, someone right in front of me.
And he was like, "Aw yeah, we make sustainable coffee bags, all sustainable ink. The bags are biodegradable."
And he's like, "Hey, here's my card. Here's some information." I literally was right behind this guy.
Then, I was the next person. Say, "Hey, man. What you guys got?"
And he was like, "Coffee bags."
I was like, "Oh, that's dope. Tell me a little bit about them."
He's like, "Well, what do you wanna know?"
I'm like, "Well, what makes you guys' bags different?"
He's like, "They're compostable."
So, I was like, "Oh, OK. So, what's you guys' minimums?"
And he's like, "They're really high."
I'm like, "That's not what I asked you, man."
So, I don't know. I can't judge them all.
A lot of times, I'll get comments like, "Aw, man. This is a really cool shop. Does the owner like sports?"
And I'll just be like, "Yeah, he does." Or I'll say, "Yeah, we all do, actually. Everybody who works here, we all like sneakers," or, "We all like basketball" or whatever.
And it sounds bad, but when people automatically assume that it is not mine or that I'm not in any way involved in what's going on, I'm not a jerk about it. I just don't feel like they're worthy of knowing that it's mine. But I didn't build it for me anyway. I mean, I built it for a community of people. Doesn't matter what they look like. So, in shoes, there's a lot of people who I've met waiting in lines: plumbers and janitors like myself like I used to be, and professionals and whatever career field, maybe lawyers or whatever. But we're all in line waiting for a pair of Jordans or waiting for a pair of something that has some sort of tie to us.
ZAHIR When you were starting off this coffee shop, someone was saying, "Why don't you start a bar and make a sneaker-themed bar?"
ZAHIR And you said that it was really important for you to include kids and teenagers.
IAN Absolutely. I've grown up around kids. I've been an uncle since I was like five years old. My brother and sister are both older than me by 11 and 12 years. And so, I've always been around kids, and I love kids. There's an important piece, I think, with a lot of gatherings where you kind of take kids, and you separate them. If it's an event for all ages, here's the kids' stuff over here, and here's where the adults hang out. I really want to include young people. I want them to understand that they can be like these other people, and there's potential in their life. This is what it looks like; they just gotta go get it. But at the same time, making adults accountable for their actions.
When people ask if they can submit résumés or whatever for the coffee shop, I go look at their Instagram. I look at their social media and stuff like that to see. With the coffee shop specifically, you are an extension of us and our community. If you're on your Instagram getting drunk, smoking weed, whatever, I don't want kids to see that. Index, a sneaker consignment shop just two blocks away from the coffee shop, there's kinds that've been getting dropped off by their parents. I've seen parents roll up, let the kids hop out, and they'll disappear and come back in a few hours and pick their kids up.
SOLEIL Oh, really?
IAN But these are for events that we have at night, where everybody's drinking, but we just all know, hey, those kids are over here. Give them some soda, whatever, but we're not serving them alcohol. And we want them to feel connected. Having a bar is too easy. I could just make money all day. I also just don't want people going home drunk, possibly getting in accidents.
ZAHIR What a lot of people don't know about Portland is that Portland had, I think, the nation's second largest Chinatown. But now in Chinatown, you barely see any Chinese people, you know?
ZAHIR And they've all sort of been pushed out over by the 80s and stuff like that, the streets in the 80s.
IAN Yeah. That neighborhood where the coffee shop is now-- And the reason why I put the coffee shop there is because it's connected. Compound is there. Index is there. PENSOLE is there.
ZAHIR Those are famous sneaker stores, right?
IAN Sneaker stores, but also just pieces of that sneaker community. I wanted to be in the heart of it so that you don't have to go very far. I've always know that neighborhood or that Old Town/Chinatown district as being the place where the homeless people hang out. And while parents and guardians have always been kind of worried about those blocks, most of the people have lived out there for like 20 years. That's where Right 2 Dream is, which is where the homeless camp is. Those guys actually govern themselves pretty seriously. I've never really had a problem.
Gentrification is definitely real, and all of the other neighborhoods around. So, as a business owner, it's great. I love it. I'm seeing way more people walking around than I ever have in that neighborhood. The place used to be a ghost land, you know, ghost town or whatever. But now I'm seeing a whole lot more people travel and come into Portland just in general and go right into Chinatown because they map downtown, and that's where they find themselves. So, you see that a lot of those homeless people are kind of being pushed out, and the ones who've been there for 20 years are kind of disappearing. And those are the homies in a way. I've been seeing those guys for years.
So that said, the reason why I wanted to put the coffee shop in Chinatown, in that neighborhood, is because it's our neighborhood. So, myself, Compound, Index, the sneaker school PENSOLE, all of us realize the importance of having that community. So, we wanted to get in it before somebody else got to it. They're currently building one luxury hotel right next door to us, from the coffee shop, nine stories. First building above five stories in Chinatown. Huge, huge deal. Massive deal. Seems silly, but everything else is like five stories, four stories. So, them being able to do nine stories is kind of a problem to everybody who's been down there for a long time. That's what's coming to our block, to our neighborhood, and to our city is money.
SOLEIL So, I'm not a part of sneaker culture. I wear flip flops when I don't have to wear work shoes.
IAN Yeah, yeah.
SOLEIL But the thing that's always giving me hesitation about participating is sort of the labor aspect of sneakers, of how a lot of the brand names have factories in Southeast Asia where my family's from.
SOLEIL And a lot of those factories have really gross labor violations. So, how do you reconcile that with the real passion that you and your compatriots have for sneakers?
IAN That's an amazing question. When you're an organization that large, you can't have practices like that. So, I have a different connection with this because I worked in footwear manufacturing; I was a developer. I worked directly with the factories. Lemme tell you, when you're working with Nike, when you're working with Adidas, Under Armor, whatever--I can't speak for these and Under Armor for sure, but--when you're on that high of a level, those factories are beautiful. They're LEED certified. Everything is ergonomic. People eat well. Now, there are different labor laws within the country based off of age and yadda yadda yadda, but those factories are held to a super-high standard. And they charge a super-high price. People think that shoes are made for like $1 and sold for $200. That's not the case at all. And so, there's actually a whole lot of responsibility from both the Nike side and the factory side, 'cause Nike doesn't own their factories, to be on point.
ZAHIR You've lived here since '96. How has it changed? You ever get any itching to go back East?
IAN Yeah. Yeah, but it's weird. When I do get a opportunity to travel, I'm excited to come back! I've been you know, L.A., San Francisco. I got a opportunity to go to New York last year during All-Star weekend, NBA All-Star weekend.
ZAHIR Oh, did you go?
IAN Fire. So dope. I was supposed to go to Toronto, but I opened up a coffee shop. That was dumb.
IAN I had my plane ticket and everything. It was crazy. But it's been cool to leave Portland. Portland has always kind of been a joke: hipsters. The show Portlandia is very real. But if you're from Portland, you absolutely hate that show because it's so real it's annoying. And you know, they try a little bit too hard now. But people really do wanna know where the chicken came from and what its name was and all that stuff.
So, it's weird to go elsewhere and tell people you're from Portland and have them be like, "Oh, that's cool!"
You're like, "What? Why's that cool to be from Portland?"
It's crazy to hear that in Milan, they have Portland Week. It was insane when I got a chance to go to Tokyo last year that I told people I was from Oregon.
They're like, "What is Oregon?"
And I say, "OK," I kinda make a motion with my hand. I'm like, "OK, New York over here, California over here, Oregon."
And they're like, "Oregon?"
"I'm from Portland."
"Oh, yeah! I wanna go to Portland!"
"Why do you wanna go to Portland?!
But the things that make Portland cool are our love for craftsmanship, the attention to detail that we do spend on the little things, whether it be a coffee beverage, a drink, your clothes, whatever. People are quirky for a reason, even if the reason is because they wanna be quirky. But what I just try to steer clear of, I guess, is to make sure that I wanna be quirky in my own way; I don't wanna be cool, I don't wanna be quirky like everybody else.
IAN Which kind of makes me a hipster, right?
ZAHIR Thanks so much for joining us. Tell us a little bit about how people can find you.
IAN Aw, yeah, yeah. So we're at 408 NW Couch Street, right in Chinatown, Old Town/Chinatown, across the street from Compound. There's actually a big parking lot across the street, directly across. DeadstockCoffee.com. @DeadStockCoffee on Instagram. @DeadStockPDX on Twitter. Find your boy on the Snap. Come see us. Yeah yeah!
SOLEIL You've been listening to Racist Sandwich. Our show is produced by Alan Montecillo.
SOLEIL Jen Tam designed our logo. You can find more of her work at www.JenTam.com.
ALAN Our music comes from AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions.
SOLEIL You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/RaceandFood or on Twitter @RaceandFood.
ALAN If you like the show, please share it with your friends and leave us a review on iTunes. That helps more people find the show.
SOLEIL If you live in Portland, come out to our launch party, which is on June 21st, which is a Tuesday. It's at 5:30 at Kim Jong Grillin. You might remember the proprietor from episode 2 of our podcast, Han Hwang. He's graciously allowed us to have a launch party at his spot on 46th and Division.
Next time on Racist Sandwich, we'll be talking with the scholar Kate Cairns about food and femininity.
ALAN For this next episode of Racist Sandwich, we're gonna try something new. We'd love to get your thoughts on this subject. Send us your experiences with how gender affects your relationship with food. You can leave us a message, and we might play it on the next episode.
SOLEIL We have a Google voice box set up. Is it a voice box? Voice place.
ALAN Voice mailbox.
SOLEIL Yeah. I don't know. I don't leave voice mails anymore.
SOLEIL Anyway! 971-800-1389.
ALAN So, just call that number, leave a message, and we can play it on the next episode.
If you'd like, you can also record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if talking into the ether makes you feel weird, you can just send us an email.
SOLEIL We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks for listening.
Transcribed by Storyminders