Taste The Coffee

Women to Watch: Mary Allen Lindemann, chance entrepreneur, community builder ‘by design’

Coffee By Design’s Mary Allen Lindemann may be one of Maine’s best-known coffee entrepreneurs, so some may find it surprising she didn’t drink the stuff until she was in her 30s.

“I was a tea drinker, not a coffee drinker, which is not unusual for my generation,” she says. That changed when she and then-husband Alan Spear lived in Seattle, where she “started tasting what good quality coffee was like.” She researched the industry while working at an advertising agency. Spear, then employed as an engineer, did further research, and they brewed up a plan for starting a coffee business back home on the East Coast.

After false starts in Burlington, Vt., and Providence, R.I., they opened their first Coffee By Design shop on Portland’s Congress Street in July 1994, when there were a lot of empty storefronts. Today downtown is full of stores and restaurants, including other coffeehouses that have done nothing to hamper Coffee By Design’s success.

The craft coffee maker has, in fact, weathered three waves of rival newcomers to become today’s thriving wholesaler and retailer. It boasts $8 million in annual sales, a 65-strong workforce, 700 wholesale accounts from Maine to Japan and three retail locations in Portland, one in Freeport and a small café at IDEXX Laboratories in Westbrook. It has a loyal brand following and big community footprint.

Lindemann, 59, who had also worked in fashion before she got into coffee, laughs about where she ended up, saying, “This is career No. 3, but this one stuck.”

Twenty-five years later, she’s just as passionate about Coffee By Design and her self-designed role as community builder that includes serving on the boards of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center and Portland Ovations and supporting numerous other nonprofits. She also champions causes from immigrant integration to reproductive rights.

“There’s no social cause I know of that Mary Allen is not connected to,” says Alain J. Nahimana, a Burundi native who serves as the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center’s executive director. Appreciative of his friend’s early support of the Center and limitless energy, he says: “It’s tough sometimes to say ‘no’ to her.”

From New York to Maine

Lindemann, one of five siblings, grew up outside New York, moved into the city when she was a teenager and knew Maine from family summer vacations. Her mother was an assistant to comedian Bob Hope, while her father was a TV sports executive who started his career as a cameraman for “The Kate Smith Hour.”

Reflecting on her childhood now, Lindemann feels fortunate to have grown up in a family where civil rights were discussed and with parents who were “incredibly progressive and open to the world.”

After landing at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Lindemann left after her freshman year when the student body voted to keep the fraternity system in place. She spent a semester at the New School in Manhattan before continuing her education at Brown University, where she majored in creative writing with a focus on women’s and African-American studies.

Though coffee and business ownership were then “so far off the radar,” she finds today that her interdisciplinary studies give her a better understanding of how to explore various cultures, even in her own country, and to be a thoughtful business owner.

“I feel as if everything I’ve had the opportunity to do, see and experience because of my family, friends, work, and life has brought me to this moment when it all comes together,” she says, “and I can do work which has meaning and hopefully has positive impact.”

She and Spear have sought to do that from the time they opened the first Coffee By Design as a welcoming, inclusive, community-focused coffee house and employer. Their first customers included Bosnian refugees who had settled in Portland and members of the gay community when AIDS was a taboo subject. Lindemann credits an “extraordinary team of employees” for helping create an atmosphere where everyone is treated with respect.

“They’re here to serve customers a cup of coffee,” she says.

The times they were a changin’

On July 1, 1994, Coffee By Design opened its doors to 250 customers — 10 times more than they expected. Many were in the neighborhood that day to buy tickets at the State Theatre for a Bob Dylan concert.

Business has been booming ever since, bringing wide acclaim to the brand and the co-founders behind it who were honored as Mainebiz Business Leaders of the Year in 2005. The business has grown since then, buying an old warehouse on Diamond Street they renovated and converted into a roastery and coffeehouse. They also tweaked the brand with a new look and logo unveiled three years ago.

Coffee By Design is also now a certified B Corp as a business that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. The owners, who just submitted final documents for recertification, see it more as “changing the world, one coffee cup at a time, by providing customers with sustainably sourced, traceable coffee.”

‘Bringing people along’

For Lindemann, forging ties with coffee growers in other countries and her involvement with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance has also connected her more closely to Portland’s immigrant community.

Photo / Tim Greenway

Mary Allen Lindemann leads a tour of Coffee By Design’s Diamond Street roasting facility for students in the Council on International Educational Exchange.

Her efforts have also won her respect from industry peers like Phyllis Johnson, of Georgia-based BD Imports, who knows Lindemann professionally and has travelled with her to Burundi. At July’s World Coffee Producers Forum in Brazil, Johnson held up Coffee By Design as a small company making a big impact locally and globally. To describe what drives Lindemann, Johnson cites an African proverb: “Alone I can go fast but together we can go far … Mary Allen believes in bringing people along.”

Back in Portland at the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, executive director Christina P. McAnuff praises Lindemann as a gift, a treasure and one of the Institute’s greatest cheerleaders, adding: “I wish there were more Mary Allens.”

Asked about what’s next, Lindemann says she hopes to do a better job of “telling the stories” of the growers that work with Coffee By Design, travel more after her daughter finishes high school and perhaps pen a book.

She also wants to do more public speaking on a topic close to her heart: “How do you dig deep and seek your truth in making change happen.”

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Taste The Coffee 2019