Oui Presse coffee shop on SE Hawthorne in Portland, OR celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2019, the year before any of us had ever heard of covid, and has survived the pandemic admirably, with the assistance of PPE loans and a very loyal customer base. Owner Shawna McKeown is still at the helm. Stop in and tell her Brett sent ya!
A NEIGHBORHOOD CAKE SHOP
A TINY BELL JINGLES ABOVE THE DOOR, as two customers step through the doors of Oui Presse. Its modest seating area sporting stainless steel tables and chairs, and a high lofty ceiling, while a warm color palette and well-balanced, uncluttered design create a dreamy sense of floating in clouds. “It’s very much a neighborhood shop,” proprietress Shawna McKeown tells me, while she assuredly spreads icing on a 3-layer cake, “and it’s really embraced us… my customers are warm, wonderful, and amazing people, and they’ve made this such a pleasant place to hang out.” That’s sweet. Also, I’m drooling.
Oui Presse is a lovely little spot located on SE Hawthorne Blvd in Portland, OR. Huge windows and oceans of natural light keep the place cozy year round. A small rack stocks magazines and Moleskin notebooks. (It was here where I discovered formative food mags like Diner Journal, Remedy Quarterly, and The Art of Eating.) A display of vintage thermoses and ice cream scoops, and an industrial, blinking, metal sign line the walls. I go out of my way to visit. I love coming here after a ramble in the woods to scribble notes in my nature journal, or to thumb through magazines.
Cappuccino in hand, I’ll usually nosh on a bowl of always on point house-made soup (her lentil soup is a gift to humanity) or one of Shawna’s deliriously delicious baked goods, like her hazelnut coffee cake, and her signature pistachio cake, the best cake ever. No, seriously, her cakes are moist without being puddingy, sweet but not cloying, with a perfectly crumbly mouthfeel and just the right amount of thick, creamy frosting.
SALEM, OR… A BORING PLACE TO GROW UP
BORN IN SAN FRANCISCO, Shawna moved with her family to Oregon when she was four. “Eugene and Salem were very boring places to grow up in the 70’s and 80’s. Nothing ever happened. My life was books, TV, roller skates, piano lessons and the original Broadway cast soundtrack to Annie.” In college, she worked in ad sales at a weekly newspaper and became enamored with graphic design; a career in newspapers followed. “I’m easily excited by anything having to do with typography, printing, and publication design, so I’ve always loved magazines and newspapers,” Shawna tells me. But when the Recession came along and pummeled the publishing industry, Shawna was laid off.
There’s no romantic narrative arc that led to her career transition. “The boring truth is that I opened my shop out of necessity when I was laid off and it seemed unlikely I’d find another job in 2010, when unemployment was at an all time high.” No lifelong dream? No formal training? “With nothing more than the ability to bake a few things and the suspicion that it might be my last chance to try and start my own business,” she says, “Oui Presse was born.” I certainly appreciate humility, but when she says she had nothing more than the ability to bake a few things, she actually meant, a preternatural gift of divine inspiration for baked goods.
The menu isn’t as deep or as broad as some bakeries, but what they do have on-menu is outstanding. I’m partial to the cake, of course. Then again, I never go wrong ordering two toasted wedges of thick-sliced bread, fresh from Ken’s Artisan Bakery, with fruit jam and a sprinkle of sea salt. From such seemingly simple ingredients, an umami-bomb goes off in my mouth.
HOT OUT OF THE OVEN
SHAWNA DOESN’T PLAY FAVORITES. Her recommendation would change depending on the day, and even the time of day: the coffee cake when it’s hot out of the oven, the soup when she’s stumbled upon a recipe that works especially well, or the baguette with butter and jam if you’re feeling basic. She adds, “The PB&J if you’re starving, which is even better if the enriched Japanese milk bread is made fresh that day, or a warm chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk or cup of coffee in the late afternoon…and that’s not including any of our secret, off-menu items.”
The secrets are proprietary. To know them you’ll just have to visit. It’s never too crowded at Oui Presse, but it’s never empty, either. It’s the kind of friendly place where someone can relax and unwind over coffee and conversation, catch up on a book, or daydream and cook up ideas, like, you know, a food magazine perhaps?
This piece originally appeared in Kitchen Table #1, of which only a handful of copies are available in The Full Meal Deal package, get ‘em while you can.
VISIT OUI PRESSE
Located in Portland, OR
1740 SE Hawthorne
Portland, OR 07214