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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.”

I hope that you enjoy this tour of NEVER Coffee Lab below! —Erin

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.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“Our neon sign is really bright and multi-colored. It’s our baby. Funny story, a paper boy for the [New York Times] threw a paper and shattered it last year and when we talked to the NYT about it, they paid for a new sign immediately. They were rad about it. It was cool,” Zak shares.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“Looking out towards Belmont. The standing bar is perfect for a conversation with a stranger or people watching. In the summer, the picnic tables out front are full of people. This view often showcases lots of smiles,” Zak says.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“When you have a tiny, tiny cafe, the best thing to do is stuff some plants, a cactus, a bin, a menu board and some art all in the same corner. Somehow, it doesn’t look/feel cramped,” Zak jokes. Photography print by Ciara J. Alberts.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


Felt letter board with hand-painted letters by Sarah and Grace.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“This is my favorite view at the cafe. You can watch the barista in action as they are surrounded by the bright, colorful world of NEVER. From here, you really feel like you are in a truly intimate space,” Zak shares.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


Zak says, “You can see the clean marble line of the counter as the perimeter to a skim coating of concrete as the face of the bar. We didn’t know if this would work. It did. The smoothness of marble and the roughness of concrete is perfection.”

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


Hand-painted STRADA by Sarah.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“Each month, we showcase new local art. We have been really lucky to show amazing work from a diverse group of artists in Portland. It’s one of my favorite things in a cafe, seeing new art while grabbing a quick coffee,” Zak says. Photography prints by Ciara J. Alberts.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“Our 5lb bulk bags of coffee here. Sitting on some amazing custom shelf brackets created by local craftsman Matt Mormile,” Zak notes.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


“Sarah’s original artwork adorns the front of each signature drink card. I love seeing people standing and reading the little description cards to decide what to order. People love taking these with them and keeping them,” Zak says.

Never Coffee on Design*Sponge


A functional library ladder leads up to the storage loft and adds interest at the same time.

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