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Nugget News

Durham family builds success
with Sisters Coffee Co.
By Jim Cornelius

Durhams
Photo by Lynn Woodward

Hard times often breed success stories, where faith, hard work, and a good idea triumph. Such is the story of the Durham family of Sisters.

Winfield and Joy Durham left their native Portland for Alaska in the 1980s, when economic recession held Oregon in an iron grip. There was no recession in the construction industry in Alaska, and Winfield readily found work pouring concrete. But even then he knew he didn't want that to be his lifelong trade.

"There aren't many old guys doing what I was doing who have their health," Winfield reflected.

Joy pondered and prayed upon an idea: What would be a recession proof industry? The answer came as a voice from heaven. Coffee.

The couple opened Coffee Express in Sitka, Alaska, using a two-pound countertop coffee roaster. It wasn't exactly the state-of-the-art for the incipient gourmet coffee industry.

"People would come in from Seattle and laugh," Winfield recalled with a chuckle.

Oregon pulled the young Durham family home in 1988. Winfield continued to work on a job in Homer, sending paychecks south as Joy established a home in Central Oregon, where the couple had fallen in love back in 1976.

With their Alaska grubstake, they bought a home on 10 acres just east of Sisters. Joy, an avid rider, got a horse, soon followed some cattle.

"We didn't have any fences, so they were free range," Joy joked.

They didn't have a barn either, so they once nursed a sick calf in the laundry room of the house.

In January 1989 they returned to the coffee business, launching Sisters Coffee Co. in a little shack on Hood Avenue. Winfield, home from Homer, went after wholesale accounts and quickly landed important ones at Black Butte Ranch, Eagle Crest and Sunriver Resorts. There were other accounts on the coast.

They had, without realizing it, timed a wave.

"We didn't know that gourmet coffee was going to explode," Joy said.

That didn't mean things were easy. Sometimes they had to take other work to pay the bills. And gourmet coffee was catching on nationally, but it was not such an easy sell in the Sisters Country.

"People didn't know what a good cup of coffee was like," Winfield said. "It was an educational introduction thing for the first five years."

As they built their business, they raised a family: sons Jared and Justin and daughter Jesse. Winfield, a hardcore backcountry elk hunter, thrived in the Sisters Country.

"I'm happy just to take my kayak up to Three Creek (Lake)," he said. "I can hunt out of my house.... We live in a playground, how else can you say it?"

In 2003, the couple purchased the property adjacent to their coffee shack and started building the lodge-style coffee emporium that is now one of Sisters' signature businesses.

And now the family has opened a "branch" in the Pearl District, at the urging of Justin who, with his wife Leigh-Anne, has assumed an important role in the business.

"You've got to diversify the revenue stream," Justin said.

The enterprise will soon have a total of 40 employees, which creates a powerful sense of responsibility in the Durhams.

"I love my employees," Winfield said. "That keeps me going. You feel like a father-provider. You want to keep going."

The family business is thriving, proving out Joy's intuition that coffee might just be recession-proof. In addition to her ongoing role in the business, Joy has launched Fields of Joy Ministries, a nonprofit she hopes will prove helpful in supporting charities. And she wants to use her experience to benefit other enterprenuers.
"One of my main passions is helping women in business," she noted.

Justin, who grew up sweeping warehouses and learning the trade from the floor up, is full of admiration for his parents' achievements.

"Leigh-Anne and I are 100 percent blessed," he said. "(We) couldn't be more proud of what they've done."

For his part, Winfield claims no special credit beyond a willingness to work hard and to put his faith in his family and his Lord: "It just shows that still in America, if you work hard, don't give up, you'll realize success."

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