Q&A with Joseph Nazir of Tov Coffee
Have you enjoyed a latte on the big red bus? That would be Tov Coffee, Portland’s utterly unique Egyptian coffee bar, housed inside a mid-century double-decker bus imported from Britain. This Sunnyside staple has been parked at 32nd and Hawthorne since 2015, serving delicious coffees flavored with cardamom and rosewater alongside baklava, mango black tea, and cold brew with fragrant mint.
Tov is the work of Joe Nazir, an Egyptian immigrant with a deep background in coffee, including a half-decade working for Starbucks. Now Nazir’s singular and instantly memorable coffee bar is preparing to make a great next step – taking over an abandoned café space across from the Bagdad Theater at 3639 SE Hawthorne. “I want this to be the neighborhood’s living room again,” says Nazir. “This part of the city has become like home to me, and I want this cafe to feel that way, too.”
The new brick-and-mortar Tov Coffee will open in early October. I chatted with Nazir, who lives with his wife and their new baby in the Foster-Powell neighborhood, to learn a bit more about his story, and what’s planned for the new space.
I know many in the neighborhood are familiar with you already from Tov, but please introduce yourself.
Joseph: My name is Joseph Nazir and I’ve owned Tov, the double decker coffee bus on Hawthorne and 32nd, for the last eight years. I’m Egyptian, which informs the atmosphere and style of my coffee shop. Portland is famous for craft coffee, but ours is unique. We offer Turkish- and Egyptian-influenced coffee options and play around with flavors like cardamom, pistachio, rosewater and apricot. We also feature pastries that are made by my mom and dad.
I’ve been in the coffee business since 2005—first at a little coffee shop in Corvallis, and then at Starbucks where I worked for five-and-a-half years. Starbucks taught me a little bit about coffee, but also about time management and speed of service. But before long, I realized there was more to coffee and I wanted to do more. This is how I came to open Tov eight years ago. And now we are preparing to open our second location, just up the street, at 3639 SE Hawthorne, in a former Starbucks location!
What a full circle moment for the neighborhood. Since your new cafe is only a few blocks away will the original Tov bus move or will it close?
Joseph: Good question! For the first month or so I plan to focus on getting the new space going and making sure my staff is feeling good about the whole thing. After that, I’d like to resume operation of the bus until the end of the year; then I’ll shut it down for 4-5 months during the cold season. In the meantime, the bus is available for private events, birthdays, whatever parties folks want to host in the neighborhood—perhaps even a New Year’s event! If you’re interested in renting the bus for an event get in touch by email ([email protected]) or Instagram (@TovCoffeeBar).
What do you have planned for the brick-and-mortar space?
Joseph: I can do so much more here than on the bus. This will be Portland’s first Egyptian pastry shop. I’ll be making pastries including baklava and konafa [a type of syrup-soaked spun pastry], and we’ll be serving more food items including breakfast sandwiches and grab-and-go options.
There is much more seating space here and I’ll be able to incorporate a Turkish / Egyptian coffee bar as part of the space. You’ll be able to sit and watch us make coffee in this unique style, watch us brew and pour, ask questions and take photos. It’s going to be really cool.
It’s great that your new cafe is staying in the neighborhood. What is it about this part of the city you’ve come to appreciate?
Joseph: It’s become home to me for almost a decade now. I’ve seen the changes on Hawthorne over the years. I know it has had some rough stretches. I think the neighborhood is bouncing back and I want to be part of helping bring back something special to this community. I remember the first time I visited this neighborhood, all the way back in 2001, and how special the vibe felt. I want to make it feel that way again and to put my heart and soul into beautifying it.
I never thought I would take a corner where a Starbucks used to be, but this is my chance.
Really, like many who work in coffee, I am a Starbucks child. I worked there for so long and that location is worthy of a comeback. It’s been empty for three years now—somebody had a lease on it, and I heard there was going to be a cannabis dispensary there, but it didn’t happen. As soon as the space came up for rent again, I jumped.
I want that corner to be pretty again. I want it to be beautiful. And, I want Tov Coffee to feel like Southeast Portland’s living room. The space is perfectly set up for coffee; all the neighbors are so excited to have a “third place” again to enjoy coffee and people watch. No pressure, but with God’s help I will make that place a good spot to hang out at again.