How a Shoshone-Bannock Entrepreneur Funded her Dream: Bison Coffeehouse

Native Business interviewed Loretta Guzman pre-pandemic. Her Portland-based coffee shop is open and serving. Follow her on Instagram @bisoncoffeehouse for real-time updates. 

The name Bison Coffeehouse came to Loretta Guzman in a dream, while she was ill in the hospital with stage 4B cancer. “I could feel myself dying,” she told Native Business.  

“I dreamt of the bison,” said Guzman, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho. “He kept trying to get closer and closer to me, until he was in my face. I told my family, and my dad said, ‘That’s your grandpa. You’ll get better. I’ve been praying to him in the spirit realm. He used to dance for the bison. He used to wear this buffalo hat.’ Then, I ended up going into remission and getting better.” 

Today, a massive bison head looms over her coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. 

While Portland boasts the ninth-largest Native population in the country, Bison Coffeehouse is the city’s only Native American-owned café. Everything at Bison Coffeehouse is baked in-house. The fashionable café reflects Guzman’s heritage, with furniture lined in vintage Pendleton prints or rawhide, and Native-made art adorning the walls. “We’re uplifting each other. I’m a place to display your product and also to sell your product,” Guzman said. 

Her coffeehouse is a gathering place. “I always open my doors to people—for poetry slams or gatherings. It’s a community space,” she emphasized.  

Guzman carries Native-owned roasters at Bison Coffeehouse, including Stone Mother Coffee Roasters, a Paiute-owned and family-operated coffee roasting company located on the Reno Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada, and Native Coffee Traders, a Fair Trade Certified Company located in upstate New York, founded by Harry Wallace, an attorney who has served as Chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation since 1994. Meanwhile, Rebecca “Becky” Genia, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, serves as Native Coffee Traders’ “roast master.” 

“There are a lot of coffees with Native names, but they’re not Native-roasted or Native-owned. For me, if you’re a Native roaster, I would like to carry your coffee. If you’re a Native roaster on a reservation, I would really like to carry your coffee, because some of our people on reservations live in such poverty. Even if I’m only spending a few thousand at a time, at least it’s that much more money going back to them and to their people. I want to see our people do better,” Guzman said. 

Bison Coffeehouse is a culmination of years of hard work. Native Business spoke with Guzman about how she paid her way through school as a barista, and how she capitalized Bison Coffeehouse. 

Everything at Bison Coffeehouse is baked in-house. (Photo courtesy Bison Coffee House)

1) When you came up with the idea for your business, what were your initial thoughts about how to capitalize it? 

My father was using a building as storage, and I asked to have it to start my coffeehouse. All the money I was putting into school, I decided to put it into this building, which needed a lot of work.

Meanwhile, I kept beading. My grandma used to say, ‘If you know how to bead, you will always have money.’ That’s like our gold. I started beading big projects. When her sister goes vending, she sells my work: full leggings, moccasins and bags. People are always looking for beadwork—full regalia type stuff. 

I funneled my profits from beading into my building. When I wasn’t working, I was at home beading. 

2) What difficulties did you encounter with raising capital to start your business? 

There were a lot of them. I relied on the money I had saved from my paychecks and tips and my beadwork. I kept working and saving as much as I could, putting it into my business.  I knew if I could make others’ businesses successful, I could do it for myself. 

I’m a trouble-shooter. If I don’t know how, I’ll figure it out. 

I’d price things out. I wrote lists of different things I’d need for my shop. Every single day, I’d search Craigslist for cups, for everything. I wanted quality stuff, too. I looked up the prices brand new. When a place was going out of business, and they had good quality stuff, I’d go purchase from them. I started marking everything off my list as I was finding it. 

My sister lent me money to buy our espresso machine, which was only 41 days used. It typically costs $13,500, but we paid about $7,000 for it. She and I do that, lend each other money. We help each other. 

3) Were you aware of any federal or Native American programs to help you finance your business, and did you feel that you had access to them? Did you take advantage of those programs? 

No and no. I didn’t know of any. 

4) Were you aware of any programs for Native entrepreneurs available in your community or through your Tribe? 

Yes and no…. I had read that the Native American Youth and Family Center had a business program and they were offering a 3-to-1 match—meaning I save $1,000 over a period of time, and they match it with $3,000. I enrolled in that business class. I completed it. But they never did anything to help me. I was kind of bummed out. I really believed in what I was doing, and I wanted them to be a part of what I was doing.  

I had issues with contractors overcharging me. I’d ask for a flat rate, but they would always end up charging me more. So, we did the floor plans and built it out ourselves to save money.

We gutted the building. It was fun watching it grow into what it is now. It had drop ceilings; we took it down to the beams. We took the electrical out. I have old-style lights in my coffeehouse. I used to save really pretty lights, and I wanted to put them in there. It was fun getting to create it how I visualized it. It started evolving into what it is. Now I’ve got my floors leveled. The hard parts were dealing with the city or contractors. The stuff I could do myself was fun. 

My mom and I did pretty much everything we could ourselves. Everyone in the family leaned in. We pushed it out. All my family is involved. My mom is my accountant. My daughter works for me. My sisters help out. 

You have to have the drive—even when it gets hard. 

5) Did you feel like you had the appropriate amount of business and accounting training to provide you with an understanding of how to go about accessing capital? 

No. But I’m good with numbers, and my mom was an accountant, and my dad has his own business. My dad said, ‘Be prepared, because you’ll be working a lot.’ I said, ‘I’m already working a lot. If I’m going to work this hard, I might as well work for myself.’ 

6) What avenue(s) did you ultimately use to fund your business, and knowing what you know now, what funding path would you recommend to other aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs?

I just worked, saved my tips. I had really good credit; all my bills were caught up. I kept saving money that way and doing my beadwork. When I’d get my per capitas, I’d use my per capitas from my Tribe.  

I would say: Save as much as you can before you get started. Make sure you have money saved up to pay your bills. Try to get as caught up as you can before you jump in. If you do have credit, you can always use your credit.

7) How did the process of raising capital to launch your business empower you as an entrepreneur? 

I was like: If I can go to school full-time and work full-time, I can put my extra time into what I’m doing here. 

8) How has access to capital changed over the course of operating your business? What additional business strategies have you used to help fund your business? 

I just made four years on Veteran’s Day (2018). Now that I’ve had my business open and successful for four years, people are reaching out to me now. They didn’t reach out to me when I was struggling. I’m very selective what I allow, because I don’t want other people or places being able to put their name on my business, because they didn’t believe in me before. These places were around when I was working on my place. Nobody wanted to invest in me. Now I get a lot of different businesses coming to me. I try to be humble about it, but I’m also selective at the same time.  

9) What would your advice be today for entrepreneurs who are just starting to seek funding for their businesses?

Do as much as you can yourself. 

10) What are some of the ways that Indian Country could improve its support for funding emerging entrepreneurs? 

Promote the various programs that are available to help entrepreneurs with capital. I didn’t know of any. This was just a dream that I had.