It struck me, about 2 days before I left to head home to Texas for a week to serve as a groomsman in my younger brother’s wedding. “What am I going to do for a week in Waco?”
The bustling metropolis of Waco has about 200,000 people, or you know, the same number of people who pass through Grand Central Terminal every day, and while I love my parents, the idea of sitting around watching HGTV reruns with them for the entire week was not quite exciting. So it occurred to me, at this last minute: there’s so much good coffee in Texas now. “what if I work a couple of barista shifts?” I figured two might be enough to keep life interesting, and leave some time to relax.
So I contacted a couple of friends and quickly arranged a guest shift on Tuesday in Austin at Houndstooth Coffee, and the other on Wednesday in San Antonio at Local Coffee. After making the arrangements, I posted my plans to my personal social media pals, hoping that some old friends would come by and see me. Besides, that is what you do in this day and age right? Put everything on social media…
But quickly, almost too quickly, David Buehrer from Houston texted me: “Really? Really? You’re not going to come to Houston?” So I agreed to do Houston on Thursday, thinking “Ok—now my schedule is really full, but it won’t be too bad.”
After a nice weekend with my brother, and some bachelor party shenanigans, we’d return to Waco. Monday I spent most of the day cleaning out some old things I had left in my parents garage, but at the end of the day, my brother and I wanted to go check out the newly minted Dichotomy Coffee that had recently opened downtown. As we grabbed coffee, I recognized the barista, who also apparently knew my brother. However it was clear that he didn’t remember me, so I jokingly reminded him that we had met at Barista Camp in Austin this spring, and foolishly told him about my plans for the rest of the week. He instantly replied, “oh man, you have to email Brett, and work here on Friday.” What can one more shift hurt? Besides it would be in my hometown.
Day 1: Houndstooth, Austin, TX.
“Old friends, new haunts” would be a theme for my jaunt through Texas. I had gotten up by 8am to make it the 2 hour drive to Austin by 10am, for my shift at the newest downtown location of Houndstooth Coffee. Seeing brothers Sean and Paul Henry grow their business is always rewarding for me, as I remember helping them open the first location—I even worked there the first week. Back in 2010, Houndstooth was the first multi-roaster café in Texas, and pretty early in that whole movement. Upon entering I was met immediately by barista trainer Daniel Read, and we quickly started discussing the Austin scene. Having lived in Austin from 2007-2010 I know a lot of the coffee professionals there, and watched a lot of growth. But since I moved away, it seems the scene has really exploded, and it was fun to hear updates on all the new happenings. It was also especially interesting to see how some of the developments in Austin were mirroring what is currently happening in New York, where small independent shops are moving into the higher rent, more populous neighborhoods. This new Houndstooth located inside the iconic Austin Frost Tower building is a prime example. The space has a great feel with windows on 3 sides, and tons of light streaming in. Working behind the bar at Houndstooth was a blast—the staff there are so congenial that it makes customer interaction always feel truly positive. There was a steady flow into the afternoon, which kept the pace fun, and lively. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the customers were ordering single espressos, and cappuccinos. This was definitely not the Texas coffee scene I worked in as a barista. The staff were digging the Santa Isabel Guatemala and the Amaro Gayo Ethiopia I brought with me. After my shift, I would head to dinner with Sean from Houndstooth for dinner, where we eventually met up with Lorenzo Perkins of Cuvee Coffee. Hanging out with these guys was a blast from the past, and we wiled the night away postulating about the future of the coffee industry.
Day 2: Local Coffee San Antonio
Wednesday brought another early morning and another 2 hour commute to a 10am shift. Of course, who can complain when your motel is conveniently located directly under the highway, and they serve you breakfast that comes in 36-packs from Costco? Arriving in San Antonio, I was greeted with a big smile and a curly mustache from my long time friend Andrew Schulz, the manager of Local Coffee’s Pearl location. Andrew and I go back to my days as a café manager, when I hired him for his first barista job—old friends, new haunts, remember? The bar at the Pearl location was extremely spacious, and I quickly hopped to working, rolling out El Molino single origin espresso drinks, along with making Chemexes of El Molino and Guadalupe and waxing poetic about the effects of natural and washed processing on their flavor to anyone who would listen. You see, these two farms, located directly next to each other, and both containing almost solely bourbon variety coffee trees, are among the greatest examples I’ve encountered of tasting how one variable affects the flavor of the coffee. A parade of staff from Local’s other locations came through along with several famous area chefs, and a multitude of loyal customers. The Pearl district is probably the most happening place in San Antonio, and Local is definitely the coffee shop leading the way for the city. After lunch, Local’s owner Robby Grubbs came in and we caught up, reminiscing about the early days when he opened his first location in Sonterra, and discussed some of his future plans. It seemed that growth in coffee cafes/culture was not isolated to Austin.
Day 3: Blacksmith, Houston
I got a late start on this fine Thursday morning: hanging with old friends and the San Antonio Spurs going up 2-0 in the Conference Finals are a great recipe for a late night. This meant my 3-hour commute to Houston would have me arrive just about lunch-time. Sure enough I made it to Blacksmith at noon sharp, and I was greeted by a sharply dressed David Buehrer with “can I feed you lunch before your shift?” I politely accepted, and moments later Vietnamese Steak & Eggs appeared in front of me. A dish that is the essence of Blacksmith, simple and interesting food, paired with great coffee. The barista on shift had dialed in our Blackstrap Espresso, along with the Guadalupe they were brewing for their drip option of the day. David had been insistent I must come to Houston, and I must say the trip was well worth it. It was also especially fun to work at Blacksmith after hearing the plans for years. After lunch, I took my turn behind the counter, and enjoyed the flow of the café throughout the afternoon, while discussing work-flow and training techniques with Blacksmith trainer John, David made plans for us to all go to dinner with his partner Ecky, and boy was I in for a treat. Across the street from Blacksmith is a recently James-Beard-awarded restaurant Underbelly. After being seated, we were greeted by Chef Chris Shepherd, a quick exchange and all of a sudden we’d surrendered our will to the whims of the kitchen. Dinner proceeded with exceptional results, to the effect that by 10pm, I was insisting I must get on the road, to begin my 3-hour journey back to Waco, and return the rental car by 8am the next morning.
Day 4: Dichotomy Coffee, Waco Texas
The 7:30 alarm came as if it were the conclusion of the previous night’s drive. I deliriously crawled out of bed to return the rental car. Returned to my folks’ for a 1-hour nap and then off to pick up my tuxedo for the wedding on my way to Dichotomy! Arriving at Dichotomy, I was sharing space with their other roasters, Counter Culture, and Tweed. So I asked the staff if they wanted to have some fun, and we decided to roll with Amaro Gayo, Ethiopia on Espresso to contrast the Tweed Guatemala, and to do our Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia, along with Counter Culture’s Kilenso Mokonisa, Ethiopia on pour-over. Brett, the owner of Dichotomy scheduled me on a split shift which was great, as I got to interact with more of Dichotomy’s staff, a young and enthusiastic crew, who are extremely into coffee. I enjoyed rocking their Modbar, but it was the customer conversations that really went the distance. Many of the customers seemed accustomed to waiting the 3-5 minutes for their pour-over or loose leaf tea, and were eager to talk with the very friendly staff. Dichotomy’s space is large, and spacious with high ceilings, a renovated downtown building that represents a growing interest in the city to revitalize the city’s core after it was gutted by both suburbanization and a tornado in the 1950’s. How fitting then, to end my journey at the end of the new growth branch, for the Texas Coffee Scene, and also for Waco’s Downtown.
After it all, I felt as if I had maybe bitten off a little more than a could chew, but I didn’t regret the decisions one minute. The week long journey represented so much more, in sharing where I have been and what I am doing with so many people close to me through-out Texas, along with reciprocating that with them. What a rewarding journey.