You know that Bennu Coffee place on MLK, the one with the gorgeous custom-built bar? The one that’s open 24/7 and is usually filled with people slaking their need for caffeine and tasty noms and a place to hang or study their asses off?
That place with the coffee drinks whose names – The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, The Raven, and so on – are inspired by great literature?
Listen: There’s two of them now.
Steve and Stephanie Williams, Bennu’s owners, have opened a second store at the site of the coffee shop formerly known as Dominican Joe at the corner of South Congress and Riverside.
[Note: We’d interviewed the couple – and a few other coffee-mongering Austinites – for this ridiculously comprehensive article years ago.]
And they’ve taken the location over completely – as of May 12 of this year – and they’ve got the new joint running 24/7, and so we recently sat down with those ever-industrious Williamses to see how things are going with their latest venture.
Austin Chronicle: Why does somebody who’s running a very successful coffee shop to begin with, why do they open a second one?
Steve Williams: [laughs] We’re asking ourselves that very same question right now.
Stephanie Williams: I think we’d always wanted to own at least one more shop. I don’t know why …
Steve: Well, the owners of Dominican Joe approached us, told us they were selling their place, and wanted to know if we were interested. And when we got to know them and understood what their philosophies were and why they started their coffee shop – and that the physical size of the coffee shops were the same, and Joe’s was pretty far from our Eastside shop, and there was no other 24-hour place in the area … Well, it seemed like a really good fit all the way around.
Stephanie: And we’d looked at several other places, and got pretty far in the process, but something would always – you know, something wouldn’t be right with the lease or whatever – so when Dominican Joe approached us, we were like, “Oh, it’s already a coffee shop, we won’t have to turn a space that was never a restaurant into a restaurant.” And like Steve was saying, it was so synergistic – they were doing things similar to what we were doing. They don’t have their own kitchen, they don’t serve alcohol, the square footage was almost identical, they have a similar patio space. So it was like, yeah, this is gonna work.
AC: When you started the first Bennu on MLK, you built that out from some place that wasn’t set up to be a coffee shop.
Steve: It took us four months to do that. And it took us 10 days to flip this new one.
AC: Have you changed anything basic about the place – aside from, of course, the signage?
Stephanie: Architecturally, the space was already very cool. It has split levels – it was good to inherit that. But we did a feature wall inside, where we put this wood mosaic and an illuminated sign. And we replaced all the equipment, brought in brand-new equipment – the health-inspection people wanted a lot of new stuff, random odds-and-ends that the customers will never even be aware of. And paint, refinishing the flooring, giving the place a new shine.
AC: So, 10 days after you took over you were open for business?
Stephanie: Technically, 11 days.
AC: But, OK, y’all weren’t bogged down with permits like everybody is?
Steve: For the permitting, they considered it a change of ownership, and just wanted to make sure we were continuing the practices of the previous business. It was a fairly painless process.
Stephanie: We got to operate under Dominican Joe’s certificate, we didn’t have to get a new one. They didn’t require us to close it down, they just came in and did a site inspection, said, “Here’s what you need to fix, but you can remain open.”
AC: Wow, that sounds like the opposite of all the city permit horror stories I’ve heard.
Stephanie: Yeah, Steve’s been saying, “This is the model, this is how it’s supposed to work.”
AC: And how’s it been going so far?
Steve: Great – although we haven’t had a chance to go in and really crunch the numbers yet.
Stephanie: But things are going really well. We didn’t open at the beginning of summer, we opened May 12, and so when the students come back … It’s hard to say, because we still have these costs from the build-out, but there’s money in the bank. There’s money in the bank, and money is coming in, so that’s a good sign.
AC: Are the menus the same at both Bennu locations?
Stephanie: Yes. But we added the honey cream latte – which was Dominican Joe’s specialty. We kept it at South Congress and added it to the East menu, too, and we call it Dominican Joe’s Honey Latte – because we want to honor their legacy.
Steve: Yeah, we really like the old owners. They’re sweet people.
AC: Why were they getting out of the business?
Steve: They’d started Dominican Joe to support a nonprofit, and they’d been doing it for 10 years, and were just getting into other stuff. One of the owners recently opened one of those puzzle rooms.
Stephanie: Their passions are nonprofits and entrepreneurship. Ours are more about community and – especially Steve – coffee, coffee, coffee.
AC: And will you be able to realize some savings because you have bigger buying power now, with two shops?
Stephanie: That’s minimal. Texas Coffee Traders is where we get most of our coffee products from, and we already have a good relationship with them. And Steve does all of our restaurant shopping and stores everything in our garage, so instead of using a company that delivers stuff, we save a lot by going to Restaurant Depot ourselves and storing it at our place – and then grabbing things as we need them, like cups or napkins or whatever. We were already saving money where we could.
AC: Are there any particular challenges you’re dealing with, with the new store?
Stephanie: Well, it’s only been two months, and we’re trying to find our footing with having twice as much work. But something that was a really happy surprise was we learned how amazing our crew at East is. They really jumped in and took ownership. We have people who’ve been there five years, eight years, and there were some staffing challenges at the new location. And the crew at East was like, “Don’t worry about it, we’re not gonna let you not be staffed – we’ll come over there and we’ll work the shifts!” And we took a trip to Costa Rica after South Congress had been open for only one month. And that was kind of, ah, we weren’t sure if that was a good idea. And the staff took care of everything while we were gone. We’re just – we’re really really blessed with the crew that we have.
AC: Even though the students are gone right now and that’s gonna skew things, have you noticed a difference in the clientele? Is there a specific vibe of clients on the Eastside, and a different sort of vibe on Congress?
Stephanie: The times that we’re busy are definitely different. On the Eastside, things pick up very early in the morning, like 6am – that’s when the rush starts over there and we have to have an additional bar-back or dishwasher to support the baristas.
Steve: And at the Congress store, it doesn’t pick up until, like, nine or 10 – that’s our busy hour. I think the working theory is that there’s so many tech companies around us, that their people don’t have to be at work until nine or 10? And East gets a lot of Capitol people, who probably have to be at work at eight. And we noticed, around the Fourth of July, the Congress store had the busiest time ever – we did twice as much in sales.
AC: Oh shit, man – next SXSW, y’all are gonna be slammed.
Steve: I’d think so, yeah.
Stephanie: Probably so – but the East location isn’t really affected by SXSW. It kind of evens out, because we get a lot of students over there, and they’re off on Spring Break when the extra South By business comes in. So the volume’s about the same, just with an entirely different customer base. Which can be challenging for the baristas, because they’re used to their regulars – and now here come a dozen out-of-towners ordering drinks for the band.
Steve: Yeah, at the original Bennu it’s more about the East Austin Studio Tour each year; that really affects us, brings in a lot of business. And as far as vibe, well, the South Congress store just seems … a little more South-Congressy, you know? Everyone’s dressed a little nicer, it feels less like I-just-rolled-outta-bed-and-went-down-to-the-coffee-shop. But then, even in the East, we get a lot of people holding business meetings, you’ll see a lot of suits and ties.
Stephanie: You know what there is? There’s more people bringing their dogs inside on South Congress.
Steve: Yeah, I feel like South Congress is a little more Instagrammy. And East is more Facebook. Does that make sense?
AC: [laughs] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
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