That is strange to write actually but it is true. I grew up on Nashville Coffee. When people find out I am (or was) in the coffee business, it always comes up: How did you get in to coffee?? That would take about 94 posts to cover but the other day, it occurred to me that I really “got into coffee” while I was in Nashville. It was my first taste of coffee shops, culture, ideas, style, and what I wanted to do when I grew up.
It is important to remember that back in 2000, there really wasn’t much happening in OKC as far as coffee goes. Yes, there were a few places doing cool stuff in town but nothing like what we see here. In fact, I remember when Starbucks opened it’s first “none bookstore” cafe in OKC. It just hadn’t hit here yet.
(Quick note about Starbucks / Barnes and Noble Cafes: I spent SO much time there my JR and SR year of high school with my pal Daniel Nayeri. I’d sip half hot chocolate / half drip coffee all mixed up.I thought I was really in it to win it. Those were some great times!)
When I arrived in Nashville in the summer of 2001, I was amped on finally being able to go to a cafe and sit around and drink coffee and talk about art and music and all the other things I thought I knew about. I was blown away that there were several Starbucks to go to. I would run down to my favorite of those in Green Hills each day and feel like I was living some sort of dream. I was actually. I felt like I was on to something.
I lived with a great dude named Dan Allen during my freshman year at Belmont University and his even cooler now wife Beth worked at Starbucks.. I thought that was pretty damn cool. She got a bag a week or something, training, knew all about the crazy drink names, how to say them, and how to make them. It felt like an unattainable skill – ha! I was so anxious to ever think about learning all of that. To interact with those coffee pros. To EVER jump into that sort of job and put myself out there like that.
AH! Beth gave me one of the coolest gifts ever – a BLACK Starbucks hat. Not everyone had the black version. I wore it all the time and ended up being known around campus as that dude with the Starbucks hat. It’s funny how these memories are coming back as I type all of this. I’m pretty sure I met my wife Jenni while wearing that hat, adopted my first up, Gabe, while wearing that hat, and played tons of music while wearing that hat. Crazy.
Bongo Java, Fido, The Nun Bun, OH MY!
Belmont Boulevard. It was a street running down the southwest side / edge of Belmont University. It is a street I will always love and remember and think about. It’s beautiful. Right at the corner where the street makes a left bend at campus sits Bongo Java – a shop owned by the grandfather of Nashville coffee, Mr. Bob Bernstein. The dude is incredible and someone I might have to chalk up my coffee career to.
When Bernstein finally opened Bongo’s doors in March of 1993 — before Starbucks, Frothy Monkey, Portland Brew or Barista Parlor — he became a pioneer.
“Very few people knew what an espresso was or anything like that, so there was a learning curve. I couldn’t find employees who knew anything about coffee. I didn’t know anything about coffee — I learned how to make my first latte two days before we opened,” Bernstein said. “The good part was, nobody knew we were serving them lousy coffee at the time because we didn’t know what we were doing — it was better than anything else in town.”Zach Gilchriest / Belmont Vision / March 28, 2018
I’m pretty sure I was in Bongo at least once per day, everyday of the week. I lived on campus my Freshman year so it was close. When I moved off campus a mile or so, I’d park down Belmont Boulevard everyday just so I could walk by to get a coffee or swing through to hang out before or after class.
I studied for accounting tests there, and management, and philosophy. Met friends there. Talked coffee there. Ate so many bowls of granola with fruit and drank so cups of Mystic Brew there. I could go on for about three more days about all the things that Bongo means to me.
Quick Side Trip: Here is the strangely great thing about coffee and experience and how it can evoke so many memories (hint hint). I will never forget it. I remember parking just south of International Market (man did that food taste and smell so good!) on a drizzly day. I jumped out, walked into Bongo for a coffee, and jumped back on the side walk. It was a 16oz cup and it was one of those cups you take the first sip and wish it would never end. I’ve had about 5 of those in my entire life. This was one. It was raining. I was listening to Dave Matthew’s Gray Street on the iPod.
When I began in the Entrepreneurship program that Belmont had just launched, the chair of the program and my mentor, Dr. Cornwall, was always asking me if I had picked up the phone and talked to Bob. He was always pushing young entrepreneurs to get out and meet people in their industry that could be of influence. As he would say, most are eager to talk! I hadn’t yet but within that first bit of the semester, I did call him and asked if he had a few minutes to talk to a kid that wanted to open a coffee house but knew nothing (ha – same story as he had written in 1993!). He of course said yes and we picked Fido (another of his shops) on 21st Street in Hillsboro Village (another place I spent TONS of time) just a few doors down from the famed Pancake Pantry.
We had coffee and talked about business and life and my plans and all the things I did not know and about staff and family and the future. But what I gained most from this was something I still hold as a core value in my leadership style: buying in to your work family and letting them work. (I think this might need to be an entire post. I’ll make a draft now so I don’t forget!)
I had asked him if he would entertain letting me work / intern at Bongo for a few days or weeks or shifts or anything. I did not need to be on payroll but just wanted to be around. To learn from those baristas. To take it all in. What he said actually surprised the hell out of me and changed how I would lead my own companies going forward. He said he would have to check with his managers and see what they thought. It was their cafe. They called the shots. He helped guide them and cast vision and stand up for them but he did not force decisions when it came down to the daily operations. They had earned it. It would have to be cool with them.
Wow. An owner letting his managers lead. I’m was hooked on that idea! He told me about the fact that there was a waiting list of people that wanted to work for Bongo Java. That his managers had been with him since 1993 and that the only turnover he had on the management level was a gal that was one of the account reps at the roastery who was moving. It was the first time I saw that culture mattered. The people mattered.
While I never got to work for free for the company (or for pay for that matter), that 30 minute chat over coffee in Nashville helped shape me. It was a huge deal. We had several other back and forth email conversations over the next couple of years and our first catering operation in Bozeman, MT served Bongo Java coffee. It felt right. Dr. Cornwall did invite Bob to sit on the panel when I presenting and defending the business plan for Cafe Evoke my SR year at Belmont. He wasn’t able to be there but I still felt his support as those dreams were taking off.
OH! The NUN BUN! Go read about that – ha!
Using the Andy Warhol measure that everyone is famous for 15 minutes, the NunBun actually got 45 minutes of fame: 15 minutes for the discovery; 15 minutes because Mother Teresa personally wrote us a letter asking us to stop using the image to sell merchandise; and 15 minutes when the NunBun was stolen — again on Christmas day.bongojava.com
(Quick note. I honestly can’t remember what this shop looked like on the outside when it first opened. I didn’t have an iPhone or digital camera to take pictures of my drinks then either – ha!)
On the west side of Belmont sat 12th Ave – now hiply called 12South. When I was in Nashville, however, 12th Ave was a spot that had an awesome Mexican popsicle shop, a few vintage shops, and a vision for the future. By the time we left Nashville in 2005, Portland Brew and Frothy Monkey had opened as well as a pizza joint we hung out at plenty. I didn’t spend my time at Frothy Monkey but for sure did at Portland Brew. I don’t have a ton of inspirational business stories from this place but I think what I took away from it was the evolution of coffee culture in a city. A new feeling of concept design. Another style of cafe. A new place to take notes and learn. A different style of coffee.
What I DO remember about Portland Brew is this. We had them roast custom coffee for our wedding in 2004. They packaged it for us and sent it to Montana so we could give bags of coffee and a travel mug away for gifts. I honestly can’t say I remember what the coffee tasted like but I DID find a bag in my grandparents freezer YEARS later. (I should see if they still have that.)
There are several other coffee shops in Nashville that I’d duck into but Bongo, Portland Brew, Fido, and the Starbucks in Green Hills and the Barnes and Noble in Opry Mills Mall probably saw me the most. Being in Nashville for those four years were a huge part of my growth. Most of my deep dive into coffee knowledge came after I left but I don’t think I would have gotten this far in coffee without those times in Tennessee.
I have only been back to Nashville one time since 2005 and that was October of 2019. I had a packed schedule the two days I was there but did get to jump over to Barista Parlor – a shop I have watched grow in that town for years now. It felt good to be sipping a coffee back in that town. It was different. It felt different. The place looks different. That’s ok. It’s great. I’m glad to see the growth.
But back to Bob Bernstein…
“I very sarcastically say that we helped cause this growth because every neighborhood we went into exploded — either as or just after we moved into it,” he said. “And I totally apologize for all of that because it’s all my fault.”
“Someone like me who walked in not knowing what they’re doing, had a dream and took an opportunity can’t do that right now in this town. And I feel bad for that,” Bernstein said. “I like seeing all these homegrown things — Yazoo and Jackalope and even some of the other coffee places — but it’s getting harder and harder to do that now.”Zach Gilchriest / Belmont Vision / March 28, 2018
I appreciate the efforts of those that did something that most would not have believed in. I appreciate the support of new concepts while continuing to forge forward themselves. I appreciate Bob Bernstein. I appreciate Nashville coffee for what it was then and what it is now.