Whether biking, walking, or driving down South Congress, you will notice that there’s definitely something about this part of town that sticks out from the rest of Austin. It could be the aged feel of the area that makes old Austinite’s tear up remembering how it was back in the 1970’s compared to the now urban feel of a city going through growing pains. Or it could be the food trailers that offer quality food at low prices in a setting that is often filled with street musicians and local art venders. Or maybe it’s the myriad of funky shops that line the street as it opens up to the beautiful view of downtown, underscored by the lake, and emphasized by the capital.
St. Edwards University looms dramatically on a scenic hill with one of the most inspiring views of the skyline. In the more than one hundred and twenty five years it has been open, it has looked over the changing SoCo scene below. One feature of this area is the variety of coffee shops that surround the university. Stomping Grounds and Ruta Maya are two that occupy the same street only one block down from the school. Jeanies Java just opened right across the street which replaced The Garden District (another coffee shop) which had previous replaced another coffee house. There is also a café on the campus that serves blended drip coffee as well as espresso drinks. With so many coffee shops literally blocks away from each other, it is interesting to see which one customers pick and why?
After interviewing local café goers, there are four general criteria they tend to ask themselves about the coffee shop environment when, or before they enter, like: Do they have WiFi? What are their hours? Do they serve food? and Do they serve alcohol? The answers to these questions are never universally good or bad but do seem to dictate what kind of clients the café attracts.
When entering Stomping Grounds, it is apparent that most people there are well dressed. The formal attire might be because of the obviously well lit bar that greets you as walk through the door. This coffee house is also advertised as a cocktail lounge, further adding to its classy appeal. It services free WiFi, is open late till 2am, and serves mini pizza’s and other bar snacks like jalapeno poppers.
As you make your way from Stomping Grounds up a pretty large hill on Alpine Dr., you find Ruta Maya right across the street. This coffee house opens up into what looks like an empty concert venue with wide-open space and an up stairs looking down onto the stage. Unlike the other coffee shops around this SoCo scene, Ruta Maya has tons of events it hosts on almost a daily basis like open mic night every Tuesday, free yoga classes every morning, and salsa lessons on Sunday. This explains the openness one feels when entering juxtapose to the traditional personalized cozy feel of most coffee houses. They close at 1am during the week and 2am on weekends. Ruta Maya serves beer but no liquor, has free WiFi, and things like roles and other cold sandwiches to eat.
Leaving Ruta Maya and jumping one block over, you encounter the reason why all these cafés are bunched so close together, St. Edwards. The coffee shop on the campus located in the Ragsdale Center is called Meadows Café and is owned by Jo’s Coffee. Here you’ll find most peoples idea of a typical coffee shop with large comfortable couches that, if it weren’t for the coffee, would probably put you to sleep. Meadows Café is a bustling place were customers are always pouring in, yet the décor is very tranquil with dark earthy colors and Christmas lights around the ceiling that are probably left up all year. It’s open till midnight most nights, has free WiFi for students, and a limited amount of snacks to eat.
Heading southbound from Meadows café and right across the street, you see a giant mural painted over the entire building of what is Jeanies Java. The mural looks like a psychedelic poster for The Little Shop of Horrors representing not only the funky side of south congress, but also the plant nursey that is attached to it. This is the newest of the coffee shops around this area (having only opened for business in July) and the only one where I was actually greeted by the owner herself.
When asked what got her into the coffee business? She replied, “Back in 1997 I lived in Seattle Washington and got hooked on coffee and the culture surrounding it, so I decided to familiarize myself with the business. It took a while but by 2006 I was working directly with the owner of a shop called Caffinity where I learned how to make coffee in a fast paced environment. After working in a corporate environment for many years, I finally decided it was time to open my own café.”
When asked what made her coffee shop different or unique from the other ones around the area? She answered, “I like to be more social with our customers in the hope that we are creating a more fun atmosphere where they enjoy stopping in. We like to keep a kind of funky vibe around the shop. We also have an amazing patio over looking the garden of The Great Outdoors Nursery that has been around since the 1980’s. We also really try and support local businesses as much as possible.”
Having finally gotten some feed back from an owner of one of these SoCo cafés, it was time to listen to some customer’s opinions.
A.J. Molyneaux, an Austin native whose parents reside in the south congress area, talks specifically about which coffee shops in the area he likes and why.
“It’s hard to find a good coffee shop because each one has a different vibe that fits each person. Stomping Grounds is too yuppie for me and at night people start getting drunk and ridiculous so as far as coffee shops go, it seems like more of a bar to me. Ruta Maya is a cool place with cool events but there’s a particular crowd there that reminds me of the homeless side of hippie culture, at least at night that seems to be the case. Meadows is an ok place and I only say O.K. because it just doesn’t seem to be to unique in anyway.” He added, “it’s a great place to grab a cup of coffee but not to hangout. If I really just want a good cup of coffee, I go to Jeanies Java because of the awesome balcony overlooking the garden, and I like their coffee the best. They don’t have wireless however so as a student that can be a big obstacle.”
When asked which of the four criteria was most important to him, he replied, “do they serve food?”
Martin Hatch and Mathew Bentley both live in a house off of south first and are frequenters of the SoCo Cafés. When asked which of the four criteria was most important to them, one said WiFi while the other emphatically answered whether they serve alcohol.
Out of four more south congress residents and St. Edwards students asked the same question, answers varied between all four of the criteria leaving a definitive answer illusive.
So what truly makes a café appealing to one person over another? It seems a matter of personal taste, which in the end, is what makes the SoCo area so special in a city that appears to be going the way of it’s neighbors, Dallas and Houston. The diversity of the citizens that live in the 78704 area is displayed not only in the creative art plastered across the sidewalks at the First Thursday festival, but also in the choices they make when choosing local coffee shops.