San Antonio saw an increase in coffee businesses after the pandemic

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It was a hot Thursday afternoon when I pulled into the Eight Ball Coffee Truck at 1305 South St. Mary’s. It was about a week after they officially opened and I had been looking forward to a visit for a long time. Never mind that I had already had two other caffeinated beverages that morning, my own weakened nervous system would have to make concessions.

Brothers Joseph and Ben Ontiveros made me a pleasantly chilled frozen oatmeal latte, brewed with beans from Creature, an Austin-based roaster, and pierced with a sturdy biodegradable straw made from agave plants.

Eight Ball Coffee coming this Friday, May 6th.

Photograph of Cottonmouth

It was a slow day, the brothers say, but many people made the pilgrimage to pay their respects to San Antonio’s newest coffee operation. The brothers named the store Eight Ball, inspired by images they saw plastered in bars growing up on the Westside of the city. While we were chatting, a guy walked in wearing a black T-shirt from Gravves Coffee, a gothic-themed coffee station that opened on the high street last summer. I was immediately struck by this almost comical cross-pollination of the St. Mary’s coffee truck unfolding in front of me.

It’s as if San Antonio is being rewired with a host of new cafes, with many burgeoning connoisseurs ready to cross this rapidly growing specialty circuit. It’s safe to say that specialty coffee is booming in San Antonio, with many locals finding ways to marry their passion with espresso. If you’ve developed a taste for cortados rather than a medicinal cup of Folgers in the dark hours of the morning, or especially if you’ve shopped around and started to prefer the church basement-inspired cups of Joe, then you’ve probably already noticed.

Joel

Joel “Tatu” Herrera says he and his wife and co-owner Emilie Herrera will open a boutique, hopefully before the end of the year, at 359 Bustillos Drive, which previously housed Cafe Azteca. Folklores opened at 5009 South Flores Street in 2018. Pandemic-fueled downturns closed the South Flores spot a year ago. The couple opened a store near Fort Sam Houston at 1526 East Grayson Street in July 2020. This store will remain open, and Tatu is proud to serve the nearby military, but finding a place in the Southside is special.

Courtesy, Tatu Herrera

There’s the combination swing dance studio and café Bright, which opened in February. The dream of newlyweds Hana Buck and Rolando Almaraz, the space serves as a Lindy Hop hideaway by night and a latte and responds to emails by day.

In early May, Scorpion, the former Peruvian tapas restaurant and wine bar in the Hays district, announced a rebranding to “café and wine cellar”.

This summer, a young couple opened Vice Coffee, both a coffee shop and a disc lounge on Place Saint-Paul.

Then there’s the success story of Early Bird, which started as a truck in November 2020 in the Huebner Oaks mall. Abel and Sydni Abed wanted to start a business that gave them more flexibility to stay home with their children. Dominating the specialty market in their corner of town, where chains reign supreme, Early Bird announced the opening of their physical store in the same mall.

Notably, their new store is inside a former Starbucks. Could this signal a shift in local coffee culture, where San Anton locals are willing to spend $6 for a cup of coffee? Increased store openings seem to indicate this, along with the hermit crab-like colonization of a national chain, but the end result is only responsible for the time associated with the reduction (or assault) more globally “unprecedented”. “events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Specialty drinks at Graves Cafe.  The Elixir, made from Ube root, and the Forest Dweller, made from Pandan.

Specialty drinks at Graves Cafe. The Elixir, made from Ube root, and the Forest Dweller, made from Pandan.

Camille Sauer

My friend Soloman Gerges is the individual operator of Eclipse, a distinctive cafe experience inside Little Death Wine Bar on St. Mary’s which opened in September 2020. I got to know him a bit by frequenting the store. My friend Lucian calls him a “mad scientist”.

A former barista at Brown (founded in 2006), Gerges cares deeply about good coffee, uplifting the local scene, and – in my layman’s understanding of coffee – is an almost encyclopedic resource on the craft.

“I think we have one of the most underrated cafe scenes in the country. Period,” Gerges tells me. When asked, he affirms my suspicions that there is a growing cafe scene in San Antonio and St. Mary’s in particular. After Eclipse, new coffee truck concepts began to dot the strip.

Almost in tandem in the summer of 2021, just after things started to “get back to normal,” Shine began serving cappuccinos to customers in the parking lot of The Vaulti, a vintage and high street clothing store. Gravves emerged from obscurity as an elegant black widow spider, serving up aesthetically pleasing green and purple lattes with names like “forest dweller” and flavors like “ube root.”

A tour of UTSA area cafes including Me Latte, Brevity, Indy Coffee and Study Space.

A tour of UTSA area cafes including Me Latte, Brevity, Indy Coffee and Study Space.

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

“What I love about new upcoming ventures is that everyone is original in their own right,” said Gravves founder Mauricio Cruz. “I mean, coffee is still coffee, but everyone brings something different. Maybe it’s in their visuals. Maybe it’s in their art. Maybe it’s in the flavors, you know, but it always brings something different and to different parts of town.”

Since the end of 2020, by my count, more than a dozen new independent coffee projects have opened across the city, with four separate operations sprouting up on Sainte-Marie Street alone. This year, at least seven fresh produce stores, trucks and programs made their presence known across the city.

This is something I am acutely aware of due to my role as the local food and beverage industry ‘watchdog’ for MySA. When a new store pops up, it’s safe to say we’ll write about it. Although there have been so many lately that I find myself wanting to understand what it means to us culturally on a local level.

Perhaps the recent surge can be attributed to the pandemic pushing enthusiasts into the coffee business or entrepreneurship. Or perhaps the current constellation of new stores is a harbinger of a more expensive and expanding San Antonio. I haven’t fully understood the symbolism yet, but the landscape is certainly expanding.

Hot or cold, PJ's Coffee of New Orleans offers a wide variety of choices.

Hot or cold, PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans offers a wide variety of choices.

Steven Santana | MySA

Ultimately, I suspect the rise of new coffee businesses was born out of a love for craftsmanship. At the same time, it is also a reflection of people intuitively pursuing an existence that allows them creative and managerial control over their livelihoods in a post-pandemic era of job insecurity. It’s the human spirit raging after a big change and local businesses competing with chains like Dutch Brothers and a certain Seattle-based coffee supplier. We live in strange times.


If you (or a loved one) are considering opening a new shop or have conspiracies about coffee culture, you can email me your ideas at the coffee watch line [email protected] .com

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