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When Stephanie and Steve Williams opened their first Bennu Coffee location on Martin Luther King Boulevard in 2009, it was in the wake of the last big economic recession.
"That one was really just my husband and I doing it all ourselves, getting money from our parents' credit cards to buy the flooring," Stephanie told Austonia.
The couple later opened a second Bennu location on South Congress.
Then, last Saturday, they opened a third at the Highland development—right in the middle of the pandemic.
"This is our dream coffee shop," Stephanie said. "Even though it is scary and it is uncertain right now, seeing this dream come to life was really a motivating factor for us."
Since the start of the pandemic, many small businesses have been forced to close their doors—either temporarily or forever—including Austin favorites like Threadgill's, Dart Bowl and the Lake Austin Boulevard Magnolia Cafe.
But a few intrepid owners are opening, expanding and investing despite the uncertain economic future.
Though Sammy Lam only officially began working toward the opening of Wanderlust Wine Co. last summer, the downtown tap winery is the result of years of planning and study.
Lam helped finance the business with a small insurance payout he received after his mother died. She loved wine and would have one glass of Franzia each week, often while chatting with her son—who at the time was too young to join her.
"I'm like, 'What am I going to do if I spend this money?'" Lam told Austonia.
Initially, Lam planned to soft-open Wanderlust during SXSW in the hopes that he could raise the additional money. But when SXSW was canceled, he had to rethink his entire business plan.
"So then we went to being essentially an online retail establishment," Lam said.
Wanderlust started selling bottles, branded face masks and tickets for virtual tastings on its website until it opened—on what Lam called its fifth attempt—in early June.
"We finally were able to open our doors a little bit," he said. "Going from zero to some people, it felt like a lot."
Other Austin business owners have found opportunities for growth in spite of the pandemic.
Try Hard Coffee, a new walk-up shop that also serves tacos and pastries, which opened in mid-June in the space previously occupied by Blue Dahlia Bistro. Two of its three owners—John French and Gabrielle Rose—also own Clever Baking Co., which serves coffee shops in the Austin area.
"We birthed Try Hard out of the wholesale bakery business struggling," co-owner Raechel Hurd told Austonia.
Clever Baking Co. now operates out of Try Hard's space and supplies the shop's pastry menu.
"It was kind of a major sidestep for us that allowed us to continue and pretty much ensure jobs for ourselves and our staff," Rose said.
Similarly, Bird Bird Biscuit recently announced plans to open a second location in Brentwood.
Co-owner Ryan McElroy said the pandemic forced the fast-casual shop to transition to an online-only ordering model. But customers preferred the new pick-up window to waiting in line to order in person, which during the business' peak times used to take up to an hour.
"We would never in a million years have risked shutting down our whole dining room and getting rid of our line," McElroy said. "Being forced to do it, it reveals an insight that we would have never found otherwise."
While McElroy and his business partner, Brian Batch, had thought about opening a second location, there were no plans to do so until the pandemic revealed this new business model—and provided an ideal location.
McElroy also owns Thunderbird Coffee. While Bird Bird Biscuit was thriving—a recent push to support Black-owned businesses even led it to close for a day so staff could recuperate—Thunderbird's West Koenig Lane location was struggling. The new Bird Bird will replace this shop, with a large patio and a coffee trailer on site.
"We're doing it to try to build something beautiful for the future but also works for the present," McElroy said.
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Summertime sure does fly by, doesn't it? It's time to jam-pack as many summer activities as you can while there is still about a month left before school starts up again and the grind gets going. Luckily, Austin is full of places to visit that will fill your season full of memories.
To get you started, check out some of these seasonably-fit museums, galleries and snacks.
Beyond Van Gogh, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
Like the name suggests, Beyond Van Gogh Austin takes visitors deeper into the Dutch painter's work by surrounding them in his post-impressionist world. Aptly taking place at the Starry Night Pavilion at the Circuit of the Americas, this immersive exhibit allows Vincent Van Gogh's masterpieces to be "freed from frames" as they are projected onto the walls and floors for guests to explore. Van Gogh's thoughts, dreams and words are set to a symphonic score to drive the narrative as you walk through the rooms, giving visitors insight into the tortured artist's swirly world. Adult tickets start at $46.99, children at $28.99 and it offers student and military discounts while the museum runs through Sept. 5.
Museum of Ice Cream, 11506 Century Oaks Terrace
The runaway hit from New York City has made its way to Austin, complete with a rainbow sprinkle pool, banana forest and bright-pink-everything exterior. The Museum of Ice Cream is a favorite of major celebrities—Beyoncé, Ryan Reynolds and the Kardashian Krew have all been spotted at the New York Location. The whimsical museum promises an undisclosed "Texas twist" at its new Austin location, which also has an on-brand café that serves Museum of Ice Cream original treats. You didn't think you'd leave without ice cream, did you? Tickets run $39 per person.
The Selfie Galleries, 3220 Amy Donovan Plaza
Looking for a place to get that perfect summer selfie? Look no further, because the newly-opened Selfie Galleries has 20 wildly decorated different rooms to roam through, capturing an unforgettable photo of yourself and your faves in each one. The backdrops were made so you can flex your creative muscle and make some documented memories at the same time. The gallery also hosts mixers for all age groups so you can meet local Austinites in a safe setting. Tickets start at $20 for an hour, $40 for two, depending on how many people you bring along.
Wonderspaces, 1205 Sheldon Cove
The self-proclaimed "new home for extraordinary art," Wonderspaces is an interactive art gallery like you've never experienced before. With rotating exhibits that you can touch, Instagram and ogle, the artwork is designed for everyone to create their own unique experience when visiting. Virtual reality, a house of mirrors, anonymous conversations and a dragon made of teabags are just a few of the wild installations that make this museum what it is—plus, you can enjoy some local brews at the Wonderspaces Bar. Adults can visit for $24, kids for $15 or you can get an annual pass for $99 and visit each new piece.
Milk Bar Bakery, delivery only
Maybe you want an experience without the outing. Thanks to ghost kitchens, the brainchild of Christina Tosi came all the way from The Big Apple to the Lone Star State. The well-celebrated Milk Bar Bakery is now available in Austin through third-party delivery only, meaning you can get the full line of milk bar cookies, bar pie, truffle crumb cakes and its famous layered birthday cakes through UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash and Postmates only. If you haven't had these rich cookies yet, it's time to fire up that delivery app and get to ordering!
Soak up the rest of summer while you can!
- 1 1/12 oz sweet pepper-infused Tito's Handmade Vodka
- 3 oz soda water
- 1 oz grapefruit juice
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1/4 oz simple syrup
The Biden administration is asking cities and states to use pandemic relief funds to pay residents $100 to get vaccinated. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reaffirmed prohibitions on pandemic protocols in a new executive order issued on Thursday.
The order emphasizes that "the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates," according to a press release. It outlaws government entities from requiring employees to be vaccinated or individuals to provide proof of vaccination and upholds previous orders restricting government entities' ability to impose pandemic protocols.
Local public health and elected officials have asked all Austinites to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and unvaccinated individuals to avoid nonessential trips last week given the rising number of local confirmed cases and related hospitalizations in recent weeks. But it is not enforceable under Abbott's order.
The seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions in the five-county Austin metro has more than quintupled since the beginning of July and is now 47.4. The threshold for Stage 5 is 50, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines.
Despite these trends, Abbott stands firm in his commitment to avoid new statewide mandates and to prohibit local government entities from issuing any of their own.
"Texans have mastered the safe practices that help to prevent and avoid the spread of COVID-19," he said in a statement. "They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses and engage in leisure activities."
Public health officials have attributed the current spike to the more contagious Delta variant and unmitigated spread among unvaccinated individuals. Abbott encouraged Texans to get vaccinated if they haven't already but affirmed that it would never be required by the state in his statement.
An increasing number of Austin-area employers—including Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health, Facebook and the Department of Veterans Affairs—have announced new vaccine requirements in recent days. Austin Mayor Steve Adler asked the city manager to enact a similar requirement on Wednesday, but the city is unable to do so due to an executive order issued by Abbott in April.
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