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4 Austin optimists who are launching new food businesses during the pandemic
(Stephanie and Steve Williams)

Stephanie and Steve Williams just opened their third Bennu Coffee location.

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.

Doors ajar

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."

Making lemonade

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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