Bongo Java: The History of Nashville's Favorite Coffee Shop
Bongo Java opened its doors on March 28, 1993 at 4pm in an 80-year-old house turned café. The cafe attracted a line of Nashville residents eager to experience the coffeehouse atmosphere that was popular in other cities. Bongo Java has been around so long that it has become an important part of Nashville's coffee lore.
Bongo Java was started by a former journalist, Bob Bernstein, who moved from Skokie, IL to Nashville in 1988 when he got a job as a reporter with Nashville Business Journal. As he got bored of reporting on the silliness of the state legislature and tired of the pressure of deadlines, Bob started thinking about the good old days when he’d hang out at coffeehouses writing moody stuff in his journals and making poor attempts at his Great American Novel.
Bob convinced himself that he could open a coffeehouse in Nashville. After all, he had worked in fast food joints and restaurants since he was 14 doing everything from flipping burgers to poorly waiting tables at a San Francisco seafood house. He had done everything but manage or own. And how hard could that be? he thought.
Bob quit journalism a few weeks before his 30th birthday with a very sketchy idea of opening a coffeehouse. After a couple of months using up whatever savings a journalist could possibly have, he moved to a friend's couch where he quickly wore out his welcome.
Facing a new deadline - the threat of having to get a job - he got more serious about the project. He took all the notes that were running through his head, taught himself how to use Excel, and created what he thought was a business plan. Bankers, however, thought of it more as a comic book since it was filled with photocopies of Far Side and other cartoons about coffee. They thought it was funny that someone would want to compete selling “coffee and donuts” against Krispy Kreme, and they pointed out that a journalism master's degree wasn't much of a credential to run a cafe.
The project got funded when Bob started publicly admitting that he wanted to open a coffeehouse. While some still did laugh, he found others who actually wanted to invest. Investors came from different parts of his life. A fellow former journalist led him to someone who wanted to invest in a coffeehouse, and he in turn led to a few more investors. Two guys who watched Chicago Bears football with Bob at a local sports bar kicked in. And a couple of folks who did volunteer work with him pitched in too.
Over the years, Bongo Java catered to different groups. At first, Bongo Java quickly became a popular hangout for the hip part of Nashville – which at that time was a 30 and older crowd of musicians, progressives and others like Bob who had reluctantly moved to Nashville. A few years later, high school students discovered Bongo and that its big front porch was a safe and fun place to hang out. Bongo became more of the collegiate hang it is now when Belmont University expanded across the street. Throughout it all, Bongo has attracted many neighborhood folks who walk, run and push strollers up and down popular Belmont Blvd.
Bongo Java is Nashville's oldest and most honored coffeehouse, having won Best Coffeehouse in the alternative weekly's annual readers poll for 14 straight years. The café and its sister store Fido have become Nashville institutions. Fido has a more chef-driven menu yet is still a comfortable place to be, and the all-day menu from pancakes to grilled salmon has something for everyone.
Bongo Java has a long history of unconventional decisions and loyal customers. Old-time regulars will remember the likely only Dim Sum cart at any coffeehouse anywhere. One couple met on the front porch and got married in the dining room. Because it was Bongo (and the couple had no money), the ceremony was held just after the Sunday brunch rush. We've been threatened with lawsuits by the Elvis Presley Estate, Mother Teresa herself, some giant coffee company, and a California produce company. The King folks were mad about an art show we had that featured painting with Elvis doing all sorts of things like washing the dishes. Mother Teresa laughed about a cinnamon bun that looked like her but didn't like us calling it the Mother Teresa Miracle Bun or the Immaculate Confection. We settled with her attorney by calling it the NunBun.
Bongo Java has expanded through need and happenstance. Bongo's success got Bob and his investor team thinking of expansion. Bongo Java Roasting Co. in 2000 found a new home in East Nashville. Bongo East became Nashville's first board game café in 2018. Grins started after a chance meeting on an airplane soon after Bongo ran a funny ad. Sister cafes Bongo and Fido took 1st and 2nd place in the Nashville alternative weekly's annual “Best of Nashville” contest.
Over the years, Bongo Java has done things its own way and has had a whole lot of loyal customers in other cities. Today, Bongo Java is Nashville's oldest and most honored coffeehouse, having won Best Coffeehouse in the alternative weekly's annual readers poll for 14 straight years. The café and its sister store Fido have become Nashville institutions, catering to different groups over the years. Bongo Java has also expanded through need and happenstance, with Bongo East becoming Nashville's first board game café in 2018 and Grins becoming Nashville's oldest vegetarian and first certified kosher restaurant.