25 years of Bongo: How Bob Bernstein created Nashville’s coffee empire
Under the gaze of Belmont’s iconic Bell Tower and just outside the boundary of a rapidly expanding campus sits an aged, gray house that has been feeding Nashville’s caffeine addiction for 25 years.
Inside, a line stretches from the door to the counter. Local art lines the walls, and Whitney Houston’s unmistakable 1987 pop hit, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” echoes off of them.
At the tables, Belmont students unknowingly sip lattes next to future employers, who discuss record deals and marketing strategy. A family of tourists frantically search for a place to sit, while a table full of thrift store-chic hipsters debate Kierkegaard.
In the corners, hungover freshmen shovel greasy hash browns into mouths hidden by low-resting baseball caps.
Old friends swap stories. New friends share selfies.
All of this and more can be found daily at Bongo Java — the humble, first edition of Nashville’s oldest and most celebrated coffee empire, now boasting over half a dozen different locations and operations around Music City.
At the head of the multi-million dollar java operation stands founder and owner Bob Bernstein.
Bernstein’s background, surprisingly, was not coffee, nor business. Instead his background was journalism.
After receiving a master’s degree from Northwestern University, Bernstein took a job writing for the Nashville Business Journal in 1988. The Chicago native admittedly did not plan on staying in the fledgling Southern city for long.
In fact, after a tiring two-year stint with the Business Journal, Bernstein approached his 30th birthday with no plans to even stay in journalism.
“I thought I’d use Nashville as a springboard, and in a year or two move on to a bigger, better paper — a bigger, better city,” Bernstein said. “After about a year or so, I realized there was something about this town that was inviting and offered opportunity — and wasn’t anything I expected it to be.”
So Bernstein turned his attention in a completely different direction, and to something he’d grown up with.
“For a year I’d go back to Chicago and I’d go to coffee houses,” he said. “I just started looking and watching and talking to employees and owners.”
Bernstein didn’t know a lot about coffee — he admits to barely ever drinking the stuff — but he knew how to create an atmosphere, and knew what the early ‘90s Nashville scene was missing.
“A lot of people go into the coffee business because they love coffee, but they have no idea what atmosphere is or how to do it,” he said. “I did it the opposite. I didn’t know anything about coffee but I felt I knew how to create a space people wanted to be.”
When Bernstein finally opened Bongo’s doors in March of 1993 — before Starbucks, Frothy Monkey, Portland Brew or Barista Parlor — he became a pioneer.
“Very few people knew what an espresso was or anything like that, so there was a learning curve. I couldn’t find employees who knew anything about coffee. I didn’t know anything about coffee — I learned how to make my first latte two days before we opened,” Bernstein said. “The good part was, nobody knew we were serving them lousy coffee at the time because we didn’t know what we were doing — it was better than anything else in town.”
Not only was Bongo one of the first coffee houses to set foot in Nashville, but one of the first retail businesses to settle into the Belmont neighborhood — a near ghost town in ‘93.
Across the boulevard the Myint family owned International Market, which opened its doors nearly two decades before Bongo. On Belmont’s fledgling campus, a commuter lot occupied space that years later would hold the Curb Event Center.
Former Nashville Scene and Belmont Vision editor Steve Cavendish would grab Bongo before heading to his first job after graduation. For the majority of his time at Belmont, there was no Bongo Java — or really much of anything else in the neighborhood.
“It’s interesting because that was a commuter lot, so people came in, came out and got out,” Cavendish said. “People didn’t hang out around campus because there just wasn’t anything there.”
In fact, Belmont students were rarely ever seen inside Bongo in the early days, Bernstein said.
“The teenagers weren’t here, the college students weren’t here, because this was the back of the university and there was no reason for students to come over to this side of campus,” he said. “There were very few adventurous Belmont students back in those days that would come over here and they just didn’t fit the stereotypical Belmont look.”
In 1996, Bongo unintentionally fell into the global spotlight after baking a cinnamon bun bearing a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa.
“It was surreal,” Bernstein said. “This was before the Internet so it’s hard to imagine.”
The first story hit The Tennessean on Saturday, around Christmas Day. On Monday, the story was picked up by every Gannett newspaper in the country. Shortly after that, morning drivetime DJs and reporters bombed Bongo’s answering machines to ask about the Nun Bun — originally dubbed “The Immaculate Confection.”
“I woke up Monday morning to go to work and get this call that there’s 75 messages on the answering machine,” Bernstein said. “And then you’d start getting these calls, some guy imitating Dan Rather is like, ‘Please wait for Dan Rather,’ and all excited, you think, ‘the way this day is going, Dan Rather is calling me.’”
But after several fake phone calls, and even more real ones, Bernstein got a call he won’t ever forget.
“In the middle of it all some guy calls me and says ‘I’m Mother Teresa’s attorney,’ and I just start laughing,” he said.
Unbeknownst to Bernstein at the time, the caller was indeed Mother Teresa’s attorney — calling to stop the young business owner from mass-producing the bun or starting a new career in Nun Bun merchandising.
Eventually, after lots of talk with attorneys, Mother Teresa wrote Bernstein herself.
“I am writing to ask you to stop selling merchandise bearing my likeness,” Mother Teresa wrote. “I do know that you have not done anything out of ill-will, and so trust that you will understand and respect my wish.”
For years, Bongo Java weaved in and out of the national spotlight — first for the bun itself, then for the letter from Mother Teresa, and once again after the original bun was stolen from its display case on Christmas Day 2005.
The Nun Bun craze finally came to a conclusion after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997.
“The week that she died, the attorney, Mother Teresa and the woman who would replace her were all sitting in a room going over all these issues, because they knew she was going to die soon,” Bernstein said. “And the attorney said ‘This is the settlement I worked out with these guys in Nashville.’”
Pointing to her upcoming replacement, Mother Teresa responded, “You tell those guys in Nashville to find a cinnamon bun that looks like her!”
“So she laughed about the bun, I know that,” Bernstein said.
While the media attention has long since died down, a “no questions asked” $5,000 reward still stands for anyone who can crack the case and find whoever stole the original Nun Bun.
Jump to 21 years later, the original Bongo Java location now stands as a living relic, and the oldest member of a coffee empire with over half a dozen uniquely named and designed locations around Nashville — a decision Bernstein said was very intentional.
“One of my big issues in this town is, pick a name and they’re opening 27 of them. That’s why we have Fido and Grins and Fenwick’s and BOX — I don’t want them all to be named the same or look the same or feel the same,” said Bernstein. “That’s why we’ve grown differently — partly because I’m weird and partly because it’s more fun and partly because I don’t like homogenization of the whole city.”
While the Bongo empire may have grown differently, Bernstein often jokes that his company has grown at the same rate as the city it calls home.
“I very sarcastically say that we helped cause this growth because every neighborhood we went into exploded — either as or just after we moved into it,” he said. “And I totally apologize for all of that because it’s all my fault.”
But within the sarcasm lies some truth.
Just three years after the original location started its transformation of Belmont’s neighborhood, Bongo’s flagship operation Fido opened in Hillsboro Village, and arguably sparked the neighborhood’s current restaurant scene.
And in 2000, the new East Nashville Bongo location showed up years before anyone could visit a pharmacy that offered anything other than medicine.
This kind of rapid development could be signaling the end of friendly, cooperative and accessible business opportunities in Nashville, Bernstein worries.
“I feel like it still has a small town feel to it, but it’s right on the edge of whether or not that’s going to survive,” he said. “People have no qualms anymore about opening the same thing right across the street from somebody. They have no qualms about cheating, lying and stealing anymore — whereas I think that wasn’t the case 10 or 20 years when there was more opportunity.”
“I mean, look what’s happening on 12th Avenue. You’ve got Frothy Monkey, you’ve got Portland Brew and Twice Daily is deciding to open a coffee shop right next to them — like seriously?”
Bernstein also knows how much harder it is for young business owners to make it in today’s more competitive Nashville landscape.
“Someone like me who walked in not knowing what they’re doing, had a dream and took an opportunity can’t do that right now in this town. And I feel bad for that,” Bernstein said. “I like seeing all these homegrown things — Yazoo and Jackalope and even some of the other coffee places — but it’s getting harder and harder to do that now.”
For Bernstein, the focus will always be on Bongo’s future — which currently includes potential plans for a retail store, apartment unit hybrid on the recently-acquired Belmont Boulevard property neighboring the original store.
However, plans to drastically renovate the original coffee house — a location that has undergone just a handful of cosmetic upgrades and renovations since its opening 25 years ago — probably won’t happen.
“I don’t have the budget or the desire to change,” Bernstein said. “I’m already onto the next shiny object.”
The original Bongo Java will celebrate its 25th birthday Wednesday with cake, giveaways and festivities — and of course, coffee.