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Bongo Java Celebrates Its 30-Year Anniversary

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Bongo Java's Sign on Belmont Boulevard, Braden Simmons

A coffee shop on Belmont Boulevard has served as the place where students can meet, eat and caffeinate for three decades.

As Nashville’s oldest coffeehouse, Bongo Java has become a staple in a landscape full of coffee shop.

Its origin story begins with a journalist leaving Chicago in search of work.

“It was a reluctant move,” Bob Bernstein, owner of Bongo Java said.

Bernstein moved to Nashville because it was the only place he could find a job after graduate school.

“I didn’t know anything about myself, I didn’t know Nashville, all I thought about was country music, big hats and cowboy boots.”

Bernstein noticed key differences between Chicago and Nashville’s culture, but what struck him was a lack of coffeehouses.

“The closest thing was a coffee place inside a bookstore,” he said.

While Bernstein imagined a Nashville where coffeehouses were a success, not everyone shared his vision.

“I had no real money. I was a journalist, so I went to banks to try to borrow money, but they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do,” Bernstein said.

“They were like ‘Isn’t that what Krispy Kreme is doing?’”

When a local investor bought into his vision, Bernstein dream gained traction.

“I really knew nothing about coffee itself, but that’s what I really wanted to create. A place to hang out,” he said.

And create it, he did. Today it serves a variety of caffeinated drinks, sandwiches and locally-made sweets appealing to university students and professors as well as the Sunday-morning walking crowd.

Front of Bongo Java, Braden Simmons

Regine Schwarzmeier an associate professor of German at Belmont, found the coffee shop to be the perfect place to hosts her German Social Hour every Wednesday.

“In Germany, you could sit down over a cup of coffee with friends, and you can talk for an hour or two.”

She wanted that experience for her students.

At Bongo, her students practice conversational German in a less formal environment, and they’ve been doing that since 1993.

“And that’s important to me,” she said

For junior motion pictures major Erin Tillman, Bongo is important to her for other reasons.

It is her go-to spot for a local cup of coffee.

“I have such fond memories of going to Bongo to meet up with people for the first time,” she said.

Her favorite drink is the iced Warm and Fuzzy with oat milk, and though it’s expensive, she still thinks it is worth it because of the people she’s met there.

“It’s crazy because three years later those same people have ended up becoming some of my closest friends to this day,” she said.

Emma Shelton, a senior nursing major, also found Bongo to be a great place during her time at Belmont.

“It’s given me a place over the last three years that is close to campus to meet up with friends to do homework or to just talk,” she said.

Ever since selling their first cup, Bongo has spearheaded Nashville’s coffeehouse culture, with many locations opening across the Metro area.

“My first line of my business plan was ‘I want to create a gathering place for all of Nashville,’” Bernstein said.


This article was written by Seth Thorpe

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