“Bongo used to be a place with rude employees, a cult-like following and an intimidating atmosphere. It was seen as more of a place to rebel and smoke at,” said Asher Morey, a Belmont student and loyal Bongo Java customer.
Bongo Java was built in 1993 and has been evolving as a business and changing in its culture since it was built. The Bongo brand has expanded beyond the original site and opened up extensions including Fido, Hot & Cold and Bongo East located in the East Nashville neighborhood.
From 1994 to 2012, either Bongo or Fido had been named Best Coffeehouse by the Nashville Scene, which shows the success and following the Bongo brand has experienced.
Students at Belmont and residents of Nashville frequent Bongo for more than a place to hang out and drink coffee. Bongo’s appeal to its customers stems from its offering of free Wi-Fi and its food offerings for any time of day.
In most recent years, Bongo was seen as the hipster hangout where students and other customers could spend their time smoking and drinking coffee, but after major changes were made to Bongo’s layout and structure, its image has changed.
“It’s inviting, friendly, family oriented and a place you want to come to now,” said Morey.
Bongo used to allow smoking and had a large porch area to do so, but after the construction, there is no longer smoking or the same feel.
“The biggest thing was getting rid of the smoking,” said Bob Bernstein, owner and founder of Bongo Java. “This caused a bit of grumbling, but it caused way more celebration. Even my wife and kids don’t want to fight through the smoke on the deck to walk inside.”
Morey said he, too, used to smoke and enjoy a coffee at Bongo, but he is still in favor of the new changes.
“I miss that, but the changes were well worth it.”
Along with changing the smoking policy, Bongo added on to its building making more room for seating inside and a more convenient location for the ordering line.
“I believe it has helped return Bongo to its original mission of being a gathering place for all in the community. I have noticed more families coming in for coffee and meals,” said Bernstein
However, Bongo Java may not be finished with its changes.
“Next up we will be redoing the counter. We have tweaked our original design a bit, but basically we’ll be straightening it out from the far right wall to the current cream and sugar counter,” said Bernstein.
Bongo Java has a strong presence in the local community of Hillsboro Village, but more specifically in Belmont students and faculty. As Bongo’s culture changes, Belmont’s presence there does not.
“Our relationship with Belmont has grown over the years,” said Bernstein.
“Twenty-one years ago we opened and the only thing on campus across from us was a parking lot. At that time we got very few students coming over to our side of the street. When Belmont built the Curb Event Center, we lost a parking lot but gained a whole lot of students.”
Bongo in a lot of ways has become a part of Belmont’s campus. Bernstein said Bongo now attracts a steady group of professors who meet with students individually or in a class setting.
“I feel our business has grown right along with Belmont University,” said Bernstein.
This article was written by Tatum Tummins.
Photo: Gracie Helms