Bongo Java opened on March 28, 1993 at 4pm.
Bongo opened a time long before Nashville was cool and cold brew was hot.
A homemade sign hung between two pillars on the front porch of the 80-year-old house turned café attracted a line of folks eager to experience the coffeehouse atmosphere that was big in other cities.
“Bongo Java. Open Sunday 4pm.”
A few months later the Bongo crew got around to cutting down the "Sunday 4pm" part of the sign. The remaining part lasted about three years before the café repurposed an old gas station pole sign into a “real sign.”
Bongo has been around so long we are only half way to being as important to the Nashville coffee lore as the slogan: good to the last drop which was also created here.
About the Founder
Bongo Java was started by a former journalist. Thus, you can be darn assured that most of this history is true. And since he’s no longer under the careful eye of an editor, you can be further assured that this history will be longer than need be!
Bob Bernstein moved from hometown Skokie, IL to Nashville in 1988 when he got a job as a reporter with Nashville Business Journal. At the time, he thought he’d spend a year or two in the country music capital of the world gaining experience and then move on to a bigger and better city that had more stuff – or at least more than one sushi place, a single Indian restaurant and (if allowed to dream big) a place to see arthouse movies.
A year or so later, Bob decided he had it backwards. He liked Nashville and wasn’t so keen on his career choice. Sure, the city lacked stuff. Yet, it was an easy place to be (a term he coined for the city and later stole from himself to be a Bongo slogan).
Another thing it lacked was a coffeehouse – places Bob did lots of writing, some studying and a bit of coffee drinking at during high school and college.
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.
Nashville, a place full of songwriters, musicians and even a few employed people, could use a coffeehouse, Bob thought. And furthermore, he convinced himself that he could open such a place. 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 – responding to a self-imposed deadline – 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 1) it was filled with photocopies of Far Side and other cartoons about coffee; 2) they thought it was funny that someone would want to compete selling “coffee and donuts” against Krispy Kreme – their idea of a coffeehouse; and 3) they pointed out that a journalism master's degree (even from such a prestigious place as Northwestern U. 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 (including friends who didn't want to say they thought he’d lost his mind and was going to lose all his money), 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. To this day, Bob is thankful to all of them that they saw his business plan with comics not as a joke but as a reflection of his personality that would create a quirky, Nashville institution.
Over the years, Bongo catered to different group.
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. One early regular praised the comfortable hand as "the best place to have breakfast and lunch in on conversation."
Accolades and Fame
We say that Bongo is Nashville’s oldest and most honored coffeehouse. The oldest is simple to prove: we opened in 1993. We say most honored because the café and its sister store Fido won Best Coffeehouse in the alternative weekly's annual readers poll for 14 straight years - and because it was world famous for the discovery of the Nunbun.
Check out the story of the NunBun.
Bongo World: Expansion through need & happenstance
Bongo's success got Bob and his investor team thinking of expansion.
Fido & BJRC
A space in Hillsboro Village (the one cool neighborhood in Nashville at the time) opened up and Bongo scooped it up. At first it was to be called Bongo 2go, with a coffee roasting operation in back and drinks to go in the front. When the pet shop next door unexpectedly vacated its space, Bob agreed to expand his original plans for store #2. Instead of a to go business, the space became a coffee roasting café.
The operation opened in October 1996 also got two names: Bongo Java and Fido.
The cafe name was a tribute to two histories. First, it recognized that the space housed a pet shop for 50 years. Jones Pet Shop left behind a cool neon sign that had a caricture of a dog coming out of a doghouse.
Also, a dog played an important part of coffee history. Many people and coffee places credit a goatherder named Kaldi for discovering coffee. Bongo's careful study proved inconclusively that the true hero of the story was Kaldi's dog - who was named Fido. He was the one who led the hungry flock further into the forest than anyone had ever gone and found a strange looking cherry that nobody had ever eaten. (coffee beans are the seeds inside this cherry). Fido was named after the dog that discovered coffee who history has often overlooked.
Fido. Like it's sister cafe Bongo Java, Fido has become a Nashville institution. Early on, some regulars of both places called Fido "Bongo Sr." because it had a more chef-driven menu yet was still a comfortable place to be. The alternative weekly chimed in calling Fido "the best place for breakfast, lunch and dinner" explaining that the all day menu from pancakes to grilled salmon had something for everyone.
BJRC quickly distinguished itself by being a 100% organic and Fair Trade coffee company. In 1999, Bongo helped start Cooperative Coffees, a group of like-minded micro-roasters who work together to buy coffee directly from small-scale farmer cooperatives around the world.
Eventually the Fido & BJRC didn't fit under one roof. Coffee roasting in the space proved impractical: Hillsboro Village was too busy to get delivery trucks in and out of; Fido proved too busy to use expensive café space for coffee roasting; and our coffee roaster kept getting interrupted by interested customers asking too many questions. Thus, Bongo Java Roasting Co. in 2000 found a new home in East Nashville.
And then history repeated itself. The space added services as the bustling East Nashville neighborhood grew. At first it was just a roasting operation. A year or so later, a coffee bar was added. Sandwiches quickly followed and the growth of the area meant that BJRC would have to move once again to make room for Bongo East Café. After stops in the Gulch and Dickerson Rd, BJRC found a new home in 2019 on Tech Hill off Nolensville Rd.
In 2018, Bongo East reinvented itself once again and became Nashville’s first board game café (a partnership with the founder of Tennessee Game Days, Rick Keuler). A curated lending library with more than 500 games is available free to customers who sip organic Bongo coffee, drink a local craft brew or eat a tasty sandwich.
To please those who wanted to keep the Bongo name and those who wanted a name that reflected the new space, a decision was made to have two names. Thus the space became Bongo East + Game Point Café.
Grins started after a chance meeting on an airplane soon after Bongo ran a funny ad. Sister cafe's Bongo and Fido took 1st and 2nd place in the Nashville alteranitve weekly's annual “Best of Nashville” contest. We ran an ad that said “We kicked our ass.” That same week, Bob ran into representatives of Vanderbilt University food service on a trip to Chicago and the annual restaurant show. They quoted the ad and asked if Bongo would be interested in opening a kosher vegetarian restaurant in the new Hillel center being built on campus. Bongo agreed to a one year trial – an agreement that has continued since Grins (pronounced Greens and is a Yiddish word for vegetable) opened in 1998.
Grins is Nashville's oldest vegetarian and first certified kosher restaurant.
Fenwick's 300 opened in 2014 as a partnership between Bongo and a long-term employee. Derek Wolfe started as a part-time cook at Bongo Java and then slowly moved up the ladder to eventually becoming the manager of the Roasting Co. and then the company’s director of operations. Fenwick’s 300 is a modern diner named mostly after the Kevin Bacon character in the 1981 cult classic Diner and partly in tribute to the bowling alley that used to be on the property (a place Bongo held its first five or six or seven employee holiday parties).
We sold this operation in February 2021. The uncertainty of Covid-19 caused a whole bunch of re-evaluation around here. Ultimately, we decided to focus on other operations and felt fortunate to sell it to local ownership who want to maintain the brand.
Loyal Customers and Crazy Stories
Over the years we’ve done things here our way and had a whole lot of loyal customers and crazy stories. Here’s a few
- Old time regulars will remember the likely only Dim Sum cart at any coffeehouse anywhere. We had a creative chef and a crazy founder so naturally Bob (founder) put Mindy’s (chef) daily inspirations on a cart and had actress turned waitress Mary push it through an already over-crowded dining room. And when it got too busy for the kitchen to keep up, crazy Bob filled the cart with muffins, oranges and Pop Tarts. And the crazy thing was, customers bought everything (especially the brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts).
- 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. (There is a rumor that their child was conceived in the back bathroom, but that was before we installed cameras there so there isn’t any proof).
- 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 (who we debated on Fox TV) by calling it the NunBun. The coffee company didn’t like the name of one of our blends: Charbucks (we still sell Charbucks) And a very long-term employee channeled the logo of the produce farm we bought from and drew the child with the French beret in all sorts of scenarios complete with deep philosophical pronouncements. We thought it only right to share a couple images with the company. Seems the owner wasn’t amused. Turns out the boy in the drawings was the farm owner's grand daughter.