An Texas musician with roots in Seattle coffee is hoping to be like the Willie Nelson of the South Austin coffee world.
“We want all these hippies and rednecks in South Austin to be able to get a really great cup of coffee for under $2,” says Jack Wilson, who is finishing the build-out of Radio Coffee & Beer at Manchaca and Ben White. “I live here, and I have to drive 15 minutes to get a good cup of coffee.”
Wilson cut his teeth in coffee in the formative years of Seattle’s Victrola Coffee Roasters, where he worked as a barista alongside numerous colleagues who have managed to make coffee a career, either at Victola or at companies including Stumptown and Intelligentsia.
Radio is moving into an old house that had been previously divided as offices. Wilson and his team have been working with a local architect and contractor to retain as much of the feel of the old house as possible, while reclaiming wood inside along the walls and floors. A first-floor-length bar will have a coffee focus at one end and a 24-tap beer tower with a rotating selection of primarily Central Texas crafts at the other. When it opens — hopefully in four weeks, Wilson says — the coffee will all be coming from Stumptown.
“I think they are my favorite roaster in the country,” Wilson says. “The people that work there are all my coffee family. Everyone that was at Victrola and a bunch of other people I worked with in 2006 are now part of that company. I feel really connected with them and I trust their expertise.”
Radio will offer a straightforward menu of espresso drinks, while the most recent generation of Synesso Cyncra machines will sit atop the bar. “I’m going with familiarity there, and I have always liked those machines,” says Wilson. “The bassist in my band used to build them.”
Wilson is expecting relatively high volumes among morning commuters to downtown Austin — he calls his neighborhood “New South Austin” after the tremendous commercial and residential growth in the South Congress and South Lamar corridors over the past decade — and rotating Stumptown coffees will be brewed in batches. There is likely to also be a rotating daily manual brew method, depending on volume and staff availability.
“It is really important to me that we are able to serve a great cup of coffee without it getting too expensive,” he says. “I don’t want it to go over $2.”
Wilson, joined in the venture by his father Greg, will be primarily running the coffee side of the bar, which will also feature five or six recently hired baristas from Flipnotics. The longtime Austin coffee shop, where Wilson himself worked under three different owners, closed last month after it was unable to renew its lease. Several of Radio’s new employees are also coming from the craft beer world.
“I’m going to try to have the same vigor for the beer side that I’ve had beaten into me on the coffee side,” says Wilson, “and basically all the people I’ve hired for beer don’t know anything about pulling a shot of espresso, so we’ll be teaching each other a lot.”
In part a reflection of the business plan and in part because of legal obligations to the city, Wilson says he expects Radio to operate primarily as a coffee bar and community space, with a craft beer component. A sprawling outdoor area with a natural Live Oak canopy will provide limitless seating and opportunities for outdoor programming, Wilson says, and you can bet there will be music. For starters, Radio will be carrying on a Flipnotics Monday night bluegrass residency featuring members of the bands Wood & Wire and MilkDrive. Says Wilson, “It’s pretty much going to be some of the best pickers in Central Texas playing for tips.”
The Radio name is an homage to Wilson’s own musical roots, but it’s also a kind of tribute to and extension of Victrola, where Wilson said he “lucked in” to the high-end specialty coffee world. If he ever opens a new bar, he’s going to call it Television. “It’s the natural progression,” Wilson says.