All three Austin locations of Houndstooth Coffee — with their light, sober decor, alert, skilled baristas and sacramentally prepared beverages — seem almost temples to the mysteries of good java and goodwill.
Give thanks to Sean and Paul Henry, two bearded brothers who in the past eight years have stamped their imprint on the coffee culture of our city. Each of their shops, including a new spot on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the Platform complex, are products of judicious thinking about hospitality, discernment and social sensibilities.
Older Sean led the way. The University of Texas film school graduate was working at the café inside Central Market in the early 2000s when he started buying a few ounces of coffee beans to brew at home.
“I just wanted to learn more about it,” he recalls. “Then I’d spend my days off at Mozart’s Coffee Roaster on Lake Austin, chilling by the water, reading Wendell Berry, the agrarian thinker. He writes that place matters, that we should respect our land.”
Once, he got to hear Berry speak in public with another visionary agrarian, Wes Jackson.
“They talked for 2 1/2 hours,” says Sean, whose wife, Melissa Francis Henry, grew up in a West Texas farming family. “Just a couple of old guys who’d known each other for years. I offered Wendell coffee. He said no.”
Meanwhile, Sean also hung out at Little City’s double-decker coffeehouse on the Drag.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I should get a job in a coffee shop,’” he says. “’I like what’s going on here.’”
MORE BEANS: Best Austin coffee shops near Congress Avenue
For a while, Sean served as a barista and later manager at Caffé Medici, a local trendsetter in the field of high-quality espresso drinks. A trip to Seattle in 2007 convinced him to open his own place one day.
“I tasted the caffé macchiato and espresso at Espresso Vivace, thinking that nothing in Texas tastes this good,” Sean says of the coffee shrine with three locations in Seattle’s Capitol Hill area. “It was truly roasted well and brewed well and sourced well.”
He liked Seattle’s take on the “ristretto style” of short cups of espresso.
“It’s high-intensity, but not too roasty,” Sean says. “Caramel without being burnt caramel. I also went to a party that was pretty crazy. Baristas everywhere. I thought, ‘This is totally different than Texas. This doesn’t exist.’ Walking into somebody else’s subculture was interesting.”
Sean Henry, 36, and Paul Henry, 31, grew up in Richardson, north of Dallas, the sons of Scott Henry, a certified public accountant, and Kay Robbins Henry, who worked for the child development center at Heights Baptist Church. Both parents are from West Texas.
Sean was quiet and shy as a youth. He played soccer and made good grades. Paul was the popular one, voted class president three years in a row.
“I had a good time,” Paul says as his brother laughs. “I played a little baseball; that’s about it for sports.”
Both eventually thrived at UT — Paul went through a brief period of adjustment during his first year and left to work for charities in East Africa — as Sean studied film production and Paul explored history.
They share another sibling, Marc Henry, who works at TacoDeli while playing in two Austin bands, Ramesh and Name Sayers, that do well enough to tour pretty regularly.
Sean and Paul sport serious, red-brown beards that bring out their Scottish heritage, which also found its way into the name of their business.
“Houndstooth is a really simple pattern, and at the same time distinct,” Paul says. “The people who come into Houndstooth and the coffee that is served becomes its own pattern. It’s part of people’s lives. Coffee and people.”
Without sounding pretentious, the brothers at times talk like philosophers, silently thinking over a reporter’s question before delivering an unusually cogent answer, often softened with a warm laugh.
So Sean carefully studied the art and craft of coffee for years before Houndstooth was born. How did Paul embark on this coffee adventure?
“I drank it,” he says with a straight face. He didn’t learn much about the drink during his year in coffee-rich East Africa, either. “Everything was instant. Instead, I drank a lot of tea. When I got back to UT, I’d sometimes go to Mozart’s, but I didn’t hang out much in coffee shops till Sean got hired at Caffé Medici.”
That said, Paul was part of the Houndstooth concept from the beginning.
“I had no intention of staying,” he says. “I’ve since grown into the role.”
The Houndstooth way
Sean absorbed a great deal about the business while working at Caffé Medici’s operation on West Lynn Street, where he managed the shop from 2008 to 2009.
“I stopped working there in March 2010,” he says. “We opened Houndstooth in May 2010.”
The first location on North Lamar Boulevard was not far from Central Market and very close to Uchiko, the sizzling offspring of South Austin’s Uchi restaurant. Located in an upgraded strip shopping center, Houndstooth quickly caught on with serious coffee drinkers, but also with laptoppers in search of peacefully social workplaces. The presence of a large Starbucks up the road didn’t diminish attraction to the first Houndstooth.
“From the beginning, we offered two espresso options, house blends and country-specific, single-origin,” Sean says. “That was new in Texas. We also opted for a low-slung counter, and given the (espresso) machines we have, we open up the coffee-making process. We raise the bar, so to speak, by lowering it, making it less of a physical barrier.”
Unlike some Austin coffee shops, they paid as much attention to their brewed coffees as to their espresso drinks.
“We were brewing coffee by hand and actively offering it to people,” Sean says of the labor-intensive practice. “We were happy to be part of that trend, but we moved away from that and moved toward increasing guest interaction, so we make batch brews now, plus Japanese iced coffee, and a 12-hour cold brew.”
Eventually they roasted their own beans in Dallas under the Tweed brand, which sells in gift bags like hotcakes during the holidays at the North Lamar location. The type of beans depends on the season.
“Brazil is the only country that has two harvests,” Sean says. “Everybody else has one harvest, that’s early, middle or late, whether that’s Central Americans, Ethiopians or Kenyans.”
Real estate matchmaking for the second Houndstooth location came by way of the Downtown Austin Alliance. Not long after Caffé Medici opened a handsome, bilevel coffeehouse on the ground floor of the Austonian, the Henry brothers chose a spot on the prominent southwestern corner of the Frost Tower at East Fourth Street and Congress Avenue. Tall, open, airy and classy with gently curved stools and multiple seating options, it opened April 1, 2013.
“The longest day in the history of Houndstooth,” Paul jokes. “No furniture. We had tables but no stools. Also, the contractors were trying to fix something they didn’t need to fix, which almost electrocuted people with water pouring out of the wall.”
While there’s something slightly tweedy about the North Lamar location, the Frost Tower shop reflects an up-to-the-minute modernism, with colors and shapes that subliminally echo the coffee-making process.
The third Austin shop anchors the Platform residence complex near the MLK stop on the MetroRail line. It’s also tall, angular and welcoming. The long counter is backed by a food preparation area that will provide more food to go along with the coffee, beer, wine and cocktails as the shop matures.
Several features, inspired by trends in the hospitality industry, stand out: One can order from anywhere in the shop as baristas make their way to one’s location; also, one can open a tab during a longer stay.
“We want to bridge the a.m.-p.m. divide,” Paul says. “People think coffee shop in the morning and bar in the evening. Why not both?”
The music slightly elevates the energy in the place depending on the time of day, while sound panels help keep down the echo in a room where more than 50 people can gather and still hold a conversation.
Two of the brothers’ inspirations are Danny Meyer, author of “Setting the Table” and head of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, and Mark and Brian Canlis of the Canlis family restaurant in Seattle.
The brothers have opened three shops in Dallas, where Sean now lives. How does that coffee culture compare with Austin’s?
“The regulars there are pretty comparable,” Sean says. “But there isn’t the independent café culture in Dallas that there is here.
“Dallas has a younger culture for specialty coffee,” Paul says. “But even that is changing.”
The process for hiring and training Houndstooth staff in both cities is scrupulous.
“We want people who are genuinely interested in this work and seem earnest,” Paul says. “The mechanics of brewing coffee have changed a lot since we opened. We can train that. Now, some wash out quickly. And we try not to hire people who are too similar. We want all different backgrounds to avoid subcultural hiring. People from all over.”
Even when a Houndstooth shop is packed, one feels that personal touch.
“While the coffee is important, I come back to the hospitality and the camaraderie,” Paul says, nodding to the counter. “Gregory over there behind the bar wrote a book about coffee. Giving him time and space to do that was good for him and good for us. Some cafés are built around the cult of personality. That’s not at all the case here.”
AUSTIN COFFEE SHOP HISTORY AND CULTURE
Coffeehouses go back to the 1500s in the Ottoman Empire and the 1600s in Europe. The type of independent, espresso-based shops we enjoy now in Austin started to thrive in the 1980s.
Pre-1980s: Unpretentious cafés, cafeterias, doughnut spots and diners served as community gathering places as well as purveyors of inexpensive cups of brewed java. We haven’t found evidence that during the 1950s and ’60s Austin sprouted the kind of beatnik or hippie coffeehouses found in the bigger cities such as New York and San Francisco.
1970s: As part of a national trend, Anderson’s Coffee Co. on Kerbey Lane has kept enthusiasts in good beans since 1972.
1980s: Captain Quackenbush’s on the Drag and Chicago House off East Sixth Street were among the only multi-role coffee shops with countercultural flair.
1990s: Little City on Congress Avenue introduced a West Coast urban vibe to a wave of indie shops, while Jo’s on South Congress reinvented sidewalk service. Mozart’s made its name through lakeside roasting and relaxing. Central Market and Whole Foods expanded the fanbase for good beans with a splash of customer education and free samples. Starbucks arrived, setting the standard for chain shops.
2000s: Wi-Fi changed coffee shops into off-site offices with packs of stony, silent laptoppers. Caffé Medici and other coffeehouses substantially improved the quality of espresso drinks and the barista experience. Decaffeinating methods improved, so that decaf drinkers could say, “I come for the coffee, not the caffeine.” Fair-trade beans were all the rage. Even McDonald’s — McDonald’s! — promised better brews by way of its McCafé concept.
2010s: One can trace the evolution of a neighborhood by its coffee shops. Low unemployment means tougher competition for skilled barista labor, while rents continue to rise. Still, established indie shops rarely go broke these days. Cold brews and French press techniques proliferate. Just about every spot offers Wi-Fi, teas, chai, other iced drinks, snacks and a carefully fostered culture.
Houndstooth Coffee in Austin
4200 North Lamar Blvd.
401 Congress Ave
2823 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.