One of the many great characteristics of a thriving coffee city is a prevalence of quality neighborhood shops. While the high-concept cafes often serve as bellwethers for a coffee scene, there are generally few and far-between. A few concept bars does not a coffee scene make, while a robust network of neighborhood shops indicates that a city has spent years developing a strong coffee culture. It points to the steady growth of not only the scene as a whole, but of the people of which it is comprised.
These neighborhood cafes, at least here in America, are often owned and operated by baristas who cut their teeth at established coffee companies before deciding to strike out on their own; the list of shop owners in a healthy coffee city should read more like an Old Testament lineage than the yellow pages. The genealogy of Austin’s scene is no different. And on Monday, August 11th, the family tree adds another branch with the opening of Figure 8 Coffee Purveyors, a shop started by ex-Houndstooth and Cenote baristas, who look to continue Austin’s tradition of quality neighborhood coffee shops.
Sitting just five blocks north of East Sixth Street is the neighborhood Figure 8 calls home. Though it is close to the mile-long stretch of hip dives, signless cocktails bars, and food trucks run by James Beard Award winners, this residential neighborhood is seemingly untouched by the gentrification spreading across the East Side. Smaller, single-family homes built in the 1930s and 1940s and the Mt. Olive Baptist Church serve as the backdrop for Figure 8. It’s a neighborhood co-owners Ryan Hall and Kathleen Carmichael know well. In fact, Hall spent most of the early-2000’s living next door to what would become Figure 8. “I always wanted to put a cafe here. It actually was a cafe at one point, but the space was underutilized, the build-out shoddy, sold really poor quality coffee, had erratic hours,” Hall told me. “In the past couple of months, we've gone in and torn considerable amounts of the space down to the bones and rebuilt it back by ourselves and with the help of friends.”
The 75-year-old building is small, only about 800 square feet, and many of the original elements are still present. The cement floor, white-washed exposed wood of the ceiling, and the painted white brick walls all feel very much a part the neighborhood. The slate blue wall behind the coffee bar and matching ceiling directly above are the only modern accents to Figure 8’s otherwise vintage feel. Across from the bar, four reclaimed Aromatic Cedar tables made by Jordan Goetz of Growler Domestics (who also made the tables from our last adventure in Austin, at Seventh Flag) line the southern wall. To the left stands a salvaged conveyor belt Hall and Carmichael covered with two panes of glass and converted into a cupping table.
The largest change to the build-out was the addition of the counter. Spanning 30 feet in length, the wrap-around copper bar encloses the coffee workstation and extends almost the full distance of the shop. Stools line the three-sided counter, encouraging patrons to sit around the bar and order drinks diner-style. Hall stated, “I liked the idea of people being able to come visit us and sit down, have a coffee and chat with us, rather than have a customer purchase a coffee and immediately have to find seating elsewhere. We felt like our location and even the layout to a degree can forge some new friendships as well as make for a more casual experience.”
The section of the bar comprising the espresso area has been lowered six inches to help delineate barista space from hangout space. In it sits a white powder-coated two-group La Marzocco GB5 espresso machine along with a silver Mazzer Robur E espresso grinder. During my visit, Figure 8 was serving Tweed Coffee’s Timepiece espresso blend. As a former Houndstooth barista, Hall is familiar with Tweed, and it will serve as the shop’s primary roaster. Hall said that “Sean Henry [Houndstooth and Tweed owner], Jonathan Aldrich [Tweed’s Head Roaster] and the entire Houndstooth staff are a warm family, and they've taken us in as budding shop owners–sharing advice and really rooting for us along the way,”
Tweed will also be the mainstay of Figure 8’s brewed coffee program. Figure 8 will mainly serve batch brew from their Fetco, a move gaining popularity in shops across the country. For brew grinders, they use two peach Mahlkönig Guatemalas. Figure 8 will also serve manual pour-over, with the method changing to best fit the coffee offering at the time. Currently, they are offering Staycation, Tweed’s summer blend, brewed with a Clever, but Hario V60s and other methods will be implemented as new coffees rotate in.
Figure 8 will begin offering guest roasters in the near future for both the espresso and manual brew programs, starting with Four Barrel and Coava. “There are a ton of great espressos out there, and I like the idea of never sitting still and getting comfortable with just one,” says Hall. “We don't like eating the same food every day, and for the coffee conscious, I don't expect them to like drinking the same coffee every single day either.” He added, perhaps cheekily, “Austin is growing so quickly, and a lot of friends here in town miss their [Four Barrel] Friendo Blendo and such from back home.”
Figure 8 Coffee Purveyors represents many of the things that makes the Austin coffee scene so great. It has a neighborhood-centered ethos like that of Once Over and the original Caffe Medici on West Lynn. It was started by former baristas from established Austin shops, much like Seventh Flag and Houndstooth, both of which were founded by ex-Medicians. And they’ve embraced the simplicity and straightforward ideology akin to that of Flat Track. Yet, like the other shops, Figure 8 is uniquely its own. While Hall and Carmichael created Figure 8 to cater to the local community, hoping to provide the Austin coffee scene with a distinct coffee and social experience, and yet another notch post in the development of a coffee city: a cafe that's worth the trip across town.
Photos By Ethan Billips.
Zac Cadwalader is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.