Waiting in line is perhaps the city of Austin’s favorite activity. Grabbing a bite to eat at Franklin Barbecue? That’ll take three hours. Arrived at Hamilton Pool after 9 a.m.? Expect to bake in a queue of cars for at least one hour. Hell, I haven’t visited a Houndstooth Coffee where there wasn’t at least a 15 minute wait in I don’t know how long. Truly, Austinites (and transplants who moved here literally five minutes ago claiming to be Austinites) are a patient breed. So it comes as no surprise that two of the city’s most tenured and well-respected baristas took years (YEARS!) to come together and finally hang their own shingle. And on Monday, March 14, that’s exactly what happened, with the grand opening of Fleet Coffee on Webberville Road.
Having taken over 15 months to complete, it’s almost natural to expect Fleet to be the biggest, baddest, 2,000-square-foot coffee playground in all the land, especially given the resumes of the two owners. Patrick Pierce was the original South Central Barista Champion back in 2007 and was named in Zagat’s 2015 30 Under 30 list of culinary movers and shakers in Austin, while Lorenzo Perkins has racked up a combined four first-place finishes in South Central Brewers Cup and Barista Competition along with being the current chair of the Barista Guild of America’s Executive Council. Not exactly lightweights, dude.
But Pierce and Perkins took Fleet in the opposite direction, opting for a 364-square-foot right triangle-shaped space in the Govalle neighborhood in East Austin. “We tried not to think about [expectations] while planning and executing the idea of our shop,” Perkins stated. “We immersed ourselves in the ideas of what our products and service would look like and tried not to let outside influences change what we thought we should be doing.”
The build-out is understated without being austere. Grey cement walls are adorned with a few Edison bulbs that are mostly for aesthetic effect, as most of the illumination comes from natural light streaming through the large windows on the north-facing entry wall (Fleet’s hypotenuse for you home geometers). Small touches of color come from the very limited seating: five mustard-yellow stools stationed around the main window and a light maple bench that can comfortably hold five, or maybe four people, depending on their barbecue habits.
Yet amidst the thoughtful design, Fleet makes no bones about looking and feeling like a fully operational coffee bar. Not eschewing function for the sake of minimalism, Pierce and Perkins keep all tools of the trade visible, allowing customers to take a peek at the otherwise mysterious goings-on behind the espresso machine. By positioning their three-group La Marzocco Linea Classic on the side counter, the portafilters are visible to patrons as they wait, allowing the more inquisitive to watch every step in the shot pulling process. Their Curtis Gold Cup on the back bar puts every drop of every Chemex and Kalita Wave on full display. The magic is not hidden, nor is it celebrated; it just is.
This doesn’t mean that Fleet is without panache, though. Perkins and Pierce just focused their creative flair and extensive competition experience into concocting an interesting, drinks-forward coffee program. Their “Coffee And” menu offers a variety of rotating signature drinks, “pairing different brew methods with a variety of ingredients and preparation techniques to show how dynamic coffee can be,” as Pierce describes it. The current Coffee And menu boasts drinks like the Flip-Top, an espresso-based homage to root beer with chicory root, spice, and nitro coffee; and the Claro, made with iced coffee, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters.
Even beyond the flashy coffee cocktails, Fleet keeps its offering sheet interesting with a thoughtful twist on what it means to be a multi-roaster cafe. Instead of week- or month-long stints alongside five to 10 other guests, Fleet carries only three roasters at a time. The program is anchored by their primary, year-round roaster Madcap Coffee, and supplemented by two guests each receiving three-month stretches. During my visit, Olympia Coffee Roasting Company and Austin’s Wild Gift Coffee were on bar, with six other roasters—including Commonwealth Coffee, Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, and Calgary’s Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters—slated to make an appearance in the upcoming year. But what makes their program unique is Fleet’s goal of working with these same nine roasters every year as part of a scheduled rotation. It’s a small, unsexy detail, but it signifies a growing shift in multi-roaster cafes towards longer guest spots and stability over quantity.
Seasonal coffee drinks and guest roaster programs aren’t new concepts for specialty coffee shops, but it’s in these areas where Perkins and Pierce’s 20-plus years industry experience pays the greatest dividends. Fleet’s unique take is indicative of the sort of thoughtfulness and intentionality that can only be brought on after spending literal decades working in cafes. Perkins tells me he and Pierce are hoping to “change the way Austin thinks about and drinks coffee,” but these amendments to the norm are small and will take time to catch on. Luckily Pierce and Perkins have already displayed immense patience in holding off until now to open their first shop, so what’s a little longer? And besides, this is Austin; waiting is in their blood.
Zac Cadwalader is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Dallas, Texas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.