They say there is no rest for the weary. There is also, unsurprisingly, no rest for those unwilling to slow down. Few know this better than Robby Grubbs, the owner of San Antonio’s Merit Coffee, who has overseen significant statewide expansion in the last 18 months, first into downtown Austin, and now into Dallas. Turns out Merit has a whole lot in store for the Big D, including a stunning new coffee 2,500 sq. ft. coffee bar in the Deep Ellum district of downtown, and overseeing a brand new cafe in the tony Highland Park neighborhood, open this very day of publishing, April 2nd.
Let's start with Deep Ellum first. The neighborhood is a Dallas cultural epicenter, but as a district it's been historically rough on coffee shops (or anything that isn’t a concert venue, bar, or tattoo parlor for that matter). A dearth of nearby housing has for the longest time relegated one of the only walkable areas of the city to a nighttime only destination. A lack of daytime foot traffic is death to coffee shops. But Deep Ellum is seeing that axiom bend—if not break entirely—thanks to revitalization efforts bringing in more businesses and eateries over the past few years that require an audience during sunlight hours.
The newest edition to these efforts is Merit, who is betting big on this changing tide. Working with Austin-based architect Michael Hsu—whose previous work includes Austin favorites Uchi, La Condesa, Sway, and the iconic burger stand P. Terry’s—Merit has transformed the space that was previously home to funky antique store Lula B’s into a modern cafe. What was once a warehouse-like space has been given a total overhaul, including near-floor-to-ceiling windows comprising a majority of the southern- and eastern-most walls that allow in lots of natural light throughout the day, imparting a sense of openness to the cafe.
Inside, the space’s antique shop past life is equally unrecognizable from the clean, buttoned-up cafe in its place. Through the front doors, guests are greeted by white counter-topped light wood bar offsetting the not-quite-navy-not-quite navy backsplash tiles, a nod to Merit’s preferred color palate. A matter-of-fact white lettered, light-wooded menu board along with the pastry case full of tasty treats from local Bisous Bisous Pâtisserie give subtle cues to how, where, and what to order. Following the bar space back, a pour-over station consisting of two Modbar modules jut from the clean counterspace, where baristas make single-serve coffees via Kalita Wave brewers with coffee ground through the white Mahlkönig EK-43 sitting at the right angle bend of the bar, the demarcation between the brewed coffee and espresso sections of the bar. For espresso-based drinks, Merit has stuck with the white Mahlkönig/Modbar combo but have switched it up to include to PEAK grinders, three espresso modules, and two steam valves from Modbar’s new AV line.
The remainder of the space is divided between tables, zig-zag bench seating, and a glass-encased training center where Merit will host wholesale clients and other training classes.
There are no half-measures in this build-out. No bets have been hedged. Even as a relatively unknown brand to the Dallas consumer—save for the occasional guest spot at Communion in Richardson—and opening in a difficult part of town for coffee shops, Merit is going all-in. For Grubbs, a former Dallas resident whose ties include opening the Texas’ first Starbucks here some two decades ago (not to mention meeting his spouse just a few blocks away), the timing was right for the move. “Dallas felt like the natural direction to go,” Grubbs tells Sprudge. “The opportunity presented itself thru the Developer, Asana. We met them through a deal in Austin and we fell in love with their portfolio and their history of doing things right. We realized that we are a little early in what we believe is a killer transition in Deep Ellum, which made it even more attractive. We are super stoked about attracting more daytime traffic here.”
The Deep Ellum cafe is just the first step in Merit’s plan to grow their presence in Dallas. The second Dallas outpost is located in the Highland Park neighborhood—next to what Grubbs tells me is the “busiest Drybar in the country”—opens today. Building two shops simultaneously in a brand new city is an aggressive growth strategy, but as Grubbs explains, “We knew we wanted at least two locations. It just so happened Deep Ellum and Highland Park came on the radar at the same time and both were too good to pass up.”
Merit will also ramp up wholesale efforts in Dallas once they’ve gained a bit more of a footing in the city. In order to meet the demand, the San Antonio-based roastery commissioned a 45-kilo Probat roaster, up from the two 25-kilo and one 12-kilo Probats they currently run.
Once the two new cafes get up and running and the wholesale program is humming along, surely Grubbs is going to slow down, right? Nope. Even with all this Dallas activity, Merit has been simultaneously developing a third Austin location. That will bring the total count of locations for the Merit/Local family of coffee bars up to 11 here in 2019, making them inarguably the most prolific and expansive of the new generation of Texas independent coffee companies. That it's all come at such a blistering pace over the last two years is nothing short of astonishing.
Grubbs closed my interview with him by teasing further Texas expansion, as well as continued growth and development within the three cities they currently call home. One thing is for certain: Merit is putting a premium on growth, even if it comes at the detriment of sleep. If the opportunity too good to pass up comes along during the planned and much-need breather, well, then it’s like Grubbs says: “Plans schmans.”