Opening a coffee shop with less than 100 square feet of real estate is a daunting endeavor. Figuring out where to place the coffee bar, where to put the seating (or if there should even be any), trying to decipher what “bar flow” even means in such a small area—the already difficult task of designing a cafe becomes far more so when the space is that constricted.
Unless, of course, that new coffee shop began its life in a trailer. Such is the case with Austin’s newest brick-and-mortar cafe and ceramics shop Sister Coffee. What was originally an outpost in a small food truck park off East 12th Street, has been transformed by co-owners Amanda Farris and Jenny Mulder into a spacious (and air-conditioned) new retail cafe a little over a mile away.
Sitting at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and San Marcos streets, the space for the new Sister Coffee is hard to miss, thanks to the building-long mural of a cartoon figure curled up on its side reading a book. Still on the east side of town, though barely, the trailer turned brick-and-mortar now resides in the southernmost corner of Farewell Books—an independent bookstore and art gallery—that had previously housed Flat Track Coffee before it moved down the road into a shared space with a bike shop. Sister’s new space is set against a backdrop of downtown skyscrapers in various stages of completion, a constant reminder of the exponential growth Austin is undergoing.
The interior has changed a bit since it was occupied by Flat Track. Farris and Mulder have painted the slate-gray walls white and replaced the steel and mahogany-esque wood coffee bar with white tile and a much lighter wood countertop. The only seating comes from a pillowed bench built into a small nook on the right side of the shop, running along the wall dividing the coffee area from the bookstore. Though the space is small and matter-of-fact, it’s well-utilized.
Across from the bench is a small display of handmade ceramic mugs, some created by Mulder and others coming from hard-to-find ceramists like Peter Shire of LA’s Echo Park Pottery. Ceramics play a big role in the identity of both Sister Coffee and its owners. They often host in-store ceramic workshops, they collaborate with other local ceramists on new lines, Mulder makes much of Sister’s servingware, and Farris co-owns Catchtilly, a well-curated “progressive general store” for all things smokeable, which means of course it has an incredible selection of ceramic pipes.
“Ceramics are an avenue for Sister to connect with community,” Mulder states. “We like high art, we like sharing a wall with the gallery at Farewell Books, and ceramics fall nicely between the world of art and craft. I’ve always been drawn to the handmade and how it can bring a warmth and playfulness to any ritual, especially the ritual of drinking coffee.”
Whether intentionally or otherwise, Sister’s smaller space fosters this sense of community in a way bigger cafes often struggle to. There is only ever one barista on staff at any given time at Sister, and it’s either Farris or Mulder. During my visit, it was Farris’s turn to pull shots and make Chemexes using locally roasted Casa Brasil, one of the shop’s two main roasters (along with Revelator Coffee Company). While Farris moved between Sister’s two-group Rancilio Classe 7 Leva espresso machine and Mazzer Major grinder, she and her customers would pick up conversations that were started during previous visits—about how a date went, a book they were reading, or a shared excitement over the HBO premiere of “High Maintenance.” Many lingered to chat and sip their coffee, leaving only after both were complete; it was a rare sight for to-go cups to leave more than half full.
It’s difficult for an ex-Austinite like myself to not romanticize Sister Coffee a little. In a city growing faster than it can probably handle, Sister harkens back to a time when you didn’t have to be an established brand or independently wealthy to open a cafe near downtown. Yet, even as Austin continues to change (complaining about which being a rite of passage for any current or former Austin-dweller), there will always be places like Sister—small, owner-operated, and fiercely individualistic. Farris and Mulder are exemplars of the bootstrapping spirit that has long defined the greatness of Texas’s capital city. And as long as they are around, Austin will remain one of the coolest places on the planet.
Zac Cadwalader is the news editor at Sprudge Media Network.