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Austin Coffeeshop Houndstooth Turns 10 During Coronavirus Pandemic

Baristas are safely serving great coffee and delivering donations to Austin hospitals

As local businesses slowly start to reopen, many shops and cafes continue to operate as if the shelter-in-place mandate is still in effect. Houndstooth Coffee, which celebrates ten years at their original North Lamar location May 5, will err on the side of caution for the foreseeable future. Owners and brothers Sean and Paul Henry believe the decision is in the best interest of both their staff and their guests – but that’s not keeping them from celebrating their milestone or giving back to their community.

Borrowing an idea from a San Francisco-based coffee shop called Wrecking Ball, Houndstooth was able to reopen five of their seven locations in Austin and Dallas as “windoor cafes” in April. The model allows baristas to interact with guests from behind plastic screens while following safety protocols and maintaining a safe distance. Guests can either place walkup orders in person or pre-order online for pickup.

“Online ordering was a project that always gets pushed, but necessity is the mother of invention,” says Paul Henry, who originally spoke with Tribeza back in early March after SXSW was cancelled. No one foresaw the escalating crisis that would unfold later that week.

“The rate of deterioration was shocking,” he recalls. “We went from SXSW being cancelled to a 25 to 30 percent national unemployment rate.”

Just days after speaking with Tribeza, Houndstooth made the difficult decision to lay off all hourly staff, hoping it would help them secure unemployment benefits sooner than later. In the month that followed, the company managed to reopen one cafe at a time with a skeletal crew full-time staff. With five cafes more or less settled into a new routine, Houndstooth started looking for ways to give back.

“We spent all of March responding to one crisis after another,” says Henry. “In April, it felt really good to move a little beyond that anxiety by finding a new rhythm and looking for something good to do for our community.”

When ordering coffee, guests now have the option to donate a cup or carafe to local doctors and nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Houndstooth staff deliver the donations in person to nearby hospitals, including Ascension Main, St. David’s, Dell Children’s and the new Dell Seton Medical Center on Red River. Beyond just giving back, Henry says the medical community is one of many woven into the “pattern of coffee and people” at Houndstooth.

“We’ve always had doctors and nurses as regulars,” says Henry, “and we often see the parents and grandparents of newborns pop into the cafe. You can always tell new parents still have their hospital bracelets on, so it’s something we look out for when serving our guests.”

Since implementing the donation service, Henry estimates that Houndstooth has delivered over $1,000 worth of coffee to hospitals in Austin and Dallas. They plan to keep offering the option as long as customers continue to donate. In the meantime, while Houndstooth remains eager to serve guests in person again, Henry says they will leave the “windoor cafes” up until it seems safe to fully reopen. 

“There’s no upside to taking them down prematurely,” he says. “As much as we want to bring our people back to work, we don’t want to put our guests or baristas at risk.”

As such, celebrating a decade in business this week looks a little different. In lieu of in-person festivities, the company put out a call on social media for guests to share their favorite moments and memories from the last ten years. Messages poured in from across the country, from locals who miss their daily cafe interactions to baristas who have since moved to other cities. The posts have been a source of encouragement and a glimpse of brighter days ahead.

“It shows that Houndstooth is more than a refueling station,” says Henry. “It means we’re an intricate part of people’s lives and they appreciate the moments they experience …We’re hopeful realists and know that this summer and probably the rest of the year will be pretty rough, but I think our guests will help us survive and thrive for years to come.”