Mozart’s Coffee Roasters on Lake Austin Celebrates 30 Years
Looking back at three decades of coffee, baked goods and serene views at this local staple
The year is 1993, and on a hot June Monday, Mozart’s Coffee Roasters on Lake Austin is just beginning to open its doors for the first time. Baristas hadn’t yet entered the Austin market, as the concept for coffee shops had just started to brew in cities like Seattle and California.
Celebrating 30 years this year, Mozart’s is now a staple in the Austin community, a place of deep-rooted memories for loyal local patrons and tourists alike, with some of the most expansive, beautiful, almost beach-like views right in the middle of Central Texas — all by simply walking down the inviting stairs that lead to Mozart’s well-crafted deck.
Originally, four couples invested in Mozart’s, with Ken and Stacey Leonard very hands-on, in what became a labor of love for Austin’s first-ever on-premises coffee roaster, which sits next to Hula Hut. The now iconic area is known as “Oyster Landing” and named after another one of the original investors, Duffy Oyster. The idea for a coffee shop came from California, in particular, from Pannikin coffee shop, once located in La Jolla, near San Diego.
“It sounds funny to even be saying this, but at the time, cafes didn’t exist in the coffee business. People didn’t go out and drink coffee,” says Leonard.
“The day we opened I think we never could have imaged that what Mozart’s might have done in its first week of business or weeks of business would be what we do in an hour at Mozart’s now.”
All eight partners (including Duffy and Tina Oyster, Bill and Katrine Formby, Ken and Barb Strottman) had a background in hospitality, and they also enlisted help from a U.S.-based office of a German roasting industry consulting firm, Probat, to help identify and buy equipment for roasting coffee beans. Millions of customers and a couple dozen of unique blends later — including the classic Lake Austin and Mozart’s blends — Leonard cites the success of Mozart’s coffee based strongly on people who help produce the beverages. Master Roaster, Jack Ranstrom, is a former Seattle’s Best Coffee apprentice recruited by the Mozart’s team six years after Mozart’s opened. He’s since incorporated green coffee blends from as far away as Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicauraga, Indonesia and Kenya.
“I would say the biggest differentiation in what it means to produce excellent coffee is a commitment to buying quality raw ingredients,” says Leonard.
From day one, three concepts — place, bakery and coffee — have been the key focus in the success of Mozart’s. Those aspects fuel a business that Leonard says gains consistently year after year, even during times of crisis, including downward turns in the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A fourth aspect of importance is music, with an estimated 500-600 artists performing each year, including previous Grammy-award winning artists and surprise artist visits during SXSW and Austin City Limits Music festival weekends. Chloe Youtsey, a jazz musician, singer and pianist with experience performing at places like Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center, is the artist in residency at Mozart’s. For three years now, Youtsey has played a large role in scheduling other artists and elevating Mozart’s musical lineup, including helping to bring a new music stage, The Loft, to life, in partnership with facilities manager, Nate Smith.
Especially important is Mozart’s emphasis on its onsite seven-day-a-week baking operation, where Karla Hernandez leads a team to create sweet and savory treats. Pastries, croissants, savory quiches, cupcakes, brownies and more are all freshly handcrafted by local bakers and pastry chefs. Another fun fact: due to an abundance of offerings, no one item tends to sell better than the next.
Variety is a theme at the coffee shop, and over the last three decades, if its walls could talk, they’d tell the story of past, present and future memories that are embedded in the hearts of its loyal, local patrons.
Espoir Nindeba studied at Mozart’s while completing his undergraduate degree at University of Texas. Now, he is working on materials for Harvard Medical School from the coffee shop, while also recovering from an unexpected brain aneurism that brought him temporarily back home from Boston.
“Doing medical school and then pausing it, and then me trying to get back into it, is one of the hardest things,” says Nindeba. “Mozart’s is a place where I can regain my focus and get back into the routine. Coming here kind of hits a reset button in my brain, helping me slowly diagnose each thing I need to do. This place has helped me out tremendously.”
For the good times and the bad times, Mozart’s is the place that Michael Mercieca wants to be. When the London native moved to Austin in 2001 from Australia, Mozart’s immediately stood out due to its diversity of patrons from all over the world and its beach-like atmosphere on the water. Memories of a young son standing on a table in a backwards baseball cap, goofing off, dancing to the music, eating his favorite chocolate mousse cake still make Mercieca smile, as his son is now 23 and living in Houston.
Mercieca, who is a fan of Mozart’s cappuccino, hibiscus mint iced tea and the coconut macaroons, now frequents the scenic coffee shop several times during the week for work, and at least once or twice on the weekends. An environment of entrepreneurs and start-up energy has also helped him network his consulting business.
“For me, it’s a very comforting, fun, relaxed place. Mozart’s has punctuated my life. Being right on the water, it’s like an Oasis in the growth of Austin,” says Mercieca. “I will quote Dickens — ‘in the best of times and the worst of times’ — that’s always been the place to go where I get to regroup and feel my best.”
Slightly newer to Austin, Aldanah Alqahtani arrived in 2016 and admires Mozart’s for its diversity and the owners’ generosity to others. The Saudi Arabia native frequents the coffee shop twice daily to work on her Ph.D. in land biology.
“Mozart’s is more than just a place to grab a coffee. It’s a really warm and inviting space,” says Alqahtani. “I feel like it’s a second home to me, and I accomplished a lot of my projects and work there. They are nice and welcoming to all people — it doesn’t matter what is your community, your color, religion or country, or what you are wearing. Everyone is super nice, and I really appreciate that.”
Alqahtani’s favorite Mozart’s memory is something she witnessed during the 2021 winter storm, when a blind woman walked in to buy water and was given beverages on the house.
“That’s a story that really touched me. I really value these small things — helping and supporting the community,” says Alqahtani. In fact, Mozart’s reminds Alqahtani of her small town. She’s made friends at the shop, and the owners also helped her celebrate a holiday, Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated in her country.
“Last year they bought and sold baskets with things that represent our holiday. That’s my heart. This is amazing what they are doing,” says Alqahtani. “To spend their time and money to understand the culture and holiday, that’s really special for a group of people.”
Another special event that more than 300,000 people still enjoy on a complimentary basis at Mozart’s each year is the annual holiday lights show. One of the partners, Katrine Formby, came up with the idea to use digital technology to synchronize music to Christmas lights 13 years ago, back when Austin’s Trail of Lights was on hold.
Since then, several innovations, including the option to buy reserved tables for the show, along with a Bavarian-style parking lot market complete with pretzels, world-renown hot chocolate and cocoa bombs, and dozens of other festive treats grace Mozart’s for a total of 56-days each year. A gift to the Austin community, the event requires months of preparation and the attention of hundreds of employees.
“No one would have ever imagined what the light show would become,” says Leonard. “This past year we added the new modality of dance. We put in an integrated LED lighted dance floor in the parking lot, which was a huge family success, and again entirely free for the community.”
With much change and expansion, the coffee shop prides itself on being an “Austin hold-out” refusing to branch out in places like San Antonio, Houston or Dallas. Popularity increases each year with patrons flocking the area much for the same reasons as year’s prior: the beautiful views of Lake Austin in a warm, friendly, entertaining and engaging environment.
For Ken and Stacey Leonard, the recipe for that the success is still very simple: it’s about people and community, and a focus on the same core values that helped launch Mozart’s on that early summer day in 1993.