[O]ak Lawn Coffee sits among a cluster of shops, restaurants, and medical offices on Oak Lawn Avenue, a busy thoroughfare bordering Dallas’s trendy Uptown neighborhood. The café’s white-brick facade mirrors the aesthetic of many of the buildings in Dallas—the coffee inside is another story.
Daylight floods through the walls of windows, casting a calming glow on the shop’s slate-colored walls. A three-group La Marzocco GB5 stands near the door, inviting guests directly to the coffee with its pearly sheen. Most of the seating lies beyond the L-shaped bar, allowing baristas to see and greet customers as they arrive. A line of stools rests under the far side of the bar, giving inquisitive visitors a front-row view of the tamping and grinding—and of the pour-over bar that houses a line of Hario V60s. Oak Lawn offers drip coffee brewed in a Fetco Dual brewer; customers can also choose from AeroPress or french press preparations.
With a veterinarian and a pet supply store as neighbors, the space originally opened to serve coffee to urban pet-owners. In 2011, Freeland Ministries acquired the property upstairs and ultimately came to manage the coffee shop.After a major remodel, the store reopened as Oak Lawn Coffee. While the church still owns the café, the store operator and general manager team have the autonomy to make the decisions that affect daily operations—a single text message is usually all that’s needed to get the approval from the owners, including for shakeups as dramatic as changing the food menu. The shop runs as a non-profit, tithing or donating 10 percent of all proceeds.
“The idea behind it was to be for the community and by the community,” says current store operator Ben Hernandez.
Founded on values of service and self-improvement, a number of people have overseen the company since its launch—but the volatility hasn’t come with animosity.
Hernandez came to Oak Lawn as a barista in 2014, climbing the ranks to general manager before taking over as store operator in January. Past employees have gone on to become roasters, pursue graduate education, and even return to Oak Lawn in an advisory capacity, such as current art director Hannah Aaron. Aaron coordinates local artists to bring their work into the shop, giving the shop an interior decor as dynamic as its business model.
For Hernandez, Oak Lawn is a springboard. “I want to be working myself out of my job and into new horizons,” Hernandez says. “That’s the essence of it all.”
Hernandez attributes the success of Oak Lawn to an influential series of store operators, and to financial partners who were willing to take a hands-off approach to running specialty coffee. “We really started to harbor this culture of honor where we built each other up. We were free-flowing with our knowledge.”
Previous store operator Joe Newton brought in a strong foundation of business knowledge and service practices. Hernandez says that he was the dreamer, while Newton was the realist; together, they brought standards and procedures to daily operations, elevating service and cultivating a supportive learning environment for their baristas. “Everything had a rhyme and a reason.”
The lineup of roasters at Oak Lawn speak to the spirit of self-improvement. Hernandez calls their coffees from Heart, Tweed, and Commonwealth Roasters their three “Old Faithfuls.” Ryan Fisher is a co-founder of Commonwealth and a former store manager of Oak Lawn. “We automatically had a great relationship,” Hernandez says of the partnership with Fisher. The coffees from Heart were selected to bring a taste of West Coast coffee culture to the southern store, while the Dallas-based Tweed has been a deep source of knowledge to Oak Lawn. Hernandez says that he has a rich relationship with Tweed’s head roaster Jonathan Aldrich. “He has contributed to my coffee knowledge as a whole. He’s been that example of super selfless and forthcoming with knowledge.”
Adding tacos from Austin-based Tacodeli to the menu is just another aspect of the company’s venturesome personality. Making Oak Lawn a more welcoming environment for customers meant adding more food options. Noticing that customers would walk in looking for something substantial to eat, Hernandez made the decision to bring in Tacodeli when the company opened a location in Dallas. The tacos are delivered fresh daily, stored in hot-holding, and served until eleven; Hernandez calls it one of his best decisions and says he’ll never look back. Oak Lawn recently started carrying specialty pies and quiches from Pielanthropy, in addition to their pastry selection from local baker Rush Patisserie.
As much as he likes changing the shop, Hernandez loves seeing new faces walk in the door, using new customers as a litmus test for their success. “I want people to feel welcome,” Hernandez says. “I want this dude who rides a Harley to realize that specialty coffee is for him and he is welcome.”
Bringing in new menu items, working with roasters that continue to hone their craft, and measuring success by the response of new customers are all in tune with a café that has learned to thrive by empowering its employees to not just transform the shop but to find their way to bigger and better things.
—Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s associate editor.