Nashville Restaurateur Bob Bernstein of Bongo Productions
Bob Bernstein of Nashville’s Bongo Productions—a restaurant group that includes a number of Nashville-based concepts such as Bongo Java, Fido and Fenwick’s 300—remembers a customer coming to one of his restaurant/coffee shop hybrids and saying, “This place is great—you should franchise it.” Bernstein immediately responded, “It’s just too weird to franchise.” “Too weird to franchise,” along with a number of Bernstein’s other offhand observations, have evolved into company mantras when they prove to reveal a deeper truth about what Bernstein is after.
Bernstein initially moved to Nashville in 1988 to begin a career in journalism—serving as a newspaper reporter—with the intention of staying in the city briefly and then taking on a larger market. “I soon realized I had it wrong,” he says. “I thought I’d stay in Nashville for a year and run away. But I decided to run away from journalism and stay in Nashville.” Now, he’s what he calls a “recovering journalist.”
Bernstein quit his job and started Bongo Java in 1993, his first foray into the restaurant business in Music City. The concept took off, evolving into an additional six restaurants and coffee shops 24 years later. With a strong mission focus, Bernstein only stocks his restaurants with certified organic coffee bought from small-scale farmers above what he calls the “so-called” Fair Trade price. He purchases it through a group called Cooperative Coffee, a like-minded group of small roasters, and also cognizantly purchases local dairy, meat and produce. “The feel of the place fits my personality. We don’t try to impress anyone,” he says—though not without jokes. One year for April Fools’ Day, he tapped into his background in journalism and wrote a piece proclaiming the company was going public and would only sell company stock to regular patrons at the restaurant counter, which resulted in calls from reporters asking for comment.
Bernstein lives in Nashville’s 12 South neighborhood with his wife and two children in a home designed by architect Manuel Zeitlin, who was featured in our second print issue of the year. Keep reading to learn about Bernstein’s journey and philosophy.
What prompted you to start Bongo Java?
I got my master’s degree in journalism and originally moved down here to be a reporter—then I got into coffee. Before that I was a political junkie, working on campaigns. I was able to merge those sensibilities together as I realized that business is political. What we choose to purchase and stock, how we spend our money, our goals—everything is political.
I also just missed hanging out, reading and writing. I like the atmosphere of cafés. I didn’t know much about coffee. I made my first latte two days before we opened. But what I did know was how to create a comfortable place to be. That was the first line of my business plan. I thought I’d have time to write the next great American novel while I waited for customers.
What sparked your interest in journalism?
When I was 10, a congressional campaign office opened near my house in suburban Chicago. Something about the posters in the windows attracted me. I gravitated towards politics, and later quit college after three years to work on a presidential campaign. I was talking to a reporter and thought, “I like to write, and I like politics. I think I’d like this guy’s job. So, I went to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and moved to Nashville for my first job. In some ways it all sounds logical, like my life makes sense. But it was really a series of, “Oh, that’s cool. I like that. I’ll do that.” Looking at anyone’s life you can try to connect the dots, but that’s just forcing it. I’ve learned when I follow my instincts, the outcomes are much better than when I listen to people.
How did you grow from one coffee shop to several cafés and restaurants?
It really happened through a series of accidents and just needing different things. Our first café, Bongo Java, was successful right away. We then opened up another space in East Nashville, and then Vanderbilt University reached out to us about opening a kosher vegetarian café on campus, so we took that on as well. Things like that have kept us growing. Most recently, I got asked to open a café on Jefferson Street, a historically black neighborhood that has been largely ignored. I’m darn excited to be part of revitalizing that neighborhood.
What on earth is the Nun Bun?
It’s one heck of a story! Back in late 1996, right after our second store opened, one of our employees saw what he swore looked like Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun. Employees then shellacked it and made a short mockumentary about it. Eventually the local paper did a story on it on Christmas Day, and it just randomly exploded—we were on the receiving end of all this press. David Letterman did a segment about it—it was everywhere. Mother Teresa wrote us an official letter asking us not to use the name “Mother Teresa” to sell merchandise. We got in a bit of trouble when we printed about 36 t-shirts that said “The Mother Teresa Miracle Bun.” That ended in a call from her attorney. So we started calling it “The Immaculate Confection,” instead, but they didn’t like that either. So we settled on Nun Bun. Google “Nun Bun.” It’s crazy.
How many restaurants do you have now, and how do you plan the locations?
We have seven cafés, a wholesale bakery, and a wholesale coffee company, all brick and mortar. We also have two licensed locations in downtown Nashville. I never thought about it until recently, but all the neighborhoods we’ve gone into, there was really nothing going on before we moved in.
Hillsboro Village, where Fido is, was pretty sleepy at the time. We were also one of the first new-wave businesses to move into East Nashville. And as I mentioned, we’re opening a new place on Jefferson Street. Back in the time of Jimi Hendrix, it was thriving, and for various political reasons it kind of died. Every store we’ve opened is different, they all have different names, and they feel different. Our goal is to make sure things aren’t so homogeneous, and keeping Nashville’s local flavor alive. Everywhere we go, we want to be part of the community.
Could you have foreseen the success of Bongo Productions when you opened your first location?
I was thinking one store—nothing beyond that. I thought, “I need to prove to myself that I can do my own thing.” I got spoiled because the first one was profitable right away. And then in 1996 we opened Fido, which took awhile to get off the ground. The rest just sort of happened without much planning. I didn’t plan much until I hit 50, 20 years after I opened the first store.
How do you decide when to keep working on something, and when to cut your losses?
The only circumstance where we had to cut our losses was actually on a coffee cart we built in one of Manuel [Zeitlin]’s old offices. We suffered through a bad year at Fido and one of our other stores, Fenwick’s 300. But I just kept believing in the operations, and they kept proving me right. Both are doing well today.
Nashville has always been a word-of-mouth town. We’ve barely advertised. We did a trade with one local magazine, and I’ve done some public radio stuff, but we do very little traditional marketing. We get involved with a lot of charities, and make an effort to be part of the community as much as we can, but our clientele really builds through word of mouth. It has become harder to do that here because there are so many new restaurants opening, but we’ve gone in with a tailored idea of what each community will support, so it’s special to that specific neighborhood. We’re not a high-end restaurant where people are going across town and going on OpenTable to reserve a spot. We’re accessible.