Editor’s Note: Dominican Joe closed at the end of April 2017.
For a vast percentage of the Austin population, coffee is at least as important to life as water. Like water, the potability of coffee differs drastically.
The goal of many a college student and working professional is to find an Austin coffee shop with:
A) Good coffee.
B) Electrical outlets en masse.
C) Music playing over the speakers that isn’t so loud that you can’t hear yourself think, or so obnoxious that you feel like stabbing yourself in the eye with a spoon.
Not necessarily in that order.
For many people, the factors that go into choosing a favorite coffee shop end there. And that’s okay. But others take coffee to a deeper level. They begin to question where their coffee is coming from – who it is hurting, who it is helping. If you are one of those people, you’ll want to learn more about Dominican Joe Coffee Shop.
Situated at S. Congress and Riverside and founded in late 2006, Dominican Joe’s business model is more than unusual. Owners Mehul Patel and Sharla Megilligan didn’t start their business venture because they dreamed of owning a coffee shop, nor did they start because they wanted to make money. The two grad school friends had a bigger vision that was larger than Austin and larger than coffee.
In 2004, Sharla started a non-profit in the Dominican Republic focused on educational development. Partners from the United States would travel to the Dominican with supplies and, on the way home, they would fill their empty suitcases with coffee from the local farmers. At that time, much of the quality, good-tasting coffee being produced in the Dominican Republic was going to waste because there was no functioning export system in place.
Sharla and Mehul had an idea. Sharla’s non-profit needed sustainable income, and Dominican farmers needed an outlet for their product. Voila – Dominican Joe was born to meet these needs. Sharla’s non-profit became an umbrella for a group of Dominican farmers, whose coffee was exported to Dominican Joe in Austin. The proceeds from Dominican Joe are fed back to the Dominican Republic, supporting the farmers who Sharla partners with, as well as continuing educational development.
How many fair trade coffee shop owners do you know who come at their business from a “We want to help people” angle? From a business person’s standpoint, it almost sounds absurd. But Dominican Joe has made it work, and work well, for almost six years, though Sharla and Mehul knew nothing about retail or selling coffee at the beginning of their journey.
“Opening Day” for Dominican Joe was a soft launch during Austin City Limits 2006. Passer-throughs were served free drinks while the first 15 employees were transformed into baristas. Because of the Austin coffee shop’s prime location near the HQ of the Austin American-Statesman, free press came early on. There were challenges: construction fiascoes, burst water pipes, delays, but the business made it through the rough infancy stage that many other small businesses never survive.
Other Austin coffee shops sell fair trade coffee. The difference between them and Dominican Joe is that they still work through big coffee conglomerates. The result is less control over where the money goes. In contrast, the system that Dominican Joe has set up is as direct as it can be, with nothing more than a few country borders in between.
The Inside Scoop
Over the years, as word about Dominican Joe has spread, the coffee shop has become successively busier. If you’re hoping to come and work, the best times to land a table are during the lunch hour or on a weekend evening.
Fifty percent of sales are from coffee drinks. As far as specialty drinks go, Dominican Joe is best known for its flan lattes and honey cream lattes. I had the honey cream latte during our visit and it was absolutely amazing.
If you’re not a coffee drinker (gaspith), the smoothies are popular and I personally love their hot cocoa. Or try the coca blanca: Mexican coke, half and half and vanilla syrup. Don’t knock it ’til you try it!
Mehul and Sharla have talked about expanding in various ways, but the talks haven’t become serious yet and they’re taking it slow. What they have is working and they plan on keeping on doing it.
For Sharla, the journey that started many years ago has been life-changing in ways she never imagined. When two Haitian babies were left to die at a Dominican Republic hospital, someone at the hospital took them to Sharla’s organization. After many years, Sharla completed the adoption process and she now has two loved and loving sons.
Dominican Joe is bigger than Austin and bigger than coffee. It was that way from the beginning, and I’m glad the vision has never changed. This is the kind of local Austin business that I believe in supporting. I hope you feel the same.
Check out Dominican Joe’s website by clicking HERE.
Austinot Brittany asks:
What do you think about the history and purpose of Dominican Joe?
We always have unique content on the Austinot, and we love to give things away. You know, like CDs, event tickets and other cool stuff. We only send out our Best of the Austinot newsletter 2 times a month. It’s where we give you a recap of our best articles and where we give stuff away. Interested? Subscribe to Best of the Austinot here!