Welcome to the first installment of our LOCAL BUSINESS FEATURE where we, you guessed it, feature a local business. We are particularly interested in ones that positively contribute to the economic, social, and all around fiber of Austin, Texas. Cafe Mundi owner, Jessica Nieri, was somewhat of a pioneer, conquering what was not too long ago considered a new frontier–East Austin. She took a chance on the “other side” of I 35 and its residents have been singing her praises ever since.
An editor’s note. Cafe Mundi has a special place in my heart. Way back, in the day, Jess and Hans brought me in as a friend and opened up many doors for me. Many friendships I have to this day, came out of that spot. Some of the greatest parties I have had were in that parking lot. Dave, Jess and I folded and stapled many of the fiirst editions on that porch. I even had an octopus painted in the lot, it faded but the memory and what it represents is strong within me. Jess and Hans believed in what I could do, whether I failed or succeded, it was their support of my efforts that gave me confidence. Thanks for the love guys. I will stop in for a Chai one of these daze soon……….
AUSTIN DAZE: What brought you to Austin and why did you stay?
CAFE MUNDI: We planned a winter trip from Milwaukee to Texas, bypassed Dallas and made Austin our first stop. We drove through town and headed straight to Barton Springs and pretty much decided from there. We moved to Austin 10 months later with the crazy thought of opening a coffee shop.
AD: So did you always have a plan to do what you do?
CM: Pretty much. Jessica’s father, Jano, had some connections with some folks over in East Austin from when he used to live in Crystal City. So, we planned another trip down in the spring and focused on the eastside. At the time there was only 1 other coffee shop, Manor Road Coffeehouse, then and we thought that is what the East side needed a place where people could form a great community.
AD: What made you decide to make the dive?
CM: All the support we received from family and friends. We had a shoestring budget but decided it’s what we wanted to do. Hans and I were very determined to make it work. We were also tired of working for other people and just knew we wanted to start our own business.
AD: Why a coffee shop?
CM: (Hans) I loved hanging out at the many coffee shops while attending architecture school at UW-Milwaukee. Spent a couple years in Madison doing the same. A dream was to design and build one, this idea of a community space. (Jess) My 2nd job when I was 15 was in a tiny coffee shop I loved. Since then I’ve either worked in or managed coffee shops. I truly cared about the coffee shops. I worked hard and enjoyed being there. I’ve also been part of an artist community and wanted to create a space that would allow amazing things to transpire. I also think coffee houses today have lost that charm of the old world café that allowed for the meeting of the minds.
AD: Why the east side? Was it considered a risky business choice in the beginning?
CM: I grew up in a very similar side of town in Milwaukee. The small little Café’s thrived within a very diverse and “risky” community. Just about everyone I asked, said we were crazy for opening a café on the East side and said it was too risky. That just motivated us that much more. Don’t get me wrong 10 years ago East 5th St. wasn’t even a paved road. The whole property had to be cleaned up, painted, gardens put in, the space built out, and the residents on the roof asked to move out. So yes it was a risky move, you really had to be adventurous to come to Café Mundi. Our motto is hard to find but easy to love. We spent the first couple of years going business to business, door-to-door meeting our neighbors and inviting them to the Café.
AD: If I remember, you guys were one of the first coffee shops on the east side. Now the area is covered in them. How do you feel about the competition?
CM: It’s great. It sucks. It’s puzzling. It’s a whole bunch of things, but really it’s motivating. We all offer a similar service with a different twist, and there are surely a bunch of new folks around the area now and get new people in everyday.
AD: How has it affected your business?
CM: It really helps our business more than actually affects our business in any negative way. It has provided the eastside with just a few more options than it already had. Just the other day, an individual who I did not recognize, asked me a few questions about our coffee. Later, as he sat outside, I asked him “Is this the first time at Mundi?” and he said, “Yes.” I then asked him how he found out about us and he replied “I was just having coffee down the street and then started driving around and I just noticed the sign, so I pulled in.” He came back the next day.
AD: Many things have changed over the past 10 years in Austin; did you ever imagine the eastside would be what it is becoming?
CM: Yes, it was inevitable, with it’s proximity to downtown. It was really the last part of town to experience any real growth and development.
AD: It is a double edge sword of a question, but how do you feel about the changing growth of Austin? I am conflicted because more people =new ideas, but we have also lost much of our unique culture due to change. What are your thoughts?
CM: That is also inevitable so we really have to be smart about the fast changes happening in Austin. Buy local and teach people to buy local. If we want to see a change for the better we can’t just talk about it we have to do it!
AD: What is the greatest lesson or lessons you’ve learned over the past ten years?
CM: Stay true to yourself and your vision, but also be flexible.
AD: What are some of the challenges of having a biz in Austin?
CM: Staying competitive, staying unique, and surviving.
AD: What is next for yall?
CM: A second location and securing our current location for the many years to come. We would love to see Café Mundi grow into more avenues.
AD: In your eyes, what sets Café Mundi apart from other coffee shops? What is the unique experience you can have at Mundi?
CM: Location. Location. Location. The location is so unique for an urban area. It feels hidden. You have the rails; view of downtown, monk parakeets in the microwave tower, a grove of crepe myrtles, a style of architecture, which represents the culture and history of the neighborhood, church bells in the background reminding you of time…it’s a great place to decompress.
We have a wide range of events happening at the café; free movies, kids school performances, East Austin studio tour, Dork Bot, Art bazaars, Cycle side, Live music, clothes swaps, soccer games, plant sales, monthly art openings, and of course filter less Fridays. It also has a hub for many people who live and work in the area. You can ask us if we know an electrician, tile layer, professor, painter, graphic designer, lawyer, nanny, fire dancer, or carpenter, and chances are all they have to do is take a look around the café and point them out. We really get to know our customers.
AD: What is the best part to you about being in Austin?
CM:The people we met and will continue to meet. In our eyes it’s like no other place.We really have met some of the most amazing, caring, smart, talented people in Austin. I feel so fortunate that most of those connections happened through Café Mundi. Like Meeting Russ from the Austin Daze which seems like so many, many years ago.***