After years without a decent coffee shop, downtown is suddenly spoiled for options: Cafe Luz on the north end of downtown opened a few weeks ago. And now Ben's Beans, next door to Dirt Bar and House of Blues, has finally opened after more than a year of construction.
Owner Ben Deaton is originally from Louisiana, and he saw the potential for a French Quarter type of charm in the long, shotgun space that used to house the Royal Blue Printing Company. The building itself is over 100 years old, built in 1900 and housing three generations of Topeks -- the family which still owns the building and runs the law firm next door. Deaton and his wife used to drive by the space at 1302 Dallas and picture a coffee shop there one day. But Deaton had a few things to finish up first.
"My wife and I came here in 1995 to go to college," Deaton told me as we sat on soft leather couches inside Ben's Beans earlier this week, Horace Silver's "Cool Eyes" playing over the stereo in the background. "We went to undergrad at U of H and then went to school at Lubbock and did my residency at Baylor." That's right; Deaton is also a doctor. He's an anesthesiologist with a practice not far from his coffee shop, one that he was finally able to open after coming back to Houston for good.
"We just came in and looked at it several times before my wife was able to see past all [the mess] and picture it as something else," Deaton said. "It's hard to convey in words how bad the place was. It had real low ceilings -- 10 foot ceilings -- and the smell." It was the smell of 20 years of homeless people occupying the space, an odor which you'd be hard-pressed to find today amidst the scent of freshly ground beans from Fontana that permeates the space.
Construction started on the spot last June, and took much longer than Deaton anticipated. "Everything else you see in here is new," Deaton said. He pointed to a lowered ceiling above the main counter: "We had to build this little apparatus above the food service place. The City [of Houston] mandates on some of the things that the space didn't have..." He trailed off, shaking his head. "That's why it took a year to open." Deaton may have been surprised to find his timeline greatly extended by permitting, but it's the same sad story most small restaurants, bars and coffee shops go through as well.
He missed his target opening date -- the Final Four series -- but seems to have taken it in stride, proudly pointing out all the new paint, new walls, new speakers, new flat-screen TVs, new art, new everything in the charming old space.
"A lot of this is brand new to us," he said. "Right now, we're experimenting to see how things work - what people like, what they don't like." And right now, Ben's Beans serves a standard array of Fontana coffees and snacks -- cookies, sandwiches, granola bars -- while Deaton moves the shop out of its soft opening phase. He just procured an espresso machine and his employees are still being trained on how to use it. I received an overly milky cappuccino while I was there, but it did nothing to diminish my affection for the place -- especially as it's within walking distance of the office.
It's in walking distance from a lot of things, as luck would have it: Discovery Green, the South Texas College of Law, the House of Blues and its associated Pavilion complex, the Four Seasons and its apartments, One Park Place and the massive Houston Center. Deaton is hopeful that all the activity in this area will keep Ben's Beans busy.
"We're gonna try and cater to the students and workers in the area," he told me as he showed the shell of a kitchen that's currently in the works. "Folks who might not necessarily want to go to the House of Blues and spend $20 on a meal." In a nod to his Louisiana roots, he wants to serve beignets in the morning with the coffee.
For now, though, Deaton is concentrating on his grand opening party and hoping -- like the rest of the city -- for a break in temperatures. Nicer weather will bring more foot traffic, as well as live music in the evenings.
"Some nights we'll have acoustic guitar," he said. "Some nights we'll have jazz. My brother played here last week - keyboard, electric violins, guitars."
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"And once the weather cools off a bit, we'll have the doors wide open."
Take a tour through Ben's Beans's big space in our slideshow.