Downtown has a new coffee shop as of this morning at 6:30 a.m. That's when Frank Freeman opened the doors of Cafe Luz at 907 Franklin, his new venture with Lucrece Borrego and Jesus Acosta, who also own Kitchen Incubator.
Cafe Luz is located in the retail storefront area of Kitchen Incubator, a space that Borrego and Acosta had wanted to develop since opening their commercial kitchen space last year. They imagined it as a place where the chefs who work in the space -- which Borrego refers to as a "center for culinary entrepreneurship" -- could sell their prepared foods and baked goods to the general public. What they did not expect to create was a full-service coffee shop.
But when Borrego attended the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference earlier this year, she started brainstorming with David Buehrer -- who is set to open Blacksmith this fall -- and Cafe Luz was born. Buehrer introduced her to Freeman, a barista who'd worked at places like Catalina Coffee, Taft Street and Revival Market, and a partnership was quickly formed.
"Anybody would have really jumped on it," said Freeman. "It was perfect timing."
"Revival Market was perfect training for this," he says of the position he left just three months ago. "If Morgan [Weber] and Ryan [Pera] hadn't given me the opportunity to set up their program, I'd be in way over my head, so I'm really grateful to them for that."
As Freeman continues, it becomes clear that Cafe Luz is the result of a massive amount of collaboration -- intentional or not -- within the coffee industry, itself a reflection of the greater collaborative movement that's making Houston so attractive to chefs, bartenders and baristas. His former employer Max Gonzales, owner of both Catalina and Amaya Roasting, is providing the beans for Cafe Luz. Gonzales also provided the equipment at a very fair price, as well as ample training and support on how to use it.
And the chefs at Kitchen Incubator, too, are excited about working within the community to provide food for the cafe. Most, like Chef James Ashley of Pure Catering, use ingredients from local farmers' markets to make their meals. Ashley's "Pure Packages" -- ready-made, organic meals -- will be available for pick-up from Cafe Luz's to-go case, as will baked goods from other Kitchen Incubator clients like Bread 'n' Batter and Porch Swing Desserts.
Behind the bar, Freeman will not only be making coffee drinks but cold beverages too. In a city like Houston, he says, "If you don't have a really solid cold drink program, you're going to just go under."
"We're trying to be a beverage shop with really good coffee," he says. "If you want great coffee, we have that for you; if you want soda, we have that for you; if you want a frappe, we have that for you." But it's those handmade sodas will undoubtedly be the real draw.
Considering that Texas is thought to have helped kill the old-fashioned soda fountain, it's ironic that this "artisanal soda" trend would be so quick to crop up in Houston. After all, it's still a novelty in New York City.
Freeman knows this and laughs. He just learned about handmade sodas a few months ago, diving into research after Borrego told him she'd like to see an old-fashioned soda fountain in Cafe Luz. Now, he's 100 percent on board with the idea: "Why not have soda that actually tastes good and isn't some proprietary recipe? Why not have orange soda that tastes like actual oranges?"
To that end, Freeman is making the syrups for the sodas himself, using old-fashioned acid phosphate instead of citric acid to balance out the flavors, and carbonating the sodas when they're poured. I tried several of his concoctions last Friday: candied lavender, lime-mint, a striking ginger beer and -- my favorite -- a tart cherry that still had the cherry skins in the soda. They tasted nothing like our canned sodas, our sodas from regular soda fountains. That acid phosphate brings a tart, sour note to sweet, fruity flavors which would otherwise be overpowering.
"Acid phosphate is really cool stuff," Freeman grinned.
For now, Cafe Luz will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Borrego and Freeman are looking into Sunday hours, but that all depends on downtown traffic during the notoriously quiet weekends. Freeman doesn't seem concerned with bringing in customers, however; he seems confident that the quality of Cafe Luz's products will bring people in, as will his coffee shop's overall attitude.
"At the end of the day, the importance of doing a good job with coffee is an honor thing," he says. "You want to do the best job that you can do and still provide a really awesome experience."
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"I don't want my plumber to treat me like an asshole because I can't fix my own plumbing," he laughs. "It's the same with a coffee shop. I want to be nice to you because you're in my shop and buying my groceries and paying my phone bill. I want to say thank you for coming in and supporting this cool thing."
See more photos from Cafe Luz in our slideshow.