It’s a busy Friday morning coffee rush on Austin’s iconic South Congress Avenue. Inside the recently opened Little Brother SoCo, Austin restaurateur Matthew Bolick once again finds himself where he feels most comfortable — behind an espresso machine. As curious passersby, morning joggers, and longtime supporters all form a quickly growing queue, Bolick and his two employees appear unfazed and firmly in their zone.
“This is the whole reason I got into this," Bolick says. "Being there for all our homies, all our friends that have been with us through everything.”
Like the numerous acclaimed operations that he’s opened with his business partners, brothers Grady and Matt Wright (businesses include Wright Bros. Brew & Brew and Better Half, to name a few), Bolick takes joy in serving his customers face-to-face, even if its through a white face mask.
While opening up a new operation during an ongoing pandemic is uncharted territory for any restaurateur, the former barista seems to be getting the hang of it by now. In March, his team’s long-awaited brewpub, Holdout Brewing, opened in the repurposed Quonset hut behind Better Half. Before that, it was Bummer Burrito, the new food truck outside the trio's Rainey Street micro-bar, also named Little Brother.
To any outsider it seems Bolick has the Midas touch. Along with these three concepts, he’s also shifted all existing operations to a socially-distanced curbside model while somehow still finding time to debut Austin’s hottest new pop-up concept, Bad Larry Burger Club. What started as a rudimentary smash-burger-only operation for friends has become social media sensation, with its last pop-up selling out 250 online pre-orders in less than three minutes.
“It honestly feels like we’ve opened 20 new businesses,” he says. “Your head is spinning as you’re trying to plan — ‘how many staff do I need this week? how do we let the public know about our new to-go offerings? what even is our brand voice supposed to be in this situation?’ You’re riding the bike and building the bike all at once.’
It also doesn’t help that the road to opening Little Brother SoCo presented its own set of complications. Since Bolick and the Wright brothers first approached Maufrais owners’ Sean and Lauren Greenberg about opening a coffee window in their South Congress lifestyle store, it’s been one problem after another: permit complications, plumbing issues, and, oh yeah, the ongoing global pandemic.
Luckily, it appears the young operation has hit its stride. Since hopping behind the counter for Little Brother’s opening on Thursday, September 17, Bolick found people are “itching” to be back on South Congress. It also helps that he knows thing or two about running a decent coffee shop.
While Little Brother SoCo shares the same name as the group's Rainey Street bar, the two operations couldn’t be more different. For one, Little Brother SoCo doesn’t serve booze. Right now, patrons will find a simple yet effective menu of espresso drinks, cold brews, and pour overs, all made with rich Ethiopian and earthy Guatemalan beans courtesy of Figure 8 coffee purveyors.
As far as eats, Little Brother’s main draw are its kolaches, which are baked fresh daily by Better Half executive pastry chef Lindsay O’Rourke. Operating out of her bakery nook in Holdout Brewing's kitchen, O’Rourke and her team pump out sweet and savory pastries hearty enough for a quick breakfast or mid-day treat. Current offerings include cherry pistachio, peach citrus, and a truly outstanding Tasso ham and swiss topped with everything bagel seasoning. Going forward, customers can expect O’Rourke to push the creative limits of the pastry via unique offerings as a beef cheek carnitas kolache with Oaxacan jack cheese.
“We wanted kolaches because it’s inherently Texas — a huge part of our culture," Bolick says. "Whenever someone [from out of town] asks “what’s a kolache?’ I’m like ‘dope, that’s why we’re here. To school you on something that we all love and grew up with.'”
Such loving tribute to local culture, it seems, couldn’t have come at a more urgent time. “It’s like the heart and soul of [Austin] is currently being ripped out. I seriously cry once a week about live music — that and Dart Bowl,” admits Bolick, “There are no winners right now. Even if [there] were, you never know how many Bob Woodys and Brandon Cashes are going to cause these super-spreader events and shoot everyone else who’s opening safely in the foot.”
Through it all, though, the restaurateur credits his staff’s resilience, as well as the Wright brothers' ability to secure much-needed PPE loans, for ensuring there’s a future to look forward to. Already in the works are a host of events at Little Brother and Maufrais within the next year (pandemic permitting), which will be able to temporarily offer booze in accordance with the building’s permit. His team are also working to expand Little Brother SoCo’s menu of coffee/non-alcoholic drinks, which will include an answer to popular fellow South Congress coffee outpost Jo’s Coffee’s signature Turbo drink.
As for new operations from the group, nothing concrete is currently in the works, though Bolick says any new concept would certainly include pastries — and adds that local foodies “shouldn’t count Bad Larry out.”
While Bolick pulls shifts behind Little Brother SoCo’s coffee bar, his Better Half/Holdout teams are making weekly trips to Lowe's, purchasing more picnic tables to expand outdoor seating. And of course, there’s the ever-present threat of COVID-19 changing everything in a heartbeat, again.
"Right now, the key is keeping everyone safe and keeping a light attitude," says Bolick. "People already have plenty on their mind already, so give ‘em a cheeseburger, give ‘em a shot and a beer, give ‘em a coffee, and be super damn nice to everybody — and maybe we’ll make it through."