Texas Border Business
(NOTE) The interview for this story was done in late February just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic.
HARLINGEN, TEXAS – The weather outside was still crisp in February and ordering a warm latte from Bandera Coffee Co. was the perfect pairing.
The store had been bustling with customers waiting in line to order, finding the perfect spot to decompress, catch up with old friends, or work on a deadline.
The coffee shop first opened two years ago on Van Buren Avenue and it has definitely added to downtown’s unique collection of restaurants, boutiques, and an assortment of antique shops.
Being just west of Downtown Harlingen, Van Buren has slowly been creating its own vibe by offering a more eclectic youthful feel in its selection of small businesses located there.
While Jackson Street had its Saturday Market Days, Van Buren, with the help of the owners at Bandera Coffee Co., and Procure Life + Home, had begun holding an outdoor market held in the evening.
The pandemic stopped that and slowed much of the vibrancy that had been spurring in Downtown Harlingen and reaching its fingers toward West Van Buren. Slowly, the street is bringing back more activity and following safety guidelines in order to ensure a safe experience.
But this story isn’t about the pandemic and the shift it created for businesses. This story is about three Harlingen business owners working together to bring a vision for Harlingen and Van Buren to fruition.
At a table located in the far corner of Bandera Coffee Co., just before exiting to the shop’s patio, Megamorphosis Architecture partner, John Pearcy was joined by Procured Life + Home’s Jared Casteneda, and Rene Garcia, Bandera owner.
The trio exchanged stories about future plans, past events and caught up excitedly discussing ways to create more excitement and traffic to West Van Buren Avenue.
Pearcy noticed a few years before the firm moved to Van Buren that there seemed to be a shift in demographics happening in that area.
“I am talking West of the tracks, there was a shift in the age group – it was getting a little bit younger and a lot more creative,” Pearcy said.
Pearcy added that it was appealing because they work in a creative profession and saw an opportunity for something that hadn’t existed in Harlingen.
“Regionalism is a big thing for us, we are proud of where we are doing our work, celebrating it, and the way we practice the work we do – it’s an artful approach.”
The Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District’s Performing Arts Center, The Reese Renovations, and the Cameron County 911 Administration Building are just a few of the buildings designed, restored, or redeveloped by Megamorphosis Architecture.
There is a particular authenticity that you get when experiencing downtowns, Pearcy said.
“There’s a vibe and it’s authentic and it’s real and it’s a heart of a community, and that’s specifically why we choose Harlingen, Van Buren Avenue – it attracts a lot of people.”
Castaneda, who owns the home décor store Procured Life + Home with his family, has been in business a year and much like Pearcy, he too saw the potential for a more diverse experience.
“I think we found a great community. We share a lot of like-minded ideas and it’s a big reason why we chose to be in this location,” Castaneda said.
He added that it was because of Bandera and people like Pearcy who, like Castaneda, want to see a community formed and a vision come to life.
Castaneda is a big proponent of collaboration and sees it as a way to form meaningful business partnerships and invest in his community.
“We chose Harlingen because we care about this community and want to invest in it for as long as possible. There was no type of space like this that existed yet in our community – so we wanted to create it.”
As Castaneda wrapped up his statement, Garcia, Bandera owner, stood up and asked Pearcy and Castaneda if they needed anything to drink.
On the way to the counter, Garcia greeted regular café customers and asked a young family how their day was going, encouraging them to enjoy the patio in the back.
Garcia came back and carefully served Pearcy and Castaneda. Garcia and his wife Ashley Garcia had never really considered owning a coffee shop but, after visiting the West Coast and enjoying coffee shops from Portland to San Francisco, that all changed.
“We love the Valley and we decided to focus our time on opening up a business,” Garcia said.
The location opened up next to the former Rio Grande Grill – now the restaurant Don Gollito – and the couple decided to go for it and share their love and knowledge of coffee with the community.
“We have built up a clientele that keeps coming back and a vision began to form – we created a space you don’t normally find in Harlingen.”
Garcia and Castaneda piggybacked off the existing Harlingen Art Night, that pre-COVID, was held every last Friday of the month. The pair wanted to give Van Buren a positive identity and not the longstanding negative reputation it had. They coordinated an outdoor street fair at the beginning of the year that hosted local artisans. It was a huge success.
“I think collectively we are trying to pave the way for good things to come. That event was a true sign of what could be, and the City is getting behind and seeing that there are things happening here.”
Prior to the street fair, the group worked on building up a Small Business Saturday Marketplace that blossomed from a small idea and encouraged people to shop local during the holidays.
“We are all in our respective fields, when it comes to a great vision, we are entirely collectivists,” Castaneda said. “We talk to each other and figure out ways of bringing the community together.”
And their hard work to create something beyond their business was catching ground. People were talking about wanting to open a business on Van Buren, Garcia said.
“We are building a place that I am proud of and that my son will be proud of – I would love to see new businesses show up, this street still has a lot to go.”
“Harlingen has been really good to us,” Garcia said.
Doing Business During a Pandemic
Bandera and Procured Life + Home have since bolstered their online presence by creating a seamless shopping experience and offering curbside options for shopping exclusive furnishings, baked goods, and of course, coffee.
Garcia noted that he is also working on making accommodations for the current pandemic situation and adhering to safety guidelines by creating an outdoor space at Bandera. The coffee shop has since opened a patio and backyard.
Both businesses report growth in social media followers as well as in business.
Pearcy said that things at Megamorphosis are still busy and they have picked up several small projects.
“I think now more than ever, sourcing local, community-driven, goods and services are of the utmost importance,” Pearcy said.
The business owners have learned to rely on each other for reassurance and because of the vision they all share, their vigor for more is still there even as they grapple with ways to do business during a pandemic.
“Things have changed, but the core of what we are aiming for – for Van Buren and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley – still remain the same,” Ashely Garcia, Bandera, said.
And let’s be honest, despite a pandemic, we can all agree that there’s still a vibe on Van Buren.