By Chelsea Kallman
Bongo Java’s first ever Signature Drink Competition might have had a sleepy start, but after a five minute Tennessee downpour cleared up, employees and friends started to trickle in.
The event, open to the public, was held so Bongo Java’s creative employees could pour even more into the company and regulars could see their new favorite drinks come to life.
In between the five competitors preparing their drinks, Brandon Ross, employee at Bongo Production Fido, and Greg Privett, a regular customer to all Bongo stores, explained their favorite drink to me, one word at a time, back and forth.
“Our… favorite… drink… is… difficult… to… describe… because… it… always… changes… flavors… and… aromas, but… regardless, I… am… stumped.”
Maybe they would make up their mind with one of the inventive drinks the baristas presented at the event.
Jamie Cunningham, head barista for all of Bongo, created a homemade caramel con panna with a mint infused whipped cream. He named it “A Russian Salutation,” after Greg, because his last name is perfect Russian for hello.
Logan Potts, barista manager for Fido, created a strawberry shortcake con panna, using fresh strawberries and sweetened condensed milk.
Kuntal Patel, wanting to replicate a homemade chai recipe, made an Indian Latte with cardamom, ginger and honey.
Allyson Golden, barista manager of Bongo Java East Café, created homemade raspberry syrup to use in iced Americanos for the summer.
Jackson O’Brien, barista manager of Bongo Java Belmont and employee for over six years, created a twist on the mojito because, he said, “Given that this is a summer time drink and it is a Southerner’s God-given right to sit out on a porch and sip on a cold drink and say yup to nothing in particular, I decided to explore that kind of beverage.”
The contestants had 10 minutes to prepare and present their drinks to the judges. They chose music and table setup. Each had a theme related to their drink, even down to Logan matching the color of his utensils to his strawberries.
Kate Sage, company cheerleader and assistant manager of everything, as she’s been called over the years, referred to the competitors as the top players, and expected the night to be a riot.
“They’re going out to other cafés and they’re doing the socializing and they’re creating this coffee community that we get to be a part of.”
She also attributed it to Bob Bernstein, the owner of Bongo World.
“It’s the way he has run it that has attracted interesting people… and I just feel like we rarely have to find people to work here. They’re just like a magnet. They find their home. And for many of the people that find their way here, they stay for a really long time.”
The whole night was based on creativity and everyone continued to bring it up as the reason this event needed to happen.
“There’s been a lot of education in the last couple years, but not a lot of freedom to apply that education in the work place. We hire incredibly creative staffs, very diverse people, and to kind of hinder that creativity is a shame. So I wanted to release it into the coffee world with the education we’ve provided and see what happens,” said Jamie.
What happened was Kuntal and Jackson won with their simple and delicious drinks, the Indian Latte and the Jakarta Mojito.
“The latte was actually much more potent when I was making it. There were huge doses of cardamom and ginger, and I thought we still had to take it down,” said Kuntal, who created his drink with the help of his co-worker and friend Mackenzie.
The same was true for Jackson.
“I knew I had a very tasty drink and I decided not to mess with what already tasted good,” he said.
Both drinks will be featured on the menus at all Bongo Java locations. The Indian Latte will be served hot or cold, and the Jakarta Mojito will be served over ice and enjoyed on Bongo Java Belmont’s large porch amongst other places. Kuntal and Jackson also won $50 Bongo gift cards.
How did the event look to an outsider? Allyson notes, “I think a lot of people might be alienated by coffee culture. It seems almost exclusive at times, but now that it’s growing and becoming more mainstream, this just seems like a great way to get people involved.”
If there’s at least one customer that feels welcomed in, it’s Greg.
“I know that coffee culture is serious about community, but the only place I’ve ever felt that, in my life, is Bongo. Because, I can go to any café at any time and see people that I love, if not just customers at least behind the bar. And, it doesn’t hurt that their coffee is amazing.”
Author Chelsea Kallman got her start in coffee when a shop opened next to her dad’s office and offered her a job. She’s been a barista and assistant manager at Maxximo Jo’s Coffee in Franklin, Tenn., and she now works for Bongo Java. She is a journalism student at Belmont University in Nashville. Some of her goals are to write for coffee and food publications, keep Nashville’s coffee community informed, and start a family with her dynamite husband. If you see her in Nashville she’ll probably ask you what your favorite meal is and then invite you over so she can cook it for you, but don’t be surprised if it ends up on her blog, asimplefeast.blogspot.com.