Thomas and Ashley Garcia were aspiring entrepreneurs in the summer of 2018 and looking for the right spot to start their coffee shop business.
The location they chose to open their Bandera Coffee seemed unorthodox at the time. It was on Van Buren Avenue in the La Placita section of downtown Harlingen. Thomas described it as part of town that had “a rough reputation,” but he and his wife decided to look past that and at what it could be.
“What we saw were a bunch of old buildings with so much history to them, with lots of potential,” he said. “We could have opened anywhere in town and gotten lost in the clutter of businesses.
“Here on Van Buren, we’re part of something,” he said. “We’re showing that downtown Harlingen still has some life to it and that we’re helping to bring excitement to the heart of the city.”
It was a tough first couple of years. Garcia recalled Bandera being one of the few businesses willing to make a go of it on Van Buren. That’s not true anymore. A recent Sunday morning showed vehicles parked on both sides of the street on the 400 block of west Van Buren. Customers enjoyed coffee at Bandera and weekend breakfast at the next-door Don Gollito.
Just down Van Buren are the offices of Megamorphosis Architecture. John Pearcy and his partners were the forerunners of seeing the possibilities of Van Buren and La Placita. In 2013, they renovated an old grocery store building and turned it into a stylish structure of gray that’s splashed with the colors of a rainbow.
It’s a vibrant statement for the reemergence of Van Buren on the western edge of downtown Harlingen.
“People thought we were crazy,” Pearcy said. “We could have moved into a strip center on Stuart Place, but our thought was, ‘Where can we go where we will do the most good for our city?'”
La Placita was the out-of-the-box choice at the time. The diamond-in-the-rough selection rang true at the time – and even more so today.
“People want an authenticity,” Pearcy said. “It’s one of the things that’s beginning to attract people here. It’s fantastic to see it happening.”
A two-block walk up and down Van Buren includes an eclectic grouping of businesses. In addition to Megamorphosis, Bandera Coffee and Don Gollito, there’s The Ruff House pet store, Procured Life + Home, Sir’s Martini Lounge and a Zumba workout place. Most of those businesses have opened in the last three years.
Forming A Bond
A solidarity and kinship have developed among some of the businesses along west Van Buren. A group of them, including Megamorphosis and Bandera, hosted vendors at a recent Harlingen Art Night and promoted it as “Van Buren St., Harlingen.”
“We’ve become very close to Megamorphosis,” said Thomas Garza of Bandera Coffee. “It feels like we’re bringing some excitement for Van Buren.”
It’s something Alexis Alaniz, the director of Harlingen Downtown, appreciates. She’s especially heartened that the blossoming of businesses on Van Buren includes Millennial-aged entrepreneurs that are bringing a youthful edge to downtown.
“They’re attracted to the uniqueness and history of the buildings,” Alaniz said of the younger business owners. “It’s kind of cool to fix up an old building and start a new business in it.”
Being cool isn’t something Garcia and his wife were thinking three years ago in opening their coffee shop on a block that at the time had a mixed reputation at best. It’s on the upswing now.
“You can feel a new energy coming,” he said. “We want to be part of it.”
It would appear local residents are noticing. Hundreds of positive reviews for Bandera Coffee commend the great tasting selections and add comments like having a “chill atmosphere,” and being “a hidden gem.”
Harlingen residents are rediscovering a part of town they may have forgotten about, and as it turns out, is a gem that isn’t so rough after all.