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Bongo Java Founder Reveals Details for Ambitious North Nashville Cafe The Sit-In [Update]

Bob Bernstein’s latest venture will be a community hangout honoring the Civil Rights Movement

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The Sit-In will join Smoothie King in the ground floor at 1821 Jefferson St.
Eater Nashville

UPDATED (5/11/18): In a not so surprising turn of events, there has now been a backlash against the overall vision for Bob Bernstein’s North Nashville coffee shop The Sit-In. The Tennessean reports that several African-American community activists, including artist Omari Booker and historian and Fisk University graduate Crystal deGregory, have spoken out against its planned name, with deGregory saying that “it is at best in poor taste, and at worse yet another example of the absence of real value associated with real black lives[.]”

Bernstein says that “the idea was to pay tribute to a movement that inspired me. To have it used against me is hurtful.” But he does now plan to change the name, and will enlist the help of the North Nashville community in determining its future moniker.

As Bongo World celebrates the 25th anniversary of the opening of the original Bongo Java coffeehouse on Belmont Ave. this week, founder and owner Bob Bernstein finds himself in the process of opening his most ambitious project yet.

Called The Sit-In and located in the ground floor of a newly built apartment complex at 1821 Jefferson St., Bernstein tells Eater Nashville that he plans for the 2,100-square-foot cafe to not only serve as a neighborhood hangout and meeting place, but also as a tribute to the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville.

“When [developer] D.J. Wootson first asked me to be a part of the project, I struggled in figuring out exactly what would be the right fit. It’s a neighborhood with a lot of history, and I like doing something a little different in each community that we’re in, I don’t want them to be cookiecutter. So I decided to open a cafe that will pay tribute to Jefferson Street and that community’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement here in Nashville. It’s sad to me that there is so little in this city that honors that history and those involved in it . And I want to pay tribute to that era and help tell that story.”

Bernstein says that he landed on the name while attending a lecture focusing on civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis’s book March. Sit-ins, or the organized, non-violent occupation of a public space, were used to great effect during the Civil Rights Movement. Continuing the historical tie-in will be commissioned artwork from community artists, with the tables featuring collages of articles, artwork, and photos from that time period. But Bernstein makes sure to point out that he doesn’t want the space “treated as a museum,” but rather as a community gathering place focusing on a time in the country’s history “that people should absolutely know more about.”

The cafe, which is slated for a mid-May opening, will be open seven days a week, starting with breakfast and lunch service, with dinner slated for a little further down the line. Expect a variety of sandwiches, salads, baked goods, and other items similar to offerings at Bernstein’s other outlets. And of course there will be plenty of coffee, as well as beer and kombucha on tap.

And a first for Bernstein’s restaurants and cafes will be the addition of a drive-thru, which will be limited to coffee and other drinks at first as they feel things out.

The space itself will seat approximately 60 inside, with a standing bar, large communal tables, and the like. There will also be a small stage which Bernstein says will host spoken word and other community events. A few tables will also be available outside.

This long-standing North Nashville neighborhood dubbed University City due to its proximity to historical black colleges Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State University has not experienced equal benefit from the overall development boom that a large portion of metropolitan Nashville has seen in recent years. But that’s certainly starting to change. Popular pizza joint Slim & Husky’s, along with its sibling, cinnamon roll slinger The Rollout, have opened to much success on Buchanan St. just north of Jefferson St. And the team behind those two ventures have plans for a new cocktail bar called Three Double Jacks just down the road from The Sit-In.

“I believe that coffeehouses help neighborhoods, help bring people together,” says Bernstein. “I want to be grounded in the communities that we open in, and I just feel like it’s time for me to give back even more.”