Walk to the Coffee Barr in Katy, and you might have a few questions – the first being: Am I in the right place?
The following: Should I ring the doorbell? And… is it a vape shop?
The East Avenue cafe almost blends into the surrounding neighborhood, and for good reason: it’s set in a residential house. The entrance is a familiar front door, and as you walk in, the first room has a cozy living room vibe. But walk further and you will be reassured that you are indeed in a place of business.
When I reach the coffee counter, I pass cheerful owner Penelope Barr. Immediately she asks me what I like and gets to work behind a machine, then disappears into a collection of syrup bottles and start pumping. A few minutes later, she hands me a drink she calls “Magic,” a hot, smooth, and sweet combination of coffee with butterscotch, caramel, and vanilla syrups, with a hint of macadamia nuts and chocolate.
Barr had little history with coffee before opening the store. She got her start in small business by opening a vape shop in the neighborhood more than 10 years ago (hence the nearby vape shop she reopened in the coffee shop garage).
Her decision to venture into coffee follows a nine-day vacation to Hawai’i in 2017, where Barr says she was inspired by local cafes and owners who were eager to share their behind-the-scenes secrets. Once Barr got home to Katy, she started experimenting.
“For two and a half years I was addicted to so much caffeine,” she says. “I was hanging out every night trying to figure out (recipes) and trying to get it right. I slept very little, but my goal is to serve the perfect cup of coffee.
And last year, an opportunity presented itself. When the East Avenue house, which previously housed another coffee shop, now relocated, became available, Barr jumped at the chance, she says, opening Coffee Barr in July 2021.
Today, the cafe offers freshly ground coffee, supplied by local roaster Lola Savannah, including dozens of flavors Barr has experimented with over the years, as well as nitro and draft cold brew, loose teas, espresso drinks, fresh smoothies and homemade pastries.
The cafe (where Barr’s motto is “If you don’t like it, tell me. I can fix it. If you like it, tell the world”) has become a mainstay for members of the community, including students and teachers, many of whom “enter as strangers and leave as friends,” Barr says. It also gets its fair share of curious coffee drinkers, and some have posted the shop on TikTok after being struck by the novelty of its residential location. One of the most recent TikToks on Coffee Barr has racked up thousands of views.
“They don’t know what to expect when they walk in,” Barr says.
Renting a house for a cafe does have some restrictions, however, Barr says. For one, “it’s frowned upon to destroy someone’s house,” says Barr, who notes that she hasn’t been able to do much physical expansion. But the Carolina native has incorporated some of her own touches — building many aspects of the coffee bar herself, including the beach-themed tables and bars where patrons often commune or work, and arranging the room front with living room-like furniture and sofas for guests to relax. Other spaces, including the back rooms, which are used for storage, and the spacious back patio, which provides guests with a pleasant respite, are still in the works, she says.
But for Barr, who largely operates the coffee bar and her vape shop next door, it’s a job worthy of love, a place where she says she can connect with the greater community and provide great coffee.
“I like people,” Barr says. “And everyone has a story.”
The Coffee Barr is open 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at 1933 East Avenue in Katy.