Tesla’s Café and Coffee Pub, a Southwestern-style eatery that’s about to open in the historic Sturgis House on Washington Avenue, is the culmination of one woman’s dream.
Not a dream in the sense of a long-held ambition, mind you, but a literal dream.
Margaret Smelser, co-owner of the new business, had never entertained fantasies of being in the restaurant business before she and her boyfriend, Heath Collard, began their move to Waco earlier this year from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Collard planned to continue his career as a massage therapist. Smelser already had a successful dog kennel business and thought she would do something entrepreneurial here. But not a restaurant, until her subconscious mind told her otherwise.
“In March, I had a dream that I was working behind a counter of a café that served sandwiches, had white dishes, had a long countertop, front porch just like this, and it was a Victorian house,” she said, standing on the wooden porch of the 1887 brick home.
She recounted how Collard had been looking for a location to lease for his massage practice. Texas Star Properties, owner of an old house he wanted to lease on Columbus Avenue, decided to turn that house into a vacation rental, but the firm’s owners steered him to the Sturgis home at 1316 Washington Avenue.
He called up Smelser, and she was smitten.
“I said, ‘This is it, this is the house,’ ” Smelser said. “Right then and there, we said, ‘We’ll take it.’ ”
Since then, the couple has been renovating the kitchen, dreaming up a menu and negotiating the rules of operating a modern business in a 19th-century state historic landmark.
The house and associated servants quarters were originally built by James N. Harris, with 13-inch solid walls made of handmade Brazos River brick. The family of James H. Carroll bought the house in 1912, and it long served as home of Waco civic leaders Carroll and Frances Sturgis.
A 1963 article boasted that the house had 28 windows with the original cypress wood shutters, and it was of “such sound and sensible construction that the owner has found no major renovation necessary.”
The house finally did get a major restoration in 1983, when attorneys Lyndon and Charles Olson turned it into their law office. Since then it has served as Brazos House Bed and Breakfast and as various professional offices.
Collard said the house already had a commercial kitchen from its days as an inn. The couple plans to make few changes to the building, other than the addition of a handicap-accessible ramp. They will decorate the interior with a “steampunk” aesthetic, a tongue-in-cheek style that incorporates futuristic fantasies from a century or more ago.
The name of the café refers to the same man as the name of the electric car company: Nikola Tesla, the inventor and futurist who out-competed Thomas Edison in harnessing the potential of electricity.
They plan to serve coffee from a roaster in Crawford and beer from Waco-based Bare Arms Brewing Co., along with homemade lemonade and sun tea.
They’re planning a simple lunch and breakfast menu that includes Belgian waffles, homemade stuffed pita bread, bratwurst, a boneless rib sandwich and Southwestern-style pozole, a stew of hominy, pork and New Mexico chiles. They will also hold special dinners, sometimes incorporating the outside of the property.
Collard said he expects the establishment to be a quiet, low-key place to gather or just hang out.
He is planning to maintain his licensing as a massage therapist, but for now he’ll focus on the business and the family.
Collard and Smelser are raising four children between them, ages 8 to 14, and the children are the main reason they moved to Waco.
Natives of New Mexico, they decided to do a nationwide search for a place that has good schools and a climate that is warm but not dusty.
“We were tired of eating dirt,” Collard said.
After some research they ruled out Hawaii because the public schools were lacking, and California, because real estate was too expensive.
A farm and ranch website led them to a house and some acreage in China Spring that is big enough for their family and horses.
“We looked at the ratings for the schools and said, ‘Wow, the schools are really good. Let’s make a trip to China Spring,’ ” Smelser said. “So we made a trip to China Spring. It was true. They’re great schools with great staff and great teachers. They really had it together.”