Walk up to the Coffee Barr in Katy, and you might have some questions — the first one being: Am I at the right place?
The next: Should I ring the doorbell? And … is that a vape shop?
The East Avenue coffee shop nearly blends in with the surrounding neighborhood, and for good reason: It’s housed inside a residential home. The entrance is a familiar front door, and when you walk in, the first room gives off cozy living room vibes. But walk further, and you’ll be reassured you are indeed at a place of business.
When I reach the coffee counter, I bump into the cheerful owner Penelope Barr. Immediately, she asks what I like and goes to work behind a machine, then disappears into a collection of syrup bottles and begins pumping away. Minutes later, she hands me a drink she calls “Magic,” a warm, smooth, sweet combination of coffee with butterscotch, caramel, and vanilla syrups, with a hint of macadamia nut and chocolate.
Barr had little history with coffee prior to opening the shop. She got her start in small businesses by opening a vape shop in the area more than 10 years ago (hence, the neighboring vape shop that she reopened in the coffee house’s garage).
Her decision to venture into coffee followed a nine-day vacation in Hawai‘i in 2017, where Barr says she was inspired by the local coffee shops and owners there who were eager to share their behind-the-scenes secrets. Once Barr returned home to Katy, she began experimenting.
“For two-and-a-half years, I was strung out on so much caffeine,” she says. “I would hang out every night, trying to figure out (recipes) and trying to get it just right. I got very little sleep, but my whole goal is to serve the perfect cup of coffee.”
And last year, an opportunity presented itself. When the East Avenue home, which previously hosted another, now-relocated coffee shop, became available, Barr jumped at the chance, she says, opening the Coffee Barr in July 2021.
Today, the cafe offers freshly brewed coffee, supplied by local roaster Lola Savannah, including dozens of the flavors that Barr has experimented with over the years, plus Nitro and cold brew on tap, loose leaf teas, espresso drinks, smoothies made fresh, and homemade pastries.
The coffee shop (where Barr’s motto is “If you don’t like it, tell me. I can fix it. If you love it, tell the world”) has become a mainstay for people in the community, including students and teachers, many of whom “walk in as a stranger and leave as a friend,” Barr says. She also gets her 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 about Coffee Barr has racked up thousands of views.
“They don’t know what to expect when they walk in,” Barr says.
Renting a home for a coffee shop does have some restrictions, though, says Barr. For one, “it’s frowned upon to destroy somebody’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 guests often commune or work, and cozying up the front room with living room-like furniture and couches for guests to lounge. Other areas, including the back rooms, which are used for storage, and the roomy backyard patio, which offers guests a nice respite, are still a work in progress, she says.
But for Barr, who largely operates the coffee bar and its next-door vape shop by herself, it’s a worthy labor of love, a place where she says she can connect with the greater community and offer great coffee.
“I love people,” Barr says. “And everybody has a story.”
The Coffee Barr is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays at 1933 East Avenue in Katy.