UT alumni use South Congress coffee shop to help educate kids in Dominican Republic

Katie Walsh

To the unobservant customer, Dominican Joe appears to be just another Austin coffee shop. But underneath the hipster background music and mood lighting is a business run by two UT alumni that strives to give back to kids in Dominican Republic. 

In 2006, UT alumni Sharla Megilligan and Mehul Patel co-founded Dominican Joe, a coffee shop located on South Congress Avenue, to financially support Megilligan’s nonprofit organization, Makarios. Makarios aims to educate children in the Dominican Republic through the organization’s school, Colegio Makarios.

The partnership between Dominican Joe and Makarios began because of the abundance of Dominican coffee growers struggling to make a living selling their coffee at the low prices that the Dominican market demanded. Makarios stepped in and became a primary buyer for coffee growers, buying their coffee at fair trade prices. Makarios sells coffee to Dominican Joe, which turns around and sells it to under-caffeinated Austinites.

“[Dominican Joe] exists to support Makarios,” Patel said.

According to Patel, as Dominican Joe grows more successful, they increase the price at which they buy the coffee from Makarios, thus increasing Makarios’ profits over time.

 “The way we structured the shop is that we are just a regular for-profit coffee shop,” Patel said. “Our profits go to the owners just like any other shop, [but] over time, [we] raise the prices that we pay to Makarios. As we are more successful, we pay more to Makarios.”

Makarios uses profits from coffee sales, fundraisers and sponsorships to grow their school, which currently teaches children from pre-K through 6th grade, and plans on adding a grade every year.

“We plan to continue growing the school by one grade every year and are in the process of being a US certified international school,” Megilligan said in an email to the Texan. “We add new programs each year as well — everything from art to soccer to adult education classes.”

Megilligan started Makarios in 2004. Originally, she transported coffee from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. in her travel suitcases  to sell at fundrasiers for Makarios. The coffee sales were so strong that Megilligan approached Patel with the idea of building a business around supporting her nonprofit.

Patel said he was losing interest in his job at the time, and the idea of doing something socially productive enticed him.

“Neither of us were the types that are like, ‘We’re gonna study this for two years and learn exactly how to do it right,’” Patel said. “We just kind of dove in and started trying things.”

Patel said neither he nor Megilligan had any experience in retail or coffee, but they had a vision and a desire to make a difference. Dominican Joe opened 18 months later. 

“At the time, neither of us knew what we were doing. It was just an experiment — a fun idea to see if we could build this,” Patel said. “We learned a lot, and we did a lot wrong, but that was just a part of the process.”

Patel said Dominican Joe’s first year in business was a haze of broken pipes, flooding and sewage trauma.

“The first year was a nightmare for us,” Patel said. “Learning, growing, developing everything from scratch. But every year since then has gotten better.”