Cougar Grounds Poised to Become Campus Hot Spot

As a group of University of Houston students sits around a table to discuss their latest test, one young man in a long black ponytail abruptly changes the subject.

"This coffee is really good," he says. Everyone agrees. Words like "delicious," "awesome" and "yummy" tumble out, before the students go right back to the business of being students.

This is Cougar Grounds. It is a place for quiet study and boisterous discussion, for a professor to grade his papers or for a student to unwind between classes. But above all, it is a place for great coffee and good times.

Cougar Grounds, in the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management next to Barron's Restaurant, quietly opened its doors Oct. 23, 2008.

Like Barron's, it is staffed entirely by students, but it is far from a junior varsity operation. A full-scale coffee shop complete with hot and cold gourmet coffees, fresh-baked pastries and deluxe teas, Cougar Grounds combines the casual, hip atmosphere of a small urban coffeehouse with the quality of the top coffee chains in the country.

Though Cougar Grounds celebrates its official grand opening today (Jan. 26), the "soft opening," mostly for Hilton College students and staff, provided an opportunity to work out "the kinks." But the small crowds have generated huge enthusiasm, as customers have been drawn into the space with its spiraled ceiling lights of red, white and gold, its frosted glass windows and comfortable chairs.

Maged Ayyad, a freshman at the Hilton College, says there is already a "buzz" about the coffee, especially the caramel macchiato and café latte.

"People are really getting excited," Ayyad says. "I know I am. Once everybody comes here and tries the coffee and hangs out, I think we’ll have a new campus hot spot."

Cougar Grounds was the brainchild of Dirk Smith, a UH alumnus who received a master's degree in hotel and restaurant management from the Hilton College in 1992. Smith, who since graduating from the college has made a name for himself in the specialty coffee industry, has a clear vision for Cougar Grounds, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

"We want to provide a warm, inviting place to have a great cup of coffee," Smith says. "The key to a successful coffee shop is great product, great service and great atmosphere. We are in a unique position to offer all three."

Coming from Smith, such talk is more than speculation. Smith is the operator of local franchises of Diedrich Coffee, a chain of coffee shops based in California with several locations in Houston, including the 20-something hangout on Montrose between West Alabama and Richmond. He is also the man behind Dirk's Coffee on the Rice University campus.

John T. Bowen, dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, says Smith is the ideal fit for the coffee shop's other key component – education. The Hilton College, one of the top-ranked hospitality programs in the world, will soon offer a course in entrepreneurship with Cougar Grounds as its laboratory. It will be the first coffee shop in the country to be run by students as part of a corollary education class. The first class is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2009.

"It's an outstanding educational opportunity," Bowen says. "Students will take on everything, from ordering supplies to managing inventory, cost control, payroll, tax deductions, maintenance and, of course, outstanding customer service. The specialty coffee industry is a perfect setting for teaching students the challenges and opportunities of being a successful entrepreneur."

Also helping to assist the students and provide a first-class customer experience will be another UH alum, manager Sean Lawless, an 11-year veteran of the coffee industry who has been one of the most successful operators in the area for the past decade. Lawless sees coffee not as a necessity but an amenity that customers will only seek out if they are given a compelling reason. Like Smith, he sees atmosphere and service as essential, but for Lawless:

"It's all about the bean," he says. "There are so many coffee shops out there that you really have to distinguish yourself with killer product. So step one is really all about finding the absolute highest quality, best tasting coffee you can."

Lawless and Smith sought out some of the finest coffees in the world, trying out different roasts to find the blend that would make Cougar Grounds coffee stand out from the competition. They even found local roasters, including one Houston-area company that "knocked our socks off."

"I had heard great things by word of mouth, but when we tasted the coffee, we were totally floored," Lawless says. "We were expecting good coffee, but it turned out to be outstanding. I think customers are going to be blown away by the flavor and the quality."

The coffees served at Cougar Grounds have been certified as Fair Trade.

Befitting the first-ever student-run coffee shop, the grand opening week will have all the trappings of a full celebration, free tastings and tons of coupons for free drinks. Each day will offer a different beverage for tasting: 1-2 p.m. Monday will feature Caramel Latte, Tuesday is White Mocha day, Mayan Mocha is available Wednesday, Vanilla Iced Coffee on Thursday and hot Vanilla Coffee is on Friday. Coupons will be handed out at the University Center, the UH Welcome Center, the Wellness Center, M.D. Anderson Library, Moody Towers and the walkway between the Towers and the Hilton College.

Cougar Grounds is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Cougar Grounds has a received a double shot of espresso-strength help from local and national companies eager to help out on such an innovative project. The furniture was donated by Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale, the Gallery Furniture owner who has become the face of philanthropy in the Houston area. Republic of Tea, a leading producer of gourmet teas, offered Cougar Grounds its first full order free of charge and will continue to provide the coffee shop discounted rates on all tea purchases. La Marzocco, a Seattle producer of top quality coffee machines, discounted its price on an espresso machine and specialty grinders. And Vitamix, a health and energy foods company, donated two blenders and will be working with students at Cougar Grounds to develop new frozen drink creations.

Other companies that provided free or discounted products, as well as expertise, include Island Oasis, a national smoothie chain; Texas POS, a software firm; Radiant Systems, an information hardware company; and Alltex, which helped with installation of espresso machines and offered free service for a full year.

About the UH Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management
The Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, which offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in hotel and restaurant management and hospitality management, is one of the top-ranked hospitality programs in the world. Currently, students from 27 countries study here. For more information on the Conrad N. Hilton College visit

About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 36,000 students.