Night Light, Night Bright

Photos courtesy of Mozart’s Coffee Roasters

From late November to late December each year, Mozart’s Coffee Roasters in Austin, Texas, transforms its lakefront patio into a glowing wonderland with enough twinkling, carefully choreographed lights (over 1 million LEDs) to rival a Disney parade.

An estimated hundreds of thousands of people—kids, parents, grandparents, college students, and even the occasional dog on a leash—flock to Mozart’s each year for its free holiday light show, a tradition started by co-owner and partner Katrine Formby. Formby says she’s always loved Christmas lights and started doing lavish Christmas decorations at her home.

“It became so over-the-top that we thought, why not do this at Mozart’s because then people can really enjoy it?” she says.

A lavish light show may seem an unusual choice for a coffee shop and bakery, but Mozart’s has a history of blazing new trails. It first opened in a former boat repair shop on Lake Austin in 1993, and, in the early nineties, became one of the first businesses to offer a bottomless cup of coffee, according to Jack Ranstrom, Mozart’s general manager and its original roaster. They were also among the first to offer free high-speed wireless internet, about a decade later, Ranstrom adds. (Mozart’s remains in its original location, but there is a remodel planned for 2019 to expand its interior footprint.)

Mozart’s hosted its first light show in 2010, and the event has grown each year, adding enhancements like music synced to the lights, gobos (stencils on lights), strobe lights, and sound-triggered lights. This year’s light show features a grand piano built out of Christmas lights with a waterproof electronic keyboard that patrons can play between light shows.

The light shows used to start at the top of every hour, but they’ve tweaked the schedule to run shorter, mini shows randomly throughout the night for better crowd control.

“You don’t have to park and rush,” says Formby. “Whenever you come, you’ll see a show within ten minutes of arrival.”

There are four rotations with different songs and light configurations each time. While the music changes year to year, the University of Texas-Austin Longhorns’ fight song is a perennial favorite.

Preparation for a light show of this size takes up most of the year. Formby starts planning the next light show in January, and starts ordering specially made items in the spring. During the spring and summertime, she has a part-time person helping her test and replace lights. Then, for five weeks leading up to the light show, five full-time people set up the lights and one full-time person works to troubleshoot any issues between shows. Taking down the lights takes about half the time of set-up, and the equipment is stored at her and her husband’s ranch in the off-season.

“I love doing it because I get to be creative and it’s something that I’ve found pretty much everybody likes,” says Formby. “It’s a good family thing because children and grandparents and aunts and uncles and everybody can enjoy it together. The community has benefited from it. It’s sort of Mozart’s gift to the community.”

Of course, Mozart’s also benefits from brisk business during the holiday season thanks to social media buzz and coverage in local media. The nightly event attracts so many extra people they take on 40 additional staff members and set up hot chocolate stations outdoors to handle overflow from inside the café, according to Ranstrom.

“We go from a $10,000 average sales day to a $25,000 average sales day,” he says, “and the majority of product is hot chocolate.”

In the past, they’ve sold 250 gallons of hot chocolate every night, but this year, they anticipate selling 300 gallons per night.

As Austin grows into a tech hub and new, hip coffee shops continue sprouting around the city, Ranstrom says many people still like the friendly, familiar vibe at Mozart’s.

“Everything is disjointed in Austin [as the city has grown] but Mozart’s is in the middle of everything and we have the space,” he says. “We’re one of the few places that can pull off an event like that.”

In addition to Mozart’s large outdoor space, the mild winters in central Texas also makes the light show possible. Since kids look forward to seeing the lights, Formby says the show continues even if it rains.

“We always run it unless there’s lightning,” she says. “I think the adults kind of understand that we have weather limitations in terms of how perfect it is. The kids don’t care [if it rains or a light or two doesn’t work].”

As Ranstrom puts it, “there’s no better branding you can do for the community than a holiday light show. It really brings everyone together.”