Lights dazzle from a three-story high scaffolding. The deck is packed with families, couples, and individuals, heads tilted and eyes glossy with wonder. And as the music plays in time with the flickering lights, visitors pause sipping their hot chocolate to take in all the magic of the holidays. This is the Mozart’s Coffee Roasters annual holiday light show, and Austinites, Texans from across the state, and visitors from around the world come to bear witness to the attraction that has become an Austin holiday tradition. And while this year might look a little different than most, the beloved café is determined to continue to bring joy into the lives of the community this season.
In the Beginning
While the annual light show may be what brings hordes of people to the café on the shores of Lake Austin during the last month of the year, Mozart’s has been around for much longer than the famed event. In fact, the café with its sprawling deck, wide array of coffee products, and jam-packed bakery cases opened its doors in 1993 and quickly established itself as a must-see destination as it morphed from a simple coffee shop and bakery into something altogether different: a place of welcoming and inclusivity, of abundance, grand café.
It became Austin’s first in-house coffee roaster, the first café to offer free Wi-Fi to patrons, even the first to offer a bottomless cup of coffee to the menu for the gig workers and freelancers who made the picturesque spot in west Austin their office.
But while so much has changed in Austin over the nearly three decades Mozart’s has been in business, so much has not. “It’s always been about three things: place, bakery, and coffee,” Co-founder Ken Leonard said.
The place has always been an inviting one, free from labels or coffee shop niches. It is about the experience, which starts the minute you step foot on the deck that is larger than the interior space by a seven to one ratio. There, in any of the alfresco nooks, such as the grotto, upper deck, annex, and main deck that surround the indoor café, oak trees offer welcome shade and the breeze sends ripples across Lake Austin, a view that begs to be admired.
The coffee flows freely with a plethora of options to suit any connoisseur’s palate, from flavored options to more classic coffee blends roasted right on site, plus flavored syrups that line the shelves behind the baristas.
But, it is about the sweets as much as it is about the coffee at Mozart’s. While other coffee shops and cafés may offer a few curated selections alongside their coffee offerings, the bakery is a main attraction here. From custom cakes to grand macarons, cannolis to cupcakes, cheesecake to sugar cookies, there is no shortage of ways you can satisfy your sweet tooth.
With all of that in one place, what could possibly be missing? Lights.
Let There Be Light
“The concept of the light show early on was really kind of simple: That everyone likes lights, Mozart’s is a pretty amazing place, so let’s try something,” Leonard said. And he gives all the credit for making it happen to fellow Mozart’s co-owner, Katrine Formby.
“Ever since I was little I’ve loved Christmas lights,” Formby said. That is why she has always crafted spectacular and original light displays in her own Austin yard (to the delight and amazement of friends and neighbors). So when it was suggested she put some of that passion and creativity to use at Mozart’s around the holidays, she jumped at the chance.
It started in 2009. Formby put decorations from past years’ personal displays to use, bought new ones, and sketched, designed, and executed a dazzling display that Mozart’s guests could come enjoy. In 2010, music was added to create a fully programmed light show presentation, and people loved it.
And every year it has gotten bigger and better. From the beginning, the event was no small feat: that first year’s lights and displays alone totaled around $50,000, and the cost of putting on the show increases almost every year. Now, Mozart’s spends between $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
“There was a commitment from year one to never repeat anything,” Leonard said.
That is largely because Formby never creates the same show twice and designs surprising and innovative displays like guitars, carriages, and the famous Steinway & Sons grand piano every year, which are built entirely out of lights and shipped from Greece.
“I’m not going to do the same thing every year, that would be boring,” Formby said with a smile.
But there is one thing that never changes: the signature beverage. Last year Mozart’s went through 100,000 gallons of their hot chocolate—the best in Texas according to Formby. Alongside the café’s regular offerings is the German market where visitors can find all manner of goodies, from Bavarian pretzels to bread pudding.
The scaffolding gets bigger, the number of lights increases (there were somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million in 2019), and the crowds swell. In 2019 about half a million people visited the shimmering deck over the course of the event.
But that also means the light show has become a massive production that requires a full-time crew of six people working for seven to eight weeks to produce.
“The light show, as you might imagine, is a phenomenal amount of work,” Leonard explained. “It is a business in and of itself. It’s a marathon. It can be eighteen-hour days. It’s every night for seven to eight weeks. No other festival in Austin runs that long.” All while the regular day-to-day business of the café is still operating.
But it is worth it to Leonard when he watches the faces of those taken in by the magic of the event. “The almost magnetic trance of families when you can actually see the reflection of the light show in their eyes as they’re staring at the scaffold,” he said. “I’ve seen that look thousands of times, but I think every time I see it, it’s still pretty magical. I never get tired of that look.”
The Show Must Go On
However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the light show will look a little different this year. One thing the Mozart’s crew is sure of: there will still be one.
“It’s important to continue this tradition,” Formby said. “We’re determined to do a show. People are going to need a little fun in December. We just have to work harder and be smart about our full commitment to safe, social, and physical distancing practices for all our guests, employees, and the whole Austin community who comes to the show.”
Likely, being smart about it will mean this year’s light show will include an online reservation system in order to limit the crowds. Guests will probably be restricted to a one-hour time slot (festively tracked by color-coded glow bracelets) to ensure there are never too many people on the deck at once.
In the past, hundreds per hour have gathered to enjoy the sights and sounds of the season each night, but in order to maintain proper social distancing measures in 2020, that number will be drastically reduced. Mozart’s is proud of having followed all the social distancing rules from the very beginning of the pandemic, and they will strictly adhere to whatever regulations are in place come November and December, including mandatory masks.
But the show will go on, Formby will still dream up fabulous and exciting displays, and guests will still be able to experience the magic of the holidays this season and enjoy Mozart’s gift to the community, a cup of hot chocolate in hand, eyes skyward reflecting millions of dancing lights. “This year, there will still be surprises,” she said. Just with slightly more elbow room.