Kimberly and Blake Batson

2023 Wacoans of the Year

By Megan Willome


Photos by Breanne Johnson, breannejohnsonphotography.com and courtesy of Kimberly Batson and Shelby Sorrel

Waco isn’t the mythical land of Narnia, but many of us can remember a time when the city was stuck in always-winter, never-Christmas. Downtown was not dead, but it was certainly frozen.

Baylor students left town on weekends and as quickly after graduation as possible. Tragedies happened.

The spell began to break about a decade ago, with the help of a little TV show called “Fixer Upper.” Suddenly, we remembered the beauty of this city and its people. The thaw had started.

Since then, new businesses founded by both homegrown folks and people who moved here and fell in love with Waco are opening and thriving. Old ventures are getting a fresh start. Beloved institutions are popping up in multiple locations to serve this growing city.

C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, probably never imagined that a little bookshop in Waco called Fabled would incorporate a wardrobe with real coats into its children’s section. Alison Frenzel, who co-owns the shop with Kimberly Batson, says her favorite Narnia book is the first one, “because Lucy discovers a hidden world,” Frenzel said. “The idea that something is possible that feels impossible is what I love.”

She was talking about “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, but she may as well have been talking about Waco.

The city’s remarkable transformation is due to the loving, hard work of people like Kimberly and Blake Batson.

This couple loves the Narnian stories, and they love Waco. In the past 10 years they have had a part in seven iconic businesses and are working on an eighth. These businesses are both the must-see spots for tourists and the regular hangouts for all who call Waco home. They frequently top our Best of Waco surveys, no doubt owing to how they fuse excellence with an emphasis on gathering. And there are surely more business stories to come.

That’s why Kimberly and Blake Batson are our Wacoans of the Year.

The Batsons are as local as they come — Waco born and bred and Baylor-educated. To tell their story, we’ve broken it into chapters inspired by the seven books of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, chronicling their own adventures through life. We spoke with Blake and Kimberly but we also interviewed some other characters (aka business partners, aka friends) to get a full picture of their story.

Sometimes their reputation is a bit larger than life, said Evan Graves, live events manager at Common Grounds.

“When I first started working, [Blake] was a mythological creature I knew existed, would see every once in a while. But it feels like I’m working with a friend. He really cares,” Graves said. As does Kimberly. “Their heart and soul are very tied to this place.”

Let’s enter the wardrobe, shall we? We’ll begin where it all started — at Common Grounds.

Book 1: Blake, Kimberly & the Coffee Shop

It did not begin with a wonderful tea, a nice brown egg, toast and cake, but with wonderful coffee in a wonderful house.

Jill Mashburn (now Barrett) opened Common Grounds in 1994. The shop’s current manager, Caleb Cummings, was born after that. So was Evan Graves, the live events manager. But they regularly meet people who drop by to relish what still makes that little house so special.

“It’s in the floorboards of Common Grounds, in the walls,” Cummings said.

While Cummings was at Baylor orientation, his mom checked out Common Grounds, knowing how much her son loved coffee.

“She looked it up and saw it was a cool shop; said, ‘You’re gonna be spending a lot of time there,’” Cummings said.

He became a barista in 2019 and two years later, a shift lead. Then in 2022, manager. He also manages the Common Grounds location within the Baylor SUB.

“I’ve never worked a job where you’re with 30 to 40 of your best friends. I never dread coming to work,” he said. With the shop primarily hiring university students, “It’s like a revolving door. People leave, new people come in,” Cummings said.

And they’re there all the time.

A barista who isn’t working on a Thursday might come in to study. Or she might come and support an event, like a pop-up market. Or he might come to open mic night.

The first concert Graves ever attended was at Common Grounds. When he got his driver’s license, it was the first place he drove to. A few years later he signed up for the last slot of open mic night, from 9:45-10 p.m., and he found his performing voice. He worked his way up to managing live events. Even though he wasn’t the most experienced music industry person, Blake Batson was confident Graves knew the culture of Common Grounds. The rest he could learn.

“A lot of artists want to play here because it feels nice to be here. It’s the same reason I wanted to play here. The artists who sell out, they start by doing open mic years before,” Graves said. “Common Grounds is about highlighting local talent. Making sure college students learning how to perform and write songs have a place to try that out, that they feel appreciated and heard for doing that. That drives the entire scene here. Open mic is so core.”

And yes, some big names have played there, but most of the shows attract fewer than 50 people. Sometimes a band on tour will stop by on their way across the country, once a year or so, and will have a sell-out show. But the lifeblood is the friends who want to hang out and play music.

Oh, and drink coffee.

The coffee comes from Native Sons, sister enterprise of the Batsons. New baristas go through an extensive training session at the roasting site in Woodway.

“Community is very important, but having top quality coffee is essential,” Cummings said. “All our baristas love to perfect their craft, make cool concoctions. We just added cold foam. The people at the Woodway location were messing around with that, then people at the SUB. I was like, ‘This could be a thing!’ We finally have a standardized way to do it. It looks very pretty.”

The way Cummings trusts his staff is similar to the way Blake trusts him.

“He’s set up a special culture. There’s not a lot of external hiring. He hires people he trusts and allows us to pitch crazy directions for things,” Graves said. “It’s passing on a torch.”

That torch extends to many businesses that owe some of their genesis to Common Grounds.

“Common Grounds is the roots of the tree. It’s a special moment when they branch off and start their own thing. We all want to support each other and see each other do well,” Cummings said. “If I’m gonna go out to One Day [Bar], I’m gonna run into someone I know who used to work at Common Grounds.”

And these businesses want to support each other.

“I have relationships with all these other businesses. It’s this natural thing. We went to Pinewood the other day and went to Splendid Oaks to get chocolate. [The owners] both worked at Common Grounds,” Graves said.

Of course, Common Grounds has a special relationship with Heritage Creamery next door, and with Scott Spain-Smith, who Graves says feels like his uncle.
“He has a toolbox, so if I need a tool or AA batteries, he has it,” he said.

Cummings added, “If we run out of cups, I just go over there. If I need lids, straws.”

Common Grounds has four locations — the original at 8th Street, inside Baylor SUB, Woodway, Common Grounds Fort Worth near TCU, and a new location opening in spring 2024 on Franklin. As Waco grows and more franchises move to town, Cummings encourages Wacoans to keep visiting the place where it all started.

“I want people to come out and have that experience I did when I was a freshman and didn’t know where to go to find my community, so I went where I felt comfortable, and that was Common Grounds,” he said. “In a dark time in my life I was able to find people who cared about me. I thought, ‘I’m gonna work there for sure.’”

Book 2: “Prince” Batson

Ice cream and cookies, that is.

Blake’s father, Mark, made amazing chocolate-chip cookies and took orders for them out of his home. He wanted to open a store and sell his creations. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2011, but when Blake opened an ice cream shop next door to the original Common Grounds, he knew it would carry his dad’s cookies. Originally he was going to call it Scoop, but he noticed the word “heritage” on a billboard and liked its rich sound — and “heritage” is also a nod to his father.

Heritage Creamery began as a food truck at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, then opened on 8th Street in 2016. Scott Spain-Smith, director of operations, started working at the store in 2018.

He and Blake had known each other since Blake was an undergraduate at Baylor, and Spain-Smith and his wife were at Calvary Baptist Church. One night Spain-Smith wanted to make a nice dinner for the college kids, with napkins and candles.

“Blake finishes the meal, tosses the napkin on table. It landed in a candle and caught fire,” Spain-Smith said. “I joke that the day we met, he tried to burn my house down.”

Kimberly, who wasn’t there but has heard the story, joked, “You never know where those partnerships will crop up.”

Before Spain-Smith began working with Blake, they’d meet occasionally to talk about ideas and dreams. Once, when Heritage Creamery was still at the farmers market, Spain-Smith bought three scoops: elote, coffee and duck fat caramel. He brought the scoops home to share with his family.

“The elote was bizarre, but my 3-year-old liked it. I loved the duck fat caramel. I took the coffee home, and it tasted like paper,” he said. “So when I saw Blake the next week and he asked how I liked the ice cream, I told him. We figured out the acidity of the coffee was leeching out the paper flavor from the container. It worked fine if you’re serving and eating right there. He realized he needed to use lower acidity coffee or put it in different containers or not store it as long.”

Blake listened and fixed the problem. That’s the kind of relationship he has with his business partners, one of reciprocity.

“We have a great relationship,” Spain-Smith said. “He checks in with me. He gives me autonomy.”

There are only five primary ingredients in Heritage’s ice cream: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolks and vanilla bean. Six, if you count salt. The milk comes locally from Mill-King.

“The cows in McGregor are the stars of our show,” Spain-Smith said. “It takes time and energy to turn those high-quality ingredients into a high-end product.”

The other ingredients for the different flavors offered often include items from other Waco businesses.

“We love doing a honey butter biscuit with Milo — [we] fold their biscuits in. Balcones [Distilling], we always have at least one flavor with them. Our rye stracciatella — we use their rye whisky with chocolatey notes. We put that in the chocolate before we put it in the ice cream,” Spain-Smith said when describing some of Heritage Creamery’s unique flavors that sets them apart. “A bunch of us have a vision and have a passion to do things well.”

That includes taking care of tourists. When Waco Tours needed a potty break for their route, Blake offered them the use of this pair of businesses. Visitors get to sample a small coffee or a small scoop.

“We get to present ourselves to them. They want to come back, and often they do. They hear our story and the passion we put into our ice cream,” Spain-Smith said. “They tell their friends, and they want to hit us [up], even if they don’t do a tour.”

Spain-Smith is from Amarillo, but he’s lived in Waco for more than half his life. He remembers when the only restaurant anyone talked about was J.T. McCord’s. That has changed.

“When my wife and I get a date, we’re either going to Milo or Moroso — M or M. Di Campli’s. We also do Schmaltz’s. I love Taqueria #9. I’m a barbeque head, so Helberg or Guess Family,” he said. “Waco’s no longer the place to escape from for the night — it’s a place to come and stay.”

Spain-Smith says he serves three markets: Baylor, Waco and tourists. Sometimes those three converge, like at Baylor Homecoming. Depending on the season, one market will take a dip while another has a surge.

“Tourists — the economic factor is great. It’s dollars made elsewhere, spent here, and they have a multiplying effect on the Waco economy,” he said. “When people are on vacation, we’ll see people every day they’re here. We’ll see the same family three days in a row.”

Because ice cream is about celebrating and making memories.

“The last outing that my family had before our middle child was born was to Heritage Creamery, for the grand opening,” he said. “There are pictures of me at Heritage Creamery before I worked there.”

Spain-Smith wants visitors to feel that same sense of connection.

“I have only one memory of my great-grandmother, sitting in a Baskin-Robbins, with one of my cousins. With my great-grandmother who loved me, and we were eating ice cream,” he said.

He regularly sees visitors sharing a sweet treat and making their own memories.

“There’s a father and son — the boy is 3 years old. They come in every Friday afternoon, after school pickup,” he said. “There’s a couple who come in every week and got engaged on the little bench seat. They have a little date here almost every week.”

He wants that to expand into more memories.

“If you could put all the children of all the relationships that had their first date or first met at Common Grounds, you would fill a very large building. The first time I met my wife, it was at one of those back seats there, at Common Grounds,” he said. “A lot more people are having first meetings at Heritage Creamery as well. It’s a pretty nice place to have an ice cream with a friend — [for] your first conversation or a 50th or a 50,000th.”

Book 3: Voyage of the Southern Chef

Milo All Day

Corey McEntyre came to Waco all the way from Calhoun, Georgia, which might as well be all the way at the end of the world from here. Like Ramandu in the third Narnian story, he’s a star — dishing up fire berries that keep us young in the form of uniquely inspired Southern dishes.

He’s the kind of guy the Batsons are happy to partner with.

“He’s one of my best friends in the world, like a brother to me. I’m proud of him. Milo has been the hardest thing I’ve been a part of — the size of it, the risk of it. It almost killed me, and I’m so proud of it,” Blake said. “Anytime you want to go somewhere to have that special moment, you bring them to Milo.”

McEntyre now owns Milo wholly. He came to Waco in 2015 because his wife at the time was working for Magnolia.

“Corey fell in love with Waco and the community here, wanted to stay, connect, invest,” Kimberly said.

McEntyre had heard rumblings of new, local food outlets starting to open, and as a chef, he wanted in. He worked as a chef in Nashville during its boom and got a taste of a city that served different markets simultaneously. Milo Biscuit Co. began as a food truck at the farmers market. Soon it was also at the Silos.

“A food truck is the quickest way — a great way — to get started,” McEntyre said. “I never want to go back to it.”

The brick-and-mortar Milo opened in the former Big Green Automotives building in 2018. When the pandemic hit, the restaurant went through a hard reset. McEntyre admits that until then, “we never knew what our needs were.”

“We went from losing our entire staff to rebuilding our entire staff. We said when we bring people back, we’ll bring them back with strength and focus. As we built back we were really intentional,” he said.

McEntyre has begun stepping away from the kitchen and into a big-picture role.

“I may own Milo, but it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the staff, to the people that love it and continue to frequent it. My job is to make sure it stays around,” he said. “Waco people like to go out and do things. Waco likes its homegrown talent. It loves whatever it produces. People really get behind it.”

Milo serves a variety of audiences, for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s that rare date night for a couple with young kids. Or alumni in town for a midweek Baylor basketball game. Or perhaps a family needs a place heavy on Southern hospitality to welcome them in their most difficult moments.

“We’ve hosted many people post-funeral. After a funeral you don’t want to be inside anymore,” McEntyre said. “We can also have a multicourse dinner, a boisterous brunch, a nice business lunch or you can bring kids here to paint pumpkins with Waco Moms blog and create a memory. Have a girls’ night. A guys’ night. It’s intentional for us to create a gathering place.”

What all these guests can expect is a spot that will be beloved — for decades — along with excellent, fresh food. That quality earned Milo a spot at Austin Food + Wine Festival. It’s the first restaurant from Waco to be invited.

McEntyre works closely with farmers and ranchers in the area. He partners with Mill-King for milk, 44 Farms for beef, Homestead Heritage for grits, blue cornmeal, sorghum, red wheat flour and fresh-baked breads. Southern Roots Brewing created a pilsner just for Milo, called Van On Fire Pilsner. He also buys produce from Lawhon Springs Farm, owned by Glynn and Janice Lawhon.

“Their beets, they’re the best beets in the entire world. People have never had a non-slimy piece of okra, a perfectly plump squash, dense sweet potatoes, non-dirty beets,” he said. “If they’re a small farmer or producer, we want them to stay in business and treat them the right way. We’re trying to build more businesses — buying from the same people, so we all grow together.”

Occasionally McEntyre has had push-back when limitations arise from sourcing locally.

“The other night we were out of pork chops. The customer said, ‘Can’t you go buy more?’ I said, ‘No, those aren’t our pork chops. I know Sam, who raises our pork. Sam raised that pork chop, and I know how good those are gonna be,’” McEntyre said. “I legitimately throw out real names. That’s the attention to detail we want to give. Exceeding expectations is the only way we can stay in business. We give them the best quality conversation, the coldest Diet Coke in the world.”

As a Georgia boy, McEntyre prefers his diet soda from that company in Atlanta. He knows someone else prefers it too — Bill Gates, who came to town for the opening of the Mark and Paula Hurd Welcome Center at Baylor. Unfortunately for McEntyre and Gates, Baylor’s soft drink contract is with Pepsi. So McEntyre took the opportunity to approach the Microsoft founder and philanthropist at the event.

“I said, ‘Bill, I could really go for a Diet Coke right now.’ He said, ‘Hey, man, me too.’”

That’s the level of transformation that’s happened in Waco — from Wacoans being shocked that any out-of-towner would want to visit, to making the most of an opportunity when a big name shows up. If only the two men could have been Dr Pepper-lovers.

McEntyre says Waco’s tourism industry is hitting its stride and becoming sustainable year-round. He’s received business from visitors associated with Waco Rowing Regatta, Baylor Spartan Stadion Weekend, Ironman 70.3, as well as people who work for the major corporations that have a presence here.

“Neighborly’s world headquarters is here. We have people from SpaceX,” he said.

It’s also local companies that have hit the big-time, like Balcones Distilling, recently purchased by Diageo, the largest distributor of spirits in the world.
This synergy didn’t happen all at once.

“It was a lot of building and building, and Magnolia broke the seal. What they did struck a chord with people, gave people confidence,” he said.

McEntyre says a lot of places in town are doing great things. Like Moroso, with its most excellent flour. Pinewood Roasters, bringing in the best beans in the world and roasting them well. Keep Waco Beautiful, teaching businesses how to compost and ease the burden on the landfill.

In 2024 McEntyre will open Hotel Herringbone — a hotel, restaurant, bar, retail space and event venue. Because Waco wants more — needs more. The goal will be the same: to create a space where people can gather and celebrate in big and small ways.

“We want to be your place, a place you feel you can come and show off to your parents or come by and hang out on a Sunday night, a Wednesday night. Have a glass of wine and a cheeseboard. We’re not just the special occasion place. We’re 100% the everyday place,” McEntyre said. “We’re here to love on you.”

Book 4: The Silver Owl

Fabled

There is a fantastic Underland we can only reach by falling into the pages of a book. We need not travel UNDER ME — only through the doors of the building with the Wacotown mural and past Aesop the owl.

Or for those of us who don’t live in Waco, we can access lovingly chosen books through that mysterious tunnel called technology and have our Fabled pick delivered to our doorstep or into our listening device, courtesy of Libro.fm.

Kimberly Batson and Alison Frenzel both had a dream to open an independent bookstore. They knew each other through a women’s entrepreneurship group and through mutual friends. Kimberly had a new baby, so the timing wasn’t ideal, but when Alison reached out, Kimberly agreed to talk.

“We got to vet each other through our friends. They were like, ‘You should definitely partner with her,’” Frenzel said. “There are so many flavors of bookstores. We had the same one — we wanted to lean into nostalgia and the gathering factor.”

Not all bookstores work that way. Some don’t include chairs, so you’ll get in, buy the book you intended to purchase, then get out. Fabled celebrates what Frenzel calls “the literary linger.” Visitors can take their time in a cozy nook or visit the café and try a literary drink — Muggle Mocha, or Raspberry Cordial, or Turkish Delight.

“First-time visitors see that on the menu and say, ‘I’m reliving my childhood!’” Frenzel said. “It leans into the nostalgia of reading.”

Because books are a different commodity from, say, T-shirts.

“When you discover a person who’s read the same book as you, there’s a connection. You wouldn’t come up to someone in a red shirt, a stranger in a store, and tell them, ‘I love red!’ But if you see someone holding a book you love, you go up to them and say, ‘You have to get that book!’” Frenzel said. “Books are so different from every product because they have a morality attached to them. At Fabled, we pick books under the umbrella of, ‘Does it offer empathy to a people group?’ We say no to books that don’t feel loving.”

Frenzel wants Fabled to reflect Waco — that’s its primary audience. Next is book-lovers everywhere.

That extends to people across the country. And that happened because of Covid.

“When we opened, we made a goal, made a date of putting everything in the shop online. I said, ‘March 14, 2020.’ When that date happened, we pushed a button and went live. The next day we had to close. But everything in the shop was online,” Frenzel said. “We felt the warm welcome of Waco. People were saying, ‘We don’t want you to go away!’”

So they created Indoorsy Boxes, with books geared toward parents suddenly at home with school-age kids. After reopening, they pivoted to what they call the Storybook Society, a subscription service that caters to readers by interest (for adult readers) or by age (for kids and teens). The largest category, by far, is Sleuth, which includes mysteries and thrillers. Adult book buyer Elizabeth Barnhill curates those selections.

“The challenge is we want to have selections that are off the beaten path, ones we feel would be deeply satisfying experiences for our subscribers. They’re trusting us with the books they’re choosing. We want to knock it out of the park,” Barnhill said.

With customer experience their main focus, Fabled is developing its own unique brand.

“Publishers will say, ‘This is a Fabled book.’ That means it’s well-written, redemptive stories, unexpected, maybe,” Barnhill said.

Shortly after joining the staff, Barnhill started an Instagram account called Waco Reads. It’s separate from the shop, but every book she recommends is one that Fabled carries.

“I’ve developed online relationships with authors around the country and the world,” Barnhill said. “Catherine Ryan Howard is one of the biggest Irish crime writers. We’ve become friends. She told Liz Nugent about our store. We’ll be interviewing her for our book club.”

Every quarter Barnhill and Frenzel host a Zoom book club to discuss new books. They have around 1,200 participants from around the world. People in Canada have asked them to start shipping internationally. Frequently Barnhill will do a book-buying appointment and “walk the shelves” with a customer. If the customer lives in, say, Minnesota, they will Facetime their shelf walk.

“You can have a communal experience and not live here,” Frenzel said.

That community has grown with Fabled’s author events.

“A publisher rep came to the store. I said, ‘We want to do events, and we’re not playing around,’” Frenzel said. “Fabled is getting a reputation of getting readers into the bookstore. Which would seem to be self-evident, but it’s not.”

Their events have included New York Times bestselling authors, like T.J. Newman, and Pulitzer prize-winners, like Lawrence Wright. When the world was in lockdown, Barnhill reached out to authors like Katherine Center, who was willing to do a Zoom event with a smaller bookstore. Later, when Fabled could host Center in person, the staff had read her book and had their own list of questions ready. Center’s publisher now reaches out to Fabled knowing its authors will have a good experience. And authors notice too and tell their author friends to come to Waco.

“If we get them in the store one time, they want to come back,” Barnhill said.

Fabled’s staff has grown since opening in 2019. In the beginning Frenzel and Kimberly each worked part time. Now Kimberly is over the café and operations, while Frenzel handles inventory and events, and they have several additional staff members.

“It’s very revealing when you can hire someone full time to do what you were doing part time. No wonder I thought I was drowning,” Frenzel said.

With staff in place, Frenzel and Kimberly are branching out into their next venture — a retail presence in Corey McEntyre’s new Hotel Herringbone. It’s one more opportunity to serve readers. And to partner with other Waco entrepreneurs who want to give back.

“I always feel like creativity begets more creativity,” Frenzel said. “Chip and Jo have done amazing things for Waco, and people have been inspired by that. They wonder, ‘What am I passionate about? What can I offer this community?’”

Book 5: The Batsons and Their Endeavors

Other Batson enterprises

“The Horse and His Boy” is the bottle episode of “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

It takes place within a sentence of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” describing the lives of the Pevensie children’s reign as kings and queens: “And they entered into friendship and alliance with countries beyond the sea and paid them visits of state and received visits of state from them.”

The Batsons have many other business friendships and alliances throughout Waco. This chapter of their journey is ongoing.

Native Sons Roasters.
Do right and risk the consequences

Native Sons opened in 2018 when the Batsons opened Common Grounds Woodway. It was a joint project between Blake, Jason Brock, Kyler Griffith and Brett Swartz, who shared a passion for coffee.

Gavin Ostertag currently manages Native Sons.

“Native Sons doesn’t have a front-facing retail presence. It’s growing a lot. It could have its own retail space,” Blake said. “It inherently has more of a craft or ‘third wave’ presence than that of Common Grounds.”

Because of that distinction, Blake intentionally branded it as something other than, say, Common Grounds Roasting Co.

“I wanted, one, for the roasting company to connect with and align with other wholesale accounts that might not identify with the Common Grounds brand,” he said, “And two, so that maybe someday it could exist as a café and retail store on its own with a unique vibe and product offering.”

Native Sons has already expanded outside Waco through its affiliation with Pine Cove Christian camps.

“Native Sons services all coffee for their family camps in Tyler and Columbus, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia,” Blake said. “We also ship coffee to our Common Grounds expansion shop in Fort Worth.”

Native Sons offers a Baylor blend sourced from a fair-wage Guatemalan farm. For every bag sold, $5 is donated to Baylor Missions Fund. It also created the Bookish blend for Fabled.

One Day Bar.
Simplicity, environment and damn good drinks

Kyler Griffith worked for Blake at Common Grounds for several years. He helped him start Common Grounds Woodway and Native Sons. But then Griffith — the coffee-roasting guy — had to pivot away from coffee.

“I’ve never roasted a batch of coffee in my life,” Blake said. “But [Griffith] was passionate about it. Within six months, he was getting sick.”

Griffith was allergic to coffee. Fortunately he also had a love for mixology’s craft and culture.

“We had a coffee container on wheels at Magnolia, and he’d sit in the container all day long and read about cocktails. He was talking to me about wanting to open a high-end cocktail bar in Waco,” Blake said. “That was that moment of realizing, ‘We don’t have something like that. Not a space to get drunk and party, but to have a really nice drink, curated well by professionals.’”

Blake found an old building at 6th and Columbus with “cool old corners and nooks.” He already had the guy with the talent and the passion. The next step was partnering with investors. One Day opened in 2020.

Slow Rise Slice House.

You know what Waco didn’t have until 2018? New York-style pizza.

“Brett Swartz, it was his dream, his baby,” Blake said. “People sometimes say, ‘Oh you started Slow Rise.’ I say, ‘No, it’s Brett and Jason Brock.’”

The other thing Waco needed was a family-friendly restaurant where kids could run around freely and safely. Blake may have come alongside his friends and helped them achieve their dream, but it was Kimberly who upped the kid factor.

“My claim to fame for Slow Rise is I told them they had to enclose the outdoor turf area. I said, ‘Families are gonna love going someplace their kids can run around,’” Kimberly said. “That was the right call.”

Blake says the original plan was for the outdoor space to be a place “for dudes watching the game to play yard games, drink beer,” he said. “It became an all-out kid zone. Kimberly had the wherewithal to enclose it. It’s a huge hit for kids and families now.”

Slow Rise has opened a second location downtown, Slow Rise on the Brazos.

Nightlight Donuts.
Ridiculously Good Donuts & People

Nightlight Donuts in Woodway is Blake’s newest venture, with investing help from Corey McEntyre and managing help from Scott Spain-Smith. It’s a different type of business for Blake — merging with a company started in 2018 by brothers Jackson and Eric Wren.

“It’s a beloved local brand that we’ve been given the opportunity, Corey and I and Scott, to steward and grow and take what they’ve done well and grow it,” Blake said. “We’ve all jumped in with it.”

Spain-Smith is excited to be a part of this venture.

“[Nightlight] was built with great bones and a great culture,” Spain-Smith said. “We’re gonna bring it around and make it a great brand again.”

McEntyre echoed his enthusiasm.

“Blake and I partnered up to buy Nightlight Donuts. We’re hoping to continue everything they’ve built and bring our own creative spin,” he said. “We’re gonna set the world on fire with donuts.”

Book 6: The Entrepeneurs’ Origin

The foundation of the story

The chronological book one in the Narnian series about the foundation of that world was the sixth to be published.

And so we turn in this section to the foundation of Kimberly and Blake Batson. They did not meet on a cold, rainy summer day, exploring tunnels between houses, but at Common Grounds.

It was summer, and it was hot. The shop was closed for renovation, so the staff helped with painting and cleaning. Kimberly had a roommate who worked there, and she brought Sonic drinks to her and the rest of the staff. She met Blake, and they became friends. They remained friends for four-and-a-half years before they married in 2013.

Both the Batsons are from Waco. She went to Midway, and he went to Lorena. They both attended Baylor, but they didn’t know each other then. Kimberly loved to read. She was an English major and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 2007. She never took a business class.

Blake’s father was an entrepreneur, so he started in the business school, but changed his major after the first semester. Business wasn’t for him. He loved to read too and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 2008.

In 2006, while still at Baylor, he started working at Common Grounds as a barista — a lost and somewhat angsty one. He had long dreadlocks and earrings and felt directionless. He was fired for an outburst while working.

“I was drunk on shift, behind the bar, breaking mugs against the wall, throwing muffins against the ice machine, cussing out my shift leader,” Blake said. “The fact that I own the business I was fired from is a massive testament of God’s grace and mercy to me. It’s a very clear truth in my story that I shouldn’t be here.”

After Blake graduated from Baylor, he bounced around. When his father was diagnosed with cancer, he moved in with his parents, went to the owner of Common Grounds and asked for another chance. It was given to him.

Meanwhile, Kimberly worked with the youth at First Woodway after graduating from Baylor. She also worked at Common Grounds and even managed the shop for a short time. She was part of a committee to find a new manager — a committee that interviewed Blake. He did not get the job.

From there, Kimberly was in her free spirit stage. She lived for two years in England, doing more youth work, being a tour guide. When she returned to Waco, she returned again to that Wood Between the Worlds: Common Grounds. She and Blake started dating.

Blake had done a turnaround. He came in early, worked late, tossed out ideas for how to improve the shop. He was promoted to shift leader and eventually to manager, a position he held for two years. In 2012 he purchased the shop. By this time he and Kimberly were engaged.

Now it was Kimberly who was a little lost, unsure what her next step should be. That’s when she experienced the disappointment that would ultimately help her jump into a new pond.

“I thought, ‘I love English, love literature, I’m gonna apply for grad school, get my master’s.’ I applied, and in my cover letter I wrote, ‘I really love literature, not sure if I want to teach, but I want to open a bookshop one day.’ I was not invited to participate. They want people in there who want to do research, be in the academic world,” she said. “That was a huge disappointment.”

Her disappointment led to her working at Common Grounds again, this time alongside Blake and acquiring the tools that would enable her to open Fabled.

“I use every day the skills and understanding that I acquired in those years. How to do bookkeeping. Read a profit-and-loss statement, manage inventory, how to handle staff situations. All of that equipped me to be able to take the steps toward my dream. That disappointment put me in the path of learning and acquiring everything I need to make that thing I wanted to do in life happen,” Kimberly said. “I love the work I get to put my hands to every day. I’m glad for that disappointment.”

The Batsons live in a home in Cameron Park called The Lamp Post — because what better name for their home — with their three children: Nora, 7; Wynnie, 5; and Elim, 3.

When they discovered it, they were still living in their newlywed house, the one featured on season two of “Fixer Upper” in “A Craftsman Remodel for Coffeehouse Owners.” While in that home, they had their first daughter, Nora, who is now 7. As their family grew, so did the need for a larger house. They now have two more children, Wynnie, 5; and Elim, 3.

“Blake was on a run and saw this house for sale. We called the owner, loved it, put in an offer. Then later he was exploring with a friend and found where this was this big stone statue of a lion, nestled in the woods, on a deck behind the house. Blake called and said, ‘Grab Nora! You’ve gotta see this!’” Kimberly said. “I’m just glad we’d already put in an offer, or I would’ve been willing to pay anything.”

Because now people born in Waco, like Blake and Kimberly, want to stay in Waco.

“Ten years ago and before that, 20 years ago when we were at Baylor, everyone was leaving when they were graduating. Now there’s good reason to stay and work, get a good-paying job. It’s a career decision or stepping stone for the next thing,” Blake said. “People we know and love are staying and enjoying the city, going to church here, putting their kids in school here and feeling good about it.”

Kimberly says that’s the thing about Waco: “It draws you in.”

Book 7: Not the Last Battle

Batson stories

It’s not only the stories of Narnia. The Batsons are engaged in other stories — books they love, people they love. Each business they are involved with is its own story. And like all of us, they are stories too.

As Kimberly said, “That’s how lore is created.”

The Batson’s story is lore-worthy. And it is not yet over. The Last Battle is not yet won. We wish them the grace and strength to move Further Up and Further In within their vision of what Waco is and what it can be. We hope they never say farewell and that every chapter of their story is better than the one before.

WACOAN: Since we’re talking Narnia, which books is your favorite?

Blake: ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.’ I always loved Reepicheep. And with Eustace, when he becomes a dragon and Aslan painfully claws off his scales to make him human again. I always resonated with that. It’s a powerful metaphor.

Kimberly: Of course I love ‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.’ It’s unparalleled.

But I do feel ‘The Horse and His Boy’ is the one I think about the most. The part especially with Aravis, when she is learning the consequences of her actions and how they impacted her friends. Also the part from Aslan, that you only need to know the part of your story that you need to know. Also that you never know when that last bit of effort is all it takes to bring the victory or save the day. And identity, that Shasta didn’t know who he was. All along he was a prince, but he didn’t know — the discovery of that.

WACOAN: We talked about The Lamp Post earlier, your now-home. Let’s talk about your first home, your fixer upper. How did being on the show help your story unfold?

Blake: Common Grounds was shown on ‘Fixer Upper.’ They said that wasn’t going to happen: ‘We will not show the name of your business or any merchandise.’ We said, ‘OK, fine.’ But then in the episode, when the Gaineses are meeting with us, it’s at Common Grounds. Chip was wearing one of our shirts. That was a big catalytic thing.

Waco Tours — they stop at Common Grounds, and they talk about the show. It was a good boost for our business at the time.

Kimberly: For a lot of people featured on ‘Fixer Upper,’ there’s not a brand extension to engage with. There are a lot of amazing couples, but they may not have had a cute coffee shop to link to. Common Grounds was a way to connect with what was seen on the show. Seeing us at the shop, they had a place to attempt to connect with. It had a different impact for us because of that tangible element — not just driving past a shop the way you drive past a ‘Fixer Upper’ house. You can go to their shop and see if they’re there. It was a way for people to engage with the story.

Blake: We’ve been friends with the Gaineses for a long time. My mom had been in a prayer group with Joanna’s mom for over a decade. We go way back with the Stevens family. It’s still a small town. That was especially true 20 years ago.

Through that relationship, Joanna texted us directly: ‘You guys should do this.’ On our one-year wedding anniversary, we went to Clifton, and we were texting with Joanna. They hadn’t had a young couple on the show. We were a young couple buying our first home — that’s a marketable, fun thing. We had lived in an apartment downtown.

We worked closely with Joanna to develop our ideal home. We had our first daughter there. It was really authentic and special. We were intimately a part of the process. That would never happen today. We loved the home till we outgrew it.

WACOAN: How would you describe the impact of Magnolia on Waco’s economic story?

Blake: Catalytic growth in downtown Waco. It’s hard to quantify and qualify their impact. Businesses have started, there’s development that’s happened, to some extent, directly or indirectly, because of Magnolia bringing so much exposure, attention, new people. It helps justify or validate opening a business.

In our case, the business, it’s hospitality. That needs volume, traffic, consistency to make it work. Ten years ago downtown was cool, old buildings. But it didn’t have the traffic to justify the commercial. They’ve been an immense booster shot for economic development. For buildings bought, renovated, leased. New concepts are happening.

Kimberly: It made people excited to invest, where before they would have been hesitant or reluctant. It buoys everyone.

With the bookshop, the groundwork had been laid for people interested in investing in a new concept because there was some buzz happening a few blocks over or across town. It brought an awareness of the possibility of Waco. It gave small business owners and entrepreneurs opportunities to connect to those with means to invest. Then they’re excited to be a part of something happening.

We’ve always known and loved the community. We’re grateful to have had the road cleared out for that [by Magnolia]. It would have been harder to garner support without that attention and attraction already coming to this area.

Blake: There are a ton of new people moving here, getting jobs at Magnolia, that wouldn’t have come here otherwise. We have lots of new friends who have moved here. That’s the reason they’re in Waco. They’re bringing great talent. Waco needs more of that to drive more talent and bring more jobs to downtown and different areas of Waco.

WACOAN: Define what you mean by being in the hospitality business.

Blake: I tell people I stumbled into this life, this career. I didn’t necessarily want to do this. Both of us worked at Common Grounds in college. We’ve done a lot with this culture and community of hospitality. It’s the connectedness of the staff and the people that come into Common Grounds. Through managing it, buying it, owning it, finding this passion within myself for wanting more of this. I identified a gap in Waco, something specific, something that wasn’t happening — a restaurant, ice cream place, bar — within the food and beverage sphere. I leveraged the skills I have, to coordinate people with talent with people with money. That’s the sphere I find myself in now.

I’m always on the lookout: Where’s the gap? I’m asking the question, ‘Should I try to fill that? Should I move in connecting this person with technical skill with that person with resources and capital?’

Kimberly: It’s cool to see how Blake has realized that sweet spot of seeing a gap and wanting to engage and do something about it and feeling excited about that possibility, finding the people who have a passion for it and connecting them to the resources they need to see this come to life and partnering with them.

Blake: A lot of people tell me, ‘Dude, of all the things you’ve done Fabled is the best.’ I tell them, ‘That’s 100% Kimberly.’

Kimberly: Blake is in food, beverage, hospitality. Fabled is retail, but we have a coffee element. It’s a little bit removed from technical hospitality.

Blake: It manifests as retail, but it is an experience. A big part of hospitality is that experiential element.

Kimberly: That informed a lot of the decisions that Alison and I made. Me, coming from a background of coffee shops. We devoted a lot of our square footage to chairs. Some bookstores wouldn’t think they have room to do that. They’d think they’d be giving up sales by making space for engagement. Sometimes that feels hard because we wish we had space to sell more books. But these other spaces are too important.

WACOAN: One element your businesses have in common is this idea of gathering.

Blake: That 100% comes from the beginnings of what Common Grounds was and is. It seeded in me and Kimberly a love for the third space, where people come to gather and do fill-in-the-blank. We met there, worked there, had our rehearsal dinner there, had thousands and thousands of moments there with friends and family. That’s a massive credit to Jill Mashburn Barrett.

Because we love it so much, we want to continue to replicate that. I don’t think I’d be an entrepreneur without the Common Grounds experience, falling in love with that first, that intangible space. I have a passion to do more of that.

Kimberly: What I realized at Common Grounds is that I love creating spaces for people to connect, be inspired, live life.

With Fabled, if you’re opening an indie bookstore in the age of Amazon, you really have to know your vision and purpose. You can get a cup of coffee at a convenience store for 50 cents. Every day people come to Common Grounds, and they go for that experience, not exclusively for convenience. How can you compete with Amazon when it’s fast, convenient and cheap? We’ll never compete with that. We offer the experiential element. They’re not always mutually exclusive. We want to show you the best books, books we love, serve the best coffee we can give you. We’ve curated the experience from start to finish, from the food service side to the retail side. That’s our heart. That was realized in me, working alongside [Blake] at Common Grounds. In all our businesses, we want to host people in this way.

WACOAN: Another element that ties your businesses together is the partnerships. Not every businessperson works that way.

Blake: I love partnerships. I’m unique in that in the business world. When I talk to other businessmen, businesswomen about the necessity and challenges of partnerships, they say try to limit it. I love the collaboration. It always challenges because you’re working with humans. It’s like a marriage.

I’m not thinking about partnerships at the onset. It’s a very organic process. I’m identifying gaps, identifying talent — here’s a young person with skills and passion. What do we need? Capital? Who’s connected that might want to invest? Who owns real estate we might want to lease? It always starts, mostly, with partnering with someone with that technical skill, with similar values to us. The structure goes from there. It becomes legal and formal, specific to the goals of that business. The spirit of it is to identify that talent and passion and try to connect the pieces together to realize the concept. I love the mentoring side of that.

Kimberly: Alison and I are 50-50 partners at Fabled. I too can’t imagine doing it without a partner. There’s no way Fabled would have happened if it was just me. Like Blake, a lot of people told me a partner can be the hardest thing. To me, it’s just only been lifegiving and a huge catalyst and anchor at same time. I’m really grateful for the caliber of person and character Alison is. We’re very well suited because we have different strengths in what we offer day to day.

When we were looking at how to open a bookstore, we bought a book that said, ‘Here’s a list of responsibilities and competencies you’re gonna need. You need to think about who’s gonna be these things for your business.’ When we looked at the list, it was, Kimberly, check, Alison, check. Between the two of us we had everything covered. There was no overlap. It was affirming that we see the same vision. We’re aligned, but we’re bringing very different skills to the table.

Some days I’m renting a U-Haul and bringing books to Silobration. Some days I’m having disciplinary meetings with management. I oversee the café. I work closely with our merchandising team — that’s a huge part of our revenue. I’m overseeing accounts and bookkeeping, bank payments, publisher payments, all that is on my plate. Job descriptions, what do we need? Some days I’m decorating for Halloween. Some days I’m reconciling Quickbooks.

WACOAN: Blake, do you have formal times to meet with your managers?

Blake: I meet with my executive team at Common Grounds on Tuesdays. We have a weekly executive huddle. I meet with Scott on Wednesday mornings. Meet with Kyler on Thursday mornings. Then Gavin, he runs Native Sons, that’s more of a twice a month thing, as needed. I’ll swing by the office and meet. I’m not wired to set a calendar well and be consistently organized, so having standing meetings with key partners and managers is really important.

WACOAN: As I’ve talked with some of your partners and friends, they’ve mentioned the camaraderie among these entrepreneurs in Waco.

Blake: I hope we all feel camaraderie. A lot of us come from the same starting place. There’s a lot of mutual respect.

That’s the story with Pinewood. Dylan [Washington] and JD [John David] — they started that from nothing. I can’t speak to that. I didn’t start Common Grounds from nothing. I respect that a ton. They opened in a neighborhood that wouldn’t initially look like they’re gonna get a lot of downtown traffic, but they built a real cool vibe. People go to both places [Pinewood and Common Grounds], to multiple places in town. A lot of people in Waco have businesses who worked for me at one point, or we worked together. We all have this connection. It’s really special.

Because Waco is so small, the hospitality scene is so small that you can distill it down to this interconnectedness between entrepreneurs. It yields a spirit of camaraderie rather than competitiveness. It’s tough sometimes to have an abundance mentality, not to feel like, ‘Oh no, what’s gonna happen to me?’ To feel threatened. It always crops up in me, then I have to push it down, like, ‘No, we’re good, there’s enough for everybody.’ To not have that scarcity mentality. It’s a constant inner work for me.

WACOAN: What’s next for you?

Blake: I’m super excited about the new Common Grounds on Franklin. It will be a cool addition to the Common Grounds family portfolio. It’s like the others and also unique — so many intangible pieces will inform what it is.

We hope to attract Castle Heights, folks who drive down Franklin. Construction should be done by the end of the year. We’ll need lead time with training, have a soft open. We’d like to have good weather. If it’s freezing or deathly hot, no one wants to get excited about new things.

WACOAN: And after that?

Blake: I’m always asking myself what I want the next 30-40 years of my life to be about. The last 10 years have been immensely fruitful, but also immensely stressful. I’ve had my fair share of burnout moments, personal issues, health struggles with too much stress. It’s been a journey for me to learn, ‘What is my lane that’s healthy? What do I feel called to do that is lifegiving and not put me in hospital by the time I’m 45?’

Common Grounds has been a blessing and an opportunity. I was 26 when I bought it; I’m 38 now. It has future growth ahead of it. All these other things that I’ve stumbled into or been intentional about creating — which path should I pursue? Should I try to make Common Grounds a Texas-wide franchise? Or beyond? Or should I just focus on Waco and do unique, fun, vibey gathering spaces that fill gaps in the community? Ultimately those things are not mutually exclusive, under the right structure with the right people. How do we converge all these seemingly disconnected things, with six different managers and all these partners? I have direct reports with Common Grounds, Heritage, Nightlight, Native Sons, One Day. How do I converge this under one company? And what’s it called? And how does it happen?

These are the things I’m curious about right now. Something’s gonna need to shift to grow and to continue to do these things. There’s that old adage about what has gotten me this far won’t get me to the next place — that’s more clear than ever. I need to shift my day-to-day rhythms, my role, the company, into a different structure and model to continue to do this really well. What does that look like? We’ll see.

WACOAN: You have already begun that, with Common Grounds Fort Worth. What have you learned from opening a business somewhere else?

Blake: Yes, it’s our first venture outside of Waco. Managing and leading well from a remote location is very difficult, though not impossible. Opening a business outside of Waco should require partnering with someone who can be on the ground at that location to manage the day to day and lead the local team.

WACOAN: Back to stories, Kimberly, you’re a fan of ‘Lonesome Dove.’ I haven’t met many women who love that book the way I do.

Kimberly: My dad, when I was in high school he said, ‘You need to come watch this with me.’ He loved ‘Lonesome Dove.’ I watched the miniseries with him. Loved the story — so rich, heartbreaking. It has triumphant moments, but so much raw life. I picked up the book, realized the book has so much more story there of the characters I loved. Such a broad sweep of human experience. It has a little bit of everything — father and son, husband and wife, loveable characters, like Gus. I said, ‘Blake, you have to read this book.’ Now it’s one of his favorites.

Blake: It’s the best. She was bringing an old, battered copy to our honeymoon. That’s the first time I read it. Watched the miniseries. Read it five or six times over the last 10 years. It’s amazing. In terms of literary characters, Gus is one of the best ever written on the page. Up there with Jean Valjean.

Kimberly: Plot as well as human emotion. I love the rustic, the cattle trail elements as well. Highly recommend!

Blake: She’s also the reason I read ‘Lord of the Rings’ the first time. When we were becoming good friends, I hadn’t read it. I’d gone to the movies. She gave me this beautiful LOTR edition for Christmas one year. Now I read it every year, a yearly centering ritual. On Bilbo’s birthday, September 22, I start over.

I’m in ‘The Two Towers’ now. ‘Two Towers’ gets tough because getting through the Sam and Frodo with Gollum parts. You can get bogged down with that. But it’s an epic story. The best of all time.

WACOAN: Blake, you’ve spoken about the impact of being given a second chance played in your life. How have you applied that to your roles as manager and partner?

Blake: I hope it keeps me in a place of gratitude and thankfulness. I’m trying to steward it and not become prideful in it.

I feel like I was being seen, that there was more in me than just a rebellious kid who was a little lost. Jill at the time and the other managers saw that, trusted that I wasn’t the same person, trusted I would make better choices.

I remember thinking, ‘I know this isn’t me. I’m in a place right now and making decisions out of that place. There’s so much more in me, and I wish someone would see it and try to draw it out.’ People came alongside me and walked with me and gave me the chance to realize the little bit of gold that could come out and helped me become more of who I am today.

It impacts the way I manage and lead. Obviously, sometimes there are consequences. But being able to see the person, get alongside their journey. It’s given me more empathy, understanding, hope that someone will grow from that experience and not let it define them like it didn’t define me.

In our roles as leaders we all have to not just uphold the letter of law, but also see the truth and beauty inside people and respond when someone makes a mistake, blows it. I think, oftentimes, ‘Where did I miss it as a leader? Was I not clear with them? Was I not intentional enough? Did I not steward this enough? Did they feel like they had to make this decision?’ My responsibility as a leader is to walk with people through those things.

Mostly it’s a thankfulness and gratitude for God’s goodness to me and Kimberly. The truth is that none of us — we didn’t deserve this. It’s a gift of God. All we have comes from God.