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Back 40: For decades, UT community has had a place to unwind at the Cactus Café

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A man plays guitar and sings in front of a red stage curtain in a dimly lit performance space.
English musician Fink performs at the Cactus Café in October 2019. Photo by Joshua Guenther

By evening, the daytime foot traffic in the Texas Union has thinned out. A few students sit scattered about the almost-empty food court, digging through class notes and preparing for looming tests. Friends in a corner share hushed laughs over lattes and french fries.

Nearby, muffled claps and cheers escape through the cracks of the thick, wooden doors. Behind them, Fin Greenall, known professionally as Fink, strums dissonant chords and howls chilling lyrics from his stool-perch on a small corner stage. The glow of the singer’s backdrop, a ruby red velvet curtain, illuminates the faces of 50 enchanted listeners.

At the Cactus Café that Tuesday night, the audience hung on every note.

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Photo by Joshua Guenther

It’s been this way since opening in 1979, says manager Matt Muñoz, who took over when the spot merged with KUT after a near closure in 2010.

“It was the place in town,” Muñoz says. “It transitioned into a listening room instead of a party vibe like some of the other clubs. Drinking and all that was secondary. It was really about listening to the music and having an experience because it was so tiny and intimate.”

Early in their careers, artists such as Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams performed at the University of Texas venue. Billboard magazine recognized the Cactus as one of 15 “solidly respected, savvy clubs,” and it continues to book weekly national and international acts.

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Photo by Joshua Guenther

In 1983, biology major Chris Lueck became a bartender at the café, where he was taught to shovel ice quietly and minimize noise at the register. Now the bar manager, Lueck shows new student hires the same tricks to avoid disrupting the music and customer experience.

After working at the Cactus for more than three decades, Lueck says things are “strangely very similar” to when he first started — especially during the daytime, when the café functions as a hangout space for many on campus.

The Cactus “has often been described as a decompression zone on campus for a lot of people,” Lueck says. “UT is wound up pretty tightly with the curriculum and social structure, but when you come in here, you can relax a little bit and be more like yourself.”

Economics lecturer Brian Trinque has frequented the café since the same year Lueck started serving drinks. In ‘83, Trinque needed the background noise to do his graduate school work. Now, he holds office hours there multiple days a week because, he says, he likes the effect the space has on his students.

“I’m in my office when I have to be at my computer,” Trinque says. “But if I can relocate to a less sterile environment, I always will. This is the best place for sure.”

But the Cactus isn’t just a space to get work done, Trinque says: “I’ve spent many hours with dear friends solving the world’s problems here. There is definitely a special feeling of belonging.”

Detail decorative carvings at the Cactus Cafe, including a Longhorn skull, ropes and other Western images.
Photo by Joshua Guenther