On October 15, 1996, the Lord visited Nashville, Tennessee. But He didn’t appear in the form of an archangel or a smoldering bush. On this day, He made His presence known in the form of a sugar-glazed cinnamon bun.
And the Bongo Java Coffee Company was never the same.
The story goes like this: a local baker named Kate had just dropped off a fresh batch of cinnamon buns at Bongo, and that’s when manager Ryan Finney noticed a face staring back at him from one pastry. It was the glazed visage of Mother Teresa, vaunted Catholic missionary and emissary of Christ, made flesh in confection.
“I was horrified because I almost ate this religious piece of dough,” Finney said at the time.
The pastry would become known as the NunBun, and following its auspicious discovery, Bongo Java has become an immortal piece of internet lore. Folks still come by the original spot in Belmont/Hillsboro Village to lay their eyes upon it. The NunBun was so famous that Trivial Pursuit enshrined it in a trivia question, and the Holy Mother herself laughed about her likeness in dough—eventually.
Now, on the 25th anniversary of the NunBun, Bongo Java owner Bob Bernstein and original NunBun owner Todd Truley looks back at the odd, nearly unnoticed miracle that took place at his coffee shop a quarter century ago.
At the time of the NunBun’s discovery, Bernstein was not so convinced that he had a miracle on his hands. He was busy opening Bongo’s second location, and he didn’t have the bandwidth to entertain his employees’ religious pareidolia. According to Truley, Bernstein pretty much let his employees do whatever they wanted at the time, and he wasn’t surprised the offbeat crew had drummed up a sensation.
“To be honest, I didn’t care,” he remembers. “It took me a few days to actually go over and see. As soon as I saw it, I started laughing.”
This came to be the default reaction for anyone who saw the NunBun, a truly bizarre looking breakfast item that just as closely resembles a flaky Mr. Magoo. The staff soon fell in love with the delicious artifact, originally calling it the Mother Teresa Miracle Bun and later the Immaculate Confection.
“[Finney] started showing it to people, but interest waned after a week, and it was just sitting in the refrigerator for a while,” Truley remembers. He knew he had to do something bigger, so he bought the bun for $1.89 and took it home in a Cool Whip container. “My first thought was, ‘how do we get this seen by more people?’ So I contacted David Letterman and wrote them a letter, to no avail.”
A journalist by training, Bernstein tried to get some industry buds to cover the story, but no one bit. So Truley and his coworkers Ross McGarry and Michael McNamara decided to make their own news feature. They came in one Saturday and filmed a 9-minute mockumentary titled A Music City Miracle: The Story of The NunBun, a weird tale of “divine providence” visiting the coffee house. Just before Christmas, they held a premiere in Bongo’s upper level. At the end, they unveiled the bun, shellacked and set upon an altar.
“After the applause died down, we wheeled out this cart with a sheet over it,” Truley says. “And then we whipped off the sheet, and there she was in the shrine with purple crushed velvet and the lights. The crowd went nuts.”
One night, a local reporter came to a showing. As soon as her story hit the wire, the NunBun became a bona fide spectacle. The Tennessean sent a reporter to cover the NunBun for their Christmas Eve issue, but they got scooped by The National Enquirer. Soon, the Nashville coffee shop was the talk of the nation.
In the proto-internet days, the story was spreading with unprecedented speed. A Bongo regular offered to build a website to host an image of the NunBun. It quickly topped 1 million hits.
“It’s a history of the internet, because we went viral in January of ’97,” Bernstein says. “We were the most famous coffee house in the world for 15 minutes. People would come to see the bun, mostly, and to laugh or to cry or to reflect, and we had every kind of reaction you can imagine.”
“[McGarry] and I basically couldn’t work,” Truley remembers. “We’d go in for a shift, the phone would ring off the hook, and we’d do interviews all day. It was pretty nuts for weeks.” David Letterman ended up including the NunBun in a bit after all.
Bongo started selling coffee mugs, T-shirts (Bernstein estimates they sold “a couple hundred”), and prayer cards. Before long, Mother Teresa herself caught notice. In March 1997, she wrote a letter to Bernstein asking him to stop merchandising the saintly baked good.
“My legal counsel...has written asking you to stop, and now I am personally asking you to stop,” the Holy Mother wrote, according to The Seattle Times. The letter spurred another round of headlines and another bout of primordial virility. The two sides reached a compromise only weeks before Mother Teresa died in September 1997.
“This was one of the last things Mother Teresa had to decide before she died,” Bernstein says. “Her attorney tells the story that, the week before she died, she was accepting our compromise about how much merchandise we could sell, blah, blah, blah. And she laughed about it.”
The hubbub lasted only six months, all told. Bernstein calls it “a blip,” an early indicator of viral stardom’s shallow returns. The summer of that year, McGarry and Truley moved to California, taking the bun with them on the road. They met with an executive at DreamWorks about a film option, but nothing materialized. Eventually, Truley sold the bun and the merchandising rights to Bernstein and FedExed the precious artifact back home to Nashville.
Since then, Bongo has developed into a multi-million-dollar coffee empire, but Bernstein claims the whirlwind between the NunBun’s discovery and the Mother Teresa settlement is really only trivia. It never turned the shop into a tourist destination. But the coffee is, and has remained, excellent.
“We were always doing silly things at the store in those days, and this was just part of it,” Bernstein says. “It had no impact on me financially.”
The NunBun had one last gasp of fame in 2005 when, on Christmas day, it was stolen from the shop. Nothing else in the shop was targeted. Not the cash register or the tip jar. The culprit disassembled the display, stole the consecrated dough, and made off in the night. The cops came and dusted for prints, and Bernstein put up a $5,000 reward.
Truley says folks have pressed him about being behind the heist, but he claims he was in the Bahamas at the time and didn’t even find out for days that it was gone. He suspects it was either an inside job or a religious zealot tired of the heresy. Whatever the case, the NunBun has never reappeared, and it’s likely gone forever.
Also gone forever is most of the reporting on the bun’s near-decade of existence. What was once thousands of stories, from the Nashville Scene to the BBC, is now relegated to a few web archives and stray blogs. The reporter who wrote the Tennessean story moved away and changed her name. One of the employees involved in the origin story has died, and the film he made with his coworkers isn’t archived anywhere online. With the actual bun itself lost, not much is left to carry on the legend, save for the remaining folks who remember its tenure at Bongo Java.
After 15 years of internet churn, the NunBun persists, but in a small, more personal way. The gaudy traffic numbers have tumbled down. The pilgrims have stopped filtering in. Maybe the saga of flour, sugar, and an Albanian-Indian nun will find a new audience on its 25th anniversary, but even so, it’s destined to return to a murmur. If anything, the NunBun will revert back to what it was in 1996: a good story shared among a bewildered few in the know.
Bernstein is still around, a veritable Nashville institution and now the keeper of a divine tale. If he sees you gazing at the newspaper clippings and Trivial Pursuit card pinned to the wall, he’ll show you the replica they keep in the NunBun’s place. And he’ll regale you with a story, now a quarter-century old, that’s too strange to be embellished.
“The world needs these kinds of stories once in a while,” Bernstein says. “It’s good humor, it’s funny. But some people saw it as a miracle. Maybe that’s why [Mother Teresa] became a saint, because this was one of her miracles.”
Update, Oct. 19, 2021: This story has been updated with additional information and quotes provided by former Bongo Java employee Todd Truley.