When sewage began flooding out of the floor one January Saturday at Waynesville’s Coffee Zone, Coni Bishop knew things were about to get bad.
Bishop was the coffee-and-sandwich shop’s owner. And when she and some staff were working one weekend and started seeing the kitchen’s floor drains bubbling up with befouled water, she figured she would be closed for a little while. What she didn’t expect was five months out of business and a move out of Waynesville.
While the Coffee Zone is no more, Bishop’s business has been reincarnated as the Copper Leaf Café, located at High Country Furniture on the edge of Maggie Valley.
The revived coffee spot opened last Monday, following a long and arduous few months for Bishop and her staff, most of whom she had to let go.
She’s been able to reopen, thanks to an agreement with High Country, which owns the shop and employs Bishop to run it. That, she said, solved her biggest problem in the wake of the sewage backup.
“I was reimbursed for the product I lost — we had to get rid of every single thing that was in the store — and we were also able to recover our equipment that got damaged from the water, but that’s all we ended up with,” said Bishop. “We lost our business investment. There was no way to recoup that.”
So while she wanted to restart the business soon after, without startup capital, it was impossible.
There was always the option of going back into the Coffee Zone building, which sits in the center of a shopping center plaza on Russ Avenue and was once a bank. But even after the professionals came in and scoured everything sanitary, Bishop said she just couldn’t move her shop back in.
For one thing, there was the smell.
“It was just horrible,” said Bishop. That’s partly because the sewage had seeped up through the floor drains and then promptly poured back down onto the building’s ductwork and air conditioning system, which were under the floors. And then it sat for three weeks while the issue of who, exactly, was responsible for sorting out the mess.
Was it the town, which is in charge of sewage systems? The landlord, who is responsible for making sure the building remains in solid, habitable shape?
As it transpires, the answer is option B, the landlord. And, according to Bishop, the property owner hadn’t really kept the building maintained to code.
“One of my frustrations, what was so difficult, is that there‘s no enforcement agency that goes around to property owners and sees if they’re up to code,” said Bishop. “I feel like this could have been prevented, or at least [have been] a lot less invasive to our business.”
And, said Town Manager Lee Galloway, that’s true. But a policing operation like that would be far beyond what the town could reasonably manage.
“They’re supposed to remain up to code, but they don’t have to go back and retrofit their building unless they’re having major work done on their building,” said Galloway. “It would be pretty much impossible for us to have enough inspectors to go out and check that sort of thing.”
And Bishop concedes this point, though it was little consolation when she had standing sewage in her kitchen.
The town couldn’t really do anything because they only own the collection lines at the very edges of the shopping center. The sewer lines are all private and ancient, and apparently most people there are pretty unclear about where they even are or how to shut them off. That was another contributing factor to the woes of Coffee Zone, as it allowed sewage to flow freely until someone could locate the shut-off valve.
These days, said Galloway, most new builds put in sewer lines that they then dedicate to the town, transferring responsibility into municipal hands.
“That’s more common now than it was 40, 50 years ago, and I guess for this very problem, because property changes hands and no one knows where the lines are,” said Galloway.
For Bishop, she’s no longer angry about what happened on Russ Avenue; she’s positive about her new venture and not too concerned about losing the dedicated customer base she’d cultivated at Coffee Zone.
“I think once people find out and they realize it’s not in Maggie Valley, it’s just a little way past Smackers, I think well be OK,” said Bishop. “There’s no drive-through, and that’s a down side, that’s something that we lost. Drive-through really was 40 percent of our business. But so far it’s getting busier each day.”