I’m not a snob. In fact, I’m more of a bleeding heart. But when it comes to beer and coffee, I’m admittedly a bit of an elitist.
For all of its bluster and bikers and bling in the summertime, Maggie Valley can be one sleepy little town in the winter.
Traditionally, many businesses in the tiny settlement close during the off-season, a habit no doubt acquired during the heyday of Ghost Town in the Sky, the mountaintop amusement park that since 1965 closed every winter as well, until it closed for good a few years ago.
Justin Phillips narrowly avoided a stand-off with Maggie Valley town hall last week, but rest assured, he was ready to go the distance if need be.
Phillips launched a new farmers market last week in a large grassy field beside his coffee shop, Organic Beans Coffee Co., along the main commercial drag of Maggie Valley.
By Jake Flannick • Correspondent
He had gained enough wealth as a young marketing executive to fulfill almost any of his aspirations. But the very trappings of success are perhaps what led Justin Phillips, 33, to turn elsewhere for clarity.
Nowadays, coffee and wireless Internet go hand-in-hand; you can’t really have one without the other.
It is an expected amenity at coffee shops and bakeries. With the purchase of a coffee, tea or cinnamon bun, the customer is permitted to use the business’ Internet. It is so common that it has almost become a right — like free speech or the ability to vote.
Regular coffee connoisseurs in Cherokee may have noticed a slight change in their popular downtown coffeehouse.
The Sequoyah Fund, an economic development nonprofit that makes small business loans, is now running what was formerly Tribal Grounds under the name Cherokee Coffee Shop.
Tribal Grounds was foreclosed on after former owner Natalie Smith neglected to pay the rent for the business. The Sequoyah Fund, which lent Smith money for the lease and start-up costs, took over the shop and decided to keep it open during the foreclosure process rather than leave a vacant building in the middle of the downtown district.
“It’s in the best interest to keep the business open,” said Ray Rose, a Sequoyah Fund board member who is running the coffee shop for now. “We were also requested by the tribal business community to keep it open.”
Part of the collateral for the loan from the Fund was Smith’s business. So when Smith did not pay the rent and foreclosure documents were filed, the business came under the auspices of The Sequoyah Fund. The nonprofit then hopes to sell the business, which is currently housed in a tribally owned building.
“There are people lined up. There is significant interest,” Rose said.
The coffeehouse was closed for one week while the Fund transferred the business to its name and underwent the required inspections.
“We were able to do that in a week, which is incredible,” Rose said.
Leaders with the Sequoyah Fund declined to provide details of the loans granted to Smith.
“I think you are pushing the limit there on things that are confidential,” said Rose. Rose did say that it had been a “significant amount of time” since Smith had last made a payment toward the lease.
Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, also abstained from divulging any particulars about the loans or any other debts owed but indicated that the amount is considerable and more than any potential buyer might want to take on.
“I am not sure if they (Sequoyah Fund) will find anyone to take on the amount of debt,” Hicks said. “They may have to accept cents on the dollar.”
A lawsuit against the tribe may also result from the foreclosure. The tribe owned the building that Smith rented for her coffeehouse.
“There have been allegations (but) nothing’s been filed at this point,” Hicks said.
Hicks said he is glad that the coffee shop will remain open, at least for now, calling it “a business that Cherokee desperately needs.”
Attempts to contact Smith were unsuccessful. However, she released a statement to WLOS two weeks ago.
“I acknowledge there have been financial difficulties with my business and I have diligently pursed resolutions to those difficulties. Unfortunately, I have not been able to meet the demands of the Business Committee and the Sequoyah Fund,” said Smith in the statement. “The (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and the Tribe have changed the locks on my business over my express objections. This situation continues to develop, and I am seeking legal assistance.”
With the exception of the coffeehouse in Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, Tribal Grounds is the only coffee shop in the Cherokee area. The shop was recently honored with the distinction of having its coffee grounds served and sold at The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The Sequoyah Fund is a nonprofit that loans money for business ventures and provides training and other resources to companies on the Qualla Boundary and in the seven western counties. The regional loan program has used casino dollars to help provide training and technical assistance to more than 1,000 individuals and extended more than 135 loans totaling almost $4.6 million since 2001.
Coffee lovers and addicts have a new place in Waynesville to get their fix.
Main Street Perks opened on Main Street about three weeks ago, filling a large, vacant hole in the downtown façade with goodies, caffeine, a wall of booths and a couple of café tables and chairs. The coffee shop is owned by the perky and outgoing Melisa Williams, a Florida native who moved to Waynesville in 2007.
Williams buys her coffee from Smoky Mountain Roasters in Waynesville and Bean Works in Asheville. Her goodies — muffins, bagels, cream cones and more — come from local baker Kandy Medford.
Main Street Perks also offers ice cream, malts and traditional, thick, need-a-spoon-to-eat shakes. While coffee and ice cream don’t really go hand-in-hand, Williams said the decision to offer the treat came down to one thing: “I like ice cream,” she said, laughing with her whole person.
It’s hardly Waynesville’s only coffee shop. There’s Smoky Mountain Café a block down the street, and Blue Ridge Books a block up the street. There’s Panacea Coffee Roasters a stone’s throw away in Frog Level. Plus, the new City Bakery with coffee offerings of its own opened up next door to Williams the same week as her own grand opening.
But she says people are slowly discovering the new coffee stop.
“I’m happy,” Williams said. “It’s been progressively picking up everyday here.”
This first month or two of operating is crucial for any business, figuring out whether it can build and maintain a customer base — something that other Main Street storeowners understand.
“I am getting a lot of support from the merchants,” Williams said.
Other Main Street business owners have already become familiar faces at Waynesville’s newest coffee shop.
“It’s great to see the camaraderie between merchants,” said Buffy Phillips, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “They are delighted to have those places.”
Williams had hoped to open a few weeks sooner to avoid clashing with the much-anticipated opening of City Bakery, which sits next door. But, renovations to turn the former retail space into a coffee shop took longer and cost more than expected.
“There was a lot that needed to be updated,” Williams said.
Eventually, Williams hopes to add more seating. But, first, she is focused on finish the building renovations and promoting her business.
“I know that she has some wonderful ideas that she hasn’t been able to make happen yet,” Phillips said.
Main Street Perks will host an official opening party from 6:30-9 p.m. on April 13. The event will include live music — something that Williams hopes to offer regularly. Jeanne Nabor will perform on April 13.
Anyone with a demo CD is free to drop it off at the coffee shop, Williams said.
For musicians, it's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For football players, it's the Super Bowl championship rings. For Natalie Smith, having her signature coffee blends featured at The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is the greatest accolade.
"I was extremely flattered, and I was elated — all of the good things. Grateful that I can represent my tribe," said Smith, owner of Tribal Grounds in Cherokee and a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
In December last year, the museum approached Smith out of the blue about their idea to transform a high-end gift shop in the lobby into an espresso and coffee bar. Smith sent samples of her coffee to the museum and soon learned that Tribal Grounds had been chosen to be the sole provider for the new Mitsitam Espresso Coffee Bar in the Museum of the American Indian.
Mitsitam means, "Let's eat" in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples and is also the name of the museum's restaurant.
Like so many titleholders, Smith's road to glory started years earlier.
When Smith returned to Cherokee from Arizona in the early 2000s, she noticed something missing — a casual meeting place, not just for visitors but for locals as well. There was already an in-and-out coffee joint but nowhere for people to sit and stay for a while.
"I saw a need for a community space," Smith said.
In 2004, she opened Tribal Grounds. During the first couple of years, Smith purchased pre-roasted coffee beans that could simply be ground and brewed. An artist by trade, Smith took a bean roasting class and began roasting and concocting her own blends in 2006.
Fast forward about a year later, and the coffee shop had the first of its new specialty javas.
"You have to try different blends. It's like a cookie recipe or any baking recipe," Smith said.
Currently, Tribal Grounds has six or seven signature blends, each created by merging different varieties of coffee beans at different degrees and for different lengths of time. And, the available mixtures are always changing as Smith crafts new recipes.
Each specialized mix has a name of cultural significance. For example, the espresso blend is named Rattlesnake Mountain after the mountain that overlooks all of Cherokee.
Rattlesnake Mountain is said to be a special place where the medicine man Ogv Unitsi killed the poisonous serpent Uktena and received a magical crystal that had been set in the snake's forehead. The gem, which blazed like a star, made Ogv the most powerful medicine man of his time.
The most important part of the coffee-making process for Smith, however, is not how long she roasts the beans or how much of each variety she adds to the mix, but where she gets her coffee beans from. Smith purchases the beans used in her cups of joe from fair-trade companies in South American or Africa that employ mostly indigenous people rather than large-scale, commercial plantations.
"I think it's the best quality, that it has integrity," Smith said.
Plus, it gives greater meaning to her business.
"I am an indigenous person buying coffee from indigenous people selling coffee to indigenous people," Smith said.
Smith does her own research of coffee bean growers but also relies on various organizations to certify the product she purchases as fair trade.
"I am not continuing the cycle of exploitation," Smith said. "It is very important to me."
Smith traveled to the Museum of the American Indian in February to train the staff there on how to brew her coffee and assemble her other specialty beverages.
"I am very impressed by their approach and their enthusiasm," she said.
And once there, the indigenous connection for Smith grew stronger.
Smith said she was elated to meet some of the Ethiopian members of the museum's café staff and tell them that some of her beans are grown in their native land.
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.”