“It was hugely inconvenient,” said Cutler, who lives in the Cullowhee community. “I’d have to drive into town just to get a beer.”
Now Cutler, who was buying a case of Budwieser at the Catamount Travel Center in Cullowhee, can put whatever gas money he saves driving to Sylva and back toward that next six-pack instead.
A little more than two months after Jackson County voters approved the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages, two-dozen businesses have been issued ABC permits, county records show. Service stations, restaurants and even a pharmacy have gotten into the game.
Business owners report mixed success in their forays into selling alcoholic beverages. Dwight Winchester, owner of the Catamount Travel Center in Cullowhee and another Travel Center in Whittier, has experienced different sales levels at his two establishments. He’s somewhat used to the summer lull in Cullowhee, when WCU students are out of school. But, even fewer than usually seemed to stick around this year, he said.
“Cullowhee is dead but having alcohol has actually helped us just maintain,” he said of sales at his gas station there.
While sales in Cullowhee are relatively lackluster, the Catamount Travel Center in Whittier is booming when it comes to the sale off alcoholic beverages. Located within a stone’s throw of the Cherokee Indian Reservation, Winchester’s gas station is the closest place to get alcohol when in Cherokee, which is dry. He said his customers are a mix of locals and tourists.
“We’re rolling, we’re rocking in Whittier,” Winchester said.
Alcohol is sold at the casino but is not sold on the reservation proper. Cherokee voters in April voted down the sale of alcoholic beverages by more than a decisive 60 percent margin.
Bob Hooper, who has owned and operated Bob’s Mini Mart in Cullowhee for 32 years, bought and installed a large beer cooler along a back wall of the store when Jackson County voted in alcohol sales.
“It’s going pretty good,” Hooper said. “We’re very pleased with sales. And our customers seem very pleased that we’ve got it.”
One of those customers, Jim Hoffman of the Tuckasegee community, said he appreciated being able to swing by a store and buy a six pack of beer on his way home from work.
“It’s just easier,” Hoffman said. “It makes sense.”
Next door to Bob’s Mini Mart, Jeannette Evans of Mad Batter Bakery & Café has focused her selection mostly on local microbrews. While its nice to have, alcoholic beverages aren’t driving her business or building her customer base, Evans said.
“It’s doing fairly well, but people aren’t coming in who wouldn’t have come in anyway,” she said. “Mostly the people buying it are the customers we already have.”
Evans believes, however, that the sale of alcoholic beverages could be key to the revitalization and growth of all of Cullowhee.
“I think it will help enliven the community,” she said. “I think more people will hang around the campus on evenings and on the weekends because of it.”
Meanwhile, in Sylva where businesses until recently had a monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages, owners and managers say the advent of sales countywide hasn’t hurt their bottom lines.
“I know it hasn’t hurt us, not one lick,” said Tori Walters, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro, which offers a wide selection of local craft beer. “It’s not doing a thing. Our customers are not just looking for a place to have a beer or a glass of wine.”
Instead, Walters said, she and co-owner Haley Milner have labored to create an environment customers want to return to enjoy.
At the Bone Shack in Sylva, the story is much the same as it is at Soul Infusion. Despite the wave of establishments throughout the county now offering alcohol where it wasn’t before, they aren’t losing customers so far.
But Danielle Lacroix, a bartender and restaurant hostess, said she was taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I don’t think we can tell yet,” Lacroix said. “Also it’s summer vacation so the (Western Carolina University) students are gone, so business is down anyway. But so far, I’d say no.”
There seems to be at least one loser in the boon brought on by alcohol in Jackson County. The town of Sylva will lose out on property tax from CVS pharmacy. The new store initially wanted to be annexed into the town limits, which would mean paying town property taxes in order to be able to sell beer and wine. But now that it can sell alcohol anyway, it’s told the town it doesn’t want to be annexed after all, according to Town Manager Paige Roberson.
Where’s the alcohol being sold?
ABC permits show that 11 businesses in the Cashiers area are now selling alcoholic beverages, seven are selling in Cullowhee, three in Whittier, two on the outskirts of Sylva and one in Tuckasegee.