Cullowhee businesses reflect on past, look ahead after WCU fire
Dark clouds hung above Cullowhee last Friday morning. And as the rain fell on the mountain community, tears slid down the face of Suzanne Stone.
“I’m numb,” she said. “I rotate between crying and disbelief. It’s like losing your home.”
Stone’s small, independent business, Rolling Stone Burrito, burned on Nov. 21 in a fire that has been ruled “electrical in nature.” Mad Batter Bakery & Café and Subway were also casualties in the early morning blaze that consumed the small strip mall complex on the campus of Western Carolina University.
“It was a second home for me and my employees,” Stone said. “It was like that for a lot of people. It wasn’t just a restaurant, it was home to people, and now it’s just a horrible loss.”
Stone sat with her friend Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter, at The Point coffeehouse adjacent to the campus. The duo became neighbors when Rolling Stone moved into the location five and a half years ago. Mad Batter itself had occupied the property for more than 15 years.
“Mad Batter was my life,” Evans said. “It was a vocation; I dedicated my life to it. It was fun and engaging, something new and different every day. This will be a long process after the fire. We’re working on it, and looking at our options.”
Early morning chaos
It was a normal morning on the WCU campus. Stone had stopped into her business to get ready for the day, then headed over to the Mad Batter for her usual conversation and coffee with Evans. At around 8:45 a.m., Evans was working in the back kitchen with one of her employees. She noticed a small amount of smoke and the smell of something burning.
“The smell got undeniable,” she said. “We went around and turned off all of the ovens. Then it appeared the intake hood was bringing in smoke from outside.”
The smoke began billowing more into kitchen and up into the dining area. Evans told her customers to get out of the building, that there might be a fire, and called the facilities department. While she did this, Stone ran over to check on her business.
“I opened the door to this white, wispy fog inside,” Stone said. “I didn’t notice anything when I was in there earlier. After we saw the smoke, the Subway manager called 911.”
Soon, numerous fire departments converged on the scene from as far away as Canton. Vicious flames shot out of upstairs windows, while a cloud of smoke rose above the campus. Within hours, the structure was a smoldering, burnt-out shell.
“Jeannette and I stood there and held each other,” Stone said. “We were just in total shock.”
In the following days the building was boarded up and the investigation began for legal and insurance purposes. But the only thought on Stone’s and Evans’ minds was for their employees, now jobless and heading into the holiday season.
“Our employees used their paychecks to go to school, to pay their rent, to go out,” Stone said. “My employees are like family to me, and they’ve been with me for a long time.”
“I’ve had some real long-term employees, too, many with me over a year, with one having worked for me nine years,” Evans added. “Yes, we have renter’s insurance for the business, which kind of helps us out, but our employees lost everything.”
Both businesses had renter’s insurance. At the time of the fire, Rolling Stone employed seven students, while another eight worked at the Mad Batter and 15 at Subway. Fundraising efforts are currently underway at several Jackson County businesses and WCU to assist the students and local residents who are now without a job.
“Our emphasis is to get our employees through the holidays,” Stone said.
For the tightly-knit community of Cullowhee and WCU, Rolling Stone and the Mad Batter had become a gathering spot for meetings, celebrations or just for the heck of it. Offering local, organic food and beverages, the locations were a safe haven for finals week or if students just wanted to take a break from the day and relax in a welcoming space.
“They were by far the best places to have lunch on campus,” said junior Amanda Mauro, a forensic anthropology and psychology major. “The atmosphere was relaxed, with great music and awesome food.”
Mauro also pointed out the importance of having independent establishments within the confines of the university.
“Small business is an essential aspect to our campus. It brings a sense of community,” she said. “When a community supports a local, small business, it’s essentially supporting a certain way of life that differs from corporate America.”
Supporting small businesses on campus is a priority for the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor, or CuRvE. The organization describes its mission to “facilitate the beautification and revitalization of the downtown Cullowhee area extending along Old Cullowhee Road and leading up to the former main entrance to the campus of Western Carolina University.”
“The Mad Batter and Rolling Stone Burrito were more than mere food and drink establishments,” said Mary Jean Ronan Herzog, a founding member of CuRvE. “They were part of the community, not apart from the community. They were meeting places. You could refresh body and spirit by getting out of class, heading over and say hello to colleagues, students and friends from the community, hear local gossip, catch up with friends, or meet your next appointment.”
A professor of education at WCU, Herzog is chair of the faculty senate. She currently serves as the chair of CuRvE’s steering committee. A 25-year resident and educator in Cullowhee, she remembered when the strip mall was the Towne House, a beloved dining establishment at the school from the late 1940s to mid-1980s. Herzog’s twin daughters worked at the Mad Batter when they were in high school.
“Jeannette was their first boss and they learned a lot about hard work and initiative from her,” Herzog said. “She started her business in a tiny section of the old Towne House, and over the years she grew it to a full-service restaurant that would be competitive with the best of them in Asheville — and I would say the same thing for Rolling Stone Burrito.”
The Master Plan
While investigators and WCU officials piece together the timeline of the blaze, determine insurance payouts and figure out what to do with the property, the notion of the school’s Master Plan has come into the spotlight. (See accompanying story)
The Master Plan — officially adopted by trustees just last week — calls eventually for a multi-story, mixed-use facility on the property where the fire occurred. According to WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, that project would be at least a few years down the road.
“If we follow this plan, there would have come a moment to make a decision to build a new facility,” Belcher said. “The concept that currently exists would be a bottom floor with retail, several floors tall with apartments.”
Both Stone and Evans were aware of the Master Plan. They knew the current building would probably have to come down at some point. But there was also a clause in their lease that stated they had “first right of refusal,” which meant that if a new facility were constructed on the property, Rolling Stone and the Mad Batter would have the option to move into it.
“We had that ‘first right of refusal,’ but now we don’t because we don’t have a lease any more,” Stone said. “If a new developer comes in, we don’t have a place.”
Stone said she couldn’t compete for a new spot in that possible new building. Her budget for rent wouldn’t be able to match that of a national chain.
“If something like a Taco Bell came in and was able to pay a certain rent, I couldn’t,” she said. “And I realize the developer is there to make money, and that’s their job, there’s no fault against that, but my chances to get a space in a new building are pretty remote.”
Belcher is aware of this concern about losing local businesses with deep ties to the institution. Like the restaurant owners, the school doesn’t have all the answers, and won’t for some time.
“It was great to have outlets like that (Rolling Stone/Mad Batter/Subway) because Cullowhee is a relatively small place, and they were a gathering place for our community,” he said. “It’s frustrating for everyone involved and it’s really out of our control until we know more.”
A loyal customer of both Rolling Stone and the Mad Batter, WCU Professor Maurice Phipps, also a CuRvE member, is concerned about making sure there is room for small, independent businesses in the Master Plan.
Midtown Cullowhee, where these fire-stricken buildings lie, needs independent businesses, he said. “Downtown Cullowhee, also marred by boarded up buildings, is starting to develop new businesses, but it has a long way to go.”
Another CuRvE member and dean of the WCU Honors College, Brian Railsback, expressed similar sentiments.
“The small, independent businesses, like the Mad Batter and Rolling Stone, help distinguish our community and give us a sense of what it means to be Cullowhee,” he said. “I ran into one resident who has lived here for at least 40 years and he asked, ‘Will Cullowhee ever be the same?’ The fire reminded me how important sense of place is to us.”
Important though these businesses are, their fate will not be decided quickly. Belcher noted that when a tree branch crashed into the old Jenkins House, the university’s club for faculty and staff, the building remained dormant for more than a year before the insurance payouts came through.
“If we built a new facility, and they (the burned-out businesses) were part of the picture, everyone would be excited for that,” he said. “But we have so little to go on right now because we don’t have the information from the state agencies.”
Herzog believes the school wants to support the restaurant owners. “I think the WCU administration, starting with Chancellor Belcher, is sincerely interested in the business owners and employees, and collectively, I have the sense that they value the three independent businesses that were burned in the fire,” she said. “I think they will do what they can to help remedy the situation.”
Where to now?
By last Friday afternoon the smell of smoke still wafted from the structure. Every window was covered with plywood, while charred signs lay in empty parking spots blocked off by a row of Jersey barriers.
“Today we took down the signs, signs we painted in our garage, signs we cut and designed the logo for,” Stone said. “Taking those signs down was almost like admitting it’s not going to be there. It’s a true loss, deep within my heart.”
Exiting the building, a WCU facilities worker scanned the property. He shook his head. “It’s a mess in there.”
Joni Newell, co-owner at the Cullowhee River Club next door, stood nearby. She looked up at the structure.
“It’s very sad. We miss seeing our friends every day,” she said quietly. “It’s been nice to have a sense of community with the other businesses. We all know each other and all help each other. We hope they can come back.”
Plastered across one of the boards, facing the campus, was a large banner that read, “Whee Love You.”
“That’s sweet, and that’s just another example of how beautiful and wonderful this community has been to us,” Evans said, referring to the banner. “People appreciated the organic nature of our locally owned businesses and their unique character.”
WCU and the Student Government Association are planning a fundraiser in January for those affected by the blaze.
“The businesses that were lost meant a lot to the university and to the student body,” said SGA president Ryan Hermance. “They have been there since I have been a student, and have been there for many alumni who have come and gone before me. The fire was very devastating and the university and the SGA are working together to help those directly affected.”
Evans said she would rescue her equipment and relocate the Mad Batter somewhere in Cullowhee. She has recently applied for unemployment, and said she has learned how difficult it can be for people in dire financial situations.
“I think about those families being laid off, and I can relate to the hardships many North Carolina families are currently facing,” she said.
Stone is still unsure of the next chapter for Rolling Stone, but for now she’ll continue to sell their signature hot sauce (untouched in the fire) and return to her former occupation, mental health counseling.
“Jeannette and I, we’re going to take different routes probably from here. We’ll probably never be side by side again, but the bond is still there,” Stone said. “Even if we could get back into that property, it could be years down the road.”
Stone and Evans said they wanted to thank everyone in the community: the fire responders, the WCU administrators, their former and current employees and loyal customers for their support throughout the years and during this difficult time. The fire may have burned down the building, but the cherished memories remain.
“I had a blast running Rolling Stone Burrito,” Stone said, tearing up. “We’re so proud of it and it has been an amazing experience.”
“This community is so amazing, and we’re appreciative for all of the support,” Evans added. “Keep supporting us and look out for what happens next.”
Want to help?
There are numerous fundraising efforts currently under way in Jackson County to assist all of the employees of the WCU strip mall fire who are currently out of work and without a paycheck heading into the holidays. The events are as follows:
• Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro will offer free meals to employees of the businesses lost in the fire. On Dec. 14 and 21, the bistro will also donate 15 to 20 percent of its sales to those employees.
• Jack the Dipper ice cream shop will assist by donating 10 percent on Dec. 14 and 21.
• Signature Brew Coffee will donate $1 from each bag of coffee bought.
For more information on how to help, you can contact Rolling Stone Burrito or Mad Batter Bakery & Café on Facebook.