Food for the soul
The feeling of a new customer walking through the door never gets old for Haley Milner.
“I want them to feel satisfied, to feel full and good, for them to know they’re always welcome back and will always be greeted with a smile,” she said.
Owner of Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro in Sylva, Milner has operated the 13-year-old business for the better part of the last two years. For her, it’s about creating a comfortable atmosphere where people from all walks of life can come together and celebrate through food, drink, music and hearty conversation.
“I love the way this place makes people feel, whether if you come in by yourself or with a group of friends,” she said. “People come here to hang out, play on the Internet, have lunch or have a couple of beers. The atmosphere just gives you such an energy.”
Originally from Georgia, Milner grew up in a cooking household. Everyone in her family knew their way around the kitchen, with Milner picking up all the secrets and techniques along the way.
“My love for cooking started when I was a teenager,” she said. “I was one of those kids whose parents both worked, so they expected dinner to be ready when they got home. I would just go through all of the cookbooks and find something to make.”
And Milner has been working in the restaurant industry ever since. Eventually, her significant other was offered a job in Western North Carolina. Now in Sylva, Milner began frequenting Soul Infusion. It became almost a second home for the culinary artisan.
“I always liked the quality of their food and all the different varieties of tea and microbrews they had,” she said. “So, when the previous owners were ready to move, I jumped on the opportunity.”
Using the finest ingredients from local markets and stores, Milner sees the value in providing food based on quality. Once in the kitchen, Milner is like a maestro, moving around the space with grace and precision, all in an effort to create a healthy, delicious meal.
“When I start cutting the food and preparing a dish for somebody who I know will absolutely love it, it makes me feel great,” she said. “I want to provide my customers with really good, healthy food they will enjoy eating.”
Blending in her own skills and vision for the business, Soul Infusion remains a beacon for music, art, food, drink and culture in Jackson County. During the day the building will be filled with professionals, while at night it houses local artisans and graduate students from nearby Western Carolina University.
“You’ll have doctors, lawyers and nurses in here for lunch, then, around 8 or 9 p.m. on the weekends, comes this magical pumpkin transformation where the place gets packed with everybody,” said Martin Adams, head bartender.
Besides his duties behind the counter, Adams also manages the bistro and books the musical acts. Everything from jazz to rock, bluegrass to hip-hop finds its way through the doors of the venue or into the backyard where numerous acts hit the stage for an evening of performance and celebration.
“There’s a lot of very talented, intelligent musicians in this town,” he said. “A lot of them come from WCU and plenty are homegrown, as well. We’ll let anybody come in and play their stuff. That’s the way it has always been.”
A Jackson County native, Adams grew restless after high school graduation. He and a buddy bought a Volkswagen Bus, packed their surfboards and left town. A few months passed and Adams missed home. He headed back and has resided in Sylva ever since.
“It wasn’t until I left and came back that I realized just how special this area really is,” he said.
“Even when I travel to the beach or back to Georgia, as soon as I come back over these mountains I know I’m home,” Milner added.
Pointing to the strong diversity and camaraderie of the community, Milner is eager to see what the future holds for Sylva and Jackson County as a whole. Everyday more and more unique individuals are relocating to the region, and with that comes more people to satisfy as they wander into Soul Infusion.
“Our motto is, ‘Where souls come to meet, eat and drink,’” she smiled. “It makes me feel great to see all the people that come in here. The community truly does come together and we all support each other.”