By Colleen Watson
It was just another a quiet weekday afternoon in Carolina Coffee Shop. The inside was dimly lit, with small, fake candle-chandeliers on the ceiling and muted sconces on the walls. The bar in the back left side of the shop boasted an impressive array of alcoholic beverages for a restaurant with the word “coffee” in its title.
Soft classic rock and golden oldies music played in the background, including songs like “My Girl” and “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” Booths lined both sides of the cool, brick walls and most of the center of the shop; only three booths were actually occupied. Physically, the booths are straight-backed and made of old, dark wood that creaks when you move on it.
Two women sat at the bar on red-painted, high-top chairs. A small vase rested on top of the bar, holding a dozen roses. The floors were gray and light-blue checkerboard tile, the kind that makes nightly cleanup easier. A few little tables sat crammed-in near the front windows, offering a spectacular view of the bustling Franklin Street.
The Carolina Coffee Shop is a place out of time. I like to imagine somebody time-traveling the shop from the 1920s, picking up an espresso machine from the 1990s, adding a few flat-screens above the bar and calling it a day.
I sat at the bar to order. On the bottom of the menu, there was a small statement, printed in black on the Carolina blue paper. It read: “What started as a student post office became the Carolina Coffee Shop in 1922. We have been feeding Tar Heels for nearly a century.”
At 95 years old, the Shop is not only the oldest restaurant in Chapel Hill, it is the oldest in North Carolina. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the shop features the original booths, bar and architecture from 1922. It’s remarkably long-lasting, compared to the frequent turnover of many similar Franklin Street restaurants. The shop is an iconic symbol of UNC- Chapel Hill and has been for most of its existence. However, the shop is facing a period of uncertainty: in a move meant to attract investors, the Carolina Coffee Shop is being sold.
Daniel Austin’s official title is general manager for the Carolina Coffee Shop. In reality, he does a bit of everything: serving, bartending, meeting with prospective buyers of the shop and working as a public relations contact point. He handles all of that, plus the mountains of paperwork that comes with managing the day-to-day operations of a restaurant.
Austin is young, Chapel Hill native and recent graduate of UNC- Wilmington. He worked at the shop as a teenager and during his college years. He seemed comfortable in his role, despite having just started as the manager in October. Austin even looked the part: sporting khaki shorts, a black “Carolina Coffee Shop” polo and Superman socks.
“When I came on as GM, I said to the owners- we need an identity,” Austin said. “Everyone knows we’re here, no one knows what we do. Right now, my vision has been put on the backburner because of the sale.”
The past few years, Carolina Coffee Shop has been run by a group of absentee owners who choose to remain private. Their asking price for the shop is $145,000.
We sat in a booth at the back of the shop with Austin facing the front, so he could keep an eye on his tables. He’d get up periodically to hand customers their checks or make an espresso for students lingering behind to study. From both his words and actions, it was clear Austin cared about the shop.
“But like anything that you care about, it takes time and effort, and it’s not easy dealing with the landlords,” Austin said with a frustrated look.
And who are the landlords?
“None other than the good old University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” Austin said. “Dealing with the university is a nightmare, just like any bureaucracy. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had two dozen meetings with the university to get the shop updated. The sewer is 100 years old, brick and mortar. For a prospective buyer, the amount of money they need to invest is ridiculous.”
A lot of customers panicked when they heard about the sale, but Austin isn’t worried about the shop itself.
“This physical establishment is not going to ever move unless there’s a hurricane,” Austin said. “As much importance as this establishment has to the town, it has equal to the university. They have a vested interest in keeping this the Carolina Coffee Shop. They’re not going to let it change.”
Austin is in charge of meeting prospective buyers as a proxy for the absentee owners who wish to remain anonymous in the sale. He explained his process of selling potential buyers on the shop.
“You’re not buying the business, you’re buying people’s perspective on it,” Austin said. “The most consistent comment I’ve gotten is ‘Don’t change, don’t close, don’t change.’ Every prospective buyer has a different vision for this place. Who buys it, who has the right vision, who has the resources to turn that vision into a reality.”
Austin pointed out a few regular customers, working at booths or chatting by the front windows. Of the customers I spoke to, many, if not all, had no idea their beloved shop might soon be in the care of a new owner.
Austin said, “That’s a very special person you’re looking for, to negotiate the price point between the university, the ownership group, the town of Chapel Hill and the people who graduated in 1950 and never left. They all have a vested interest in this place staying the way it is.”
A Not-So-Quiet Evening
There aren’t many people who know the shop better than longtime employee Jeremy Ferry. Ferry is in his thirties. He’s a friendly guy with the slightest bit of a gap in-between his teeth and an easy smile. A quintessential bartender hand-towel hung from his right hip. He’s one of those guys who never stops pacing or rocking back and forth.
I met Ferry on my second visit to the shop, a Wednesday evening, about an hour before their planned closing time. He’d managed the shop for eight years.
“It’s a unique place and I spent a lot of hours here,” Ferry said with a laugh as he surveyed the interior of the restaurant.
It was the same as it had been in the afternoon: muted lighting, a cool atmosphere and golden oldies hits. I sat at the bar and ordered the blackened chicken salad, one of Ferry’s suggestions.
Ferry and Austin stood by the bar and hammered out the plan for Thursday night’s Senior Bar Golf, an event where graduating seniors visit Chapel Hill bars and try drink specials at each establishment.
My salad arrived, delivered by Charlotte Maiden, the only waitress on duty that evening. It smelled fantastic, with blackened-chicken, tomatoes, red peppers, nuts, raisins and goat cheese, all covered in a spicy vinaigrette. I’d barely taken two bites, when an entire sorority came in.
I caught a look of absolute terror on Maiden’s face as close to 75 girls packed into the space near the bar. In preparation for Senior Bar Golf, several sororities planned their own bar golf for that evening.
Ferry and Austin jumped into motion, checking IDs as they moved down the bar in rapid succession, filling cups with ice for Long Island iced-teas and margaritas. Drunken girls surrounded me, shouting to each other across the room. There was a lot of yelling, squealing, hugging and pounding fistfuls of Skinny Pop they’d brought along with them in preparation for a night of heavy drinking.
I spoke with Rebecca Shoenthal, one of the sorority members and a senior who is a frequent visitor to the shop.
“I used to come here with my dad,” Shoenthal said. “He loves this place. This is literally where he used to go when he was in college. I remember when I was touring here, it was this or Starbucks. But this is more Chapel Hill.”
The sorority was in and out in about half an hour. It was one of the loudest, most chaotic, definitively feminine moments of my life. A few stragglers sat by the front windows, having run out of steam close to the doors. They huddled together and drunk-talked it out, inching their way toward sober, laughter rising and falling in waves.
Maiden stopped by my spot at the bar as the last rush cleared.
“It’s never like this,” she said. “It’s normally super quiet. Usually weeknights I’m out of here at like 8:30.”
Maiden and Ferry went about closing the restaurant. They wiped down counters and swept under the booths.
Ferry grinned at me, still a little shell-shocked from the visit.
“They didn’t call ahead, which would have been nice,” he said. “But I don’t mind. This has been happening to me for 10 years.”
A State of Flux
For a place that hasn’t really changed since the 1950s, everyone seems to have a different concept of the Carolina Coffee Shop. A lot of patrons mention their brunches. It’s a frequent place for students to bring their visiting parents on weekend mornings. Others mention the Thursday trivia nights, which tend to get a little rowdy. Teams compete, armed with an assortment of random facts and knowledge that only college students seem to possess. Customers mention some pretty great mixers they’ve had with other fraternities and clubs here, while some claim it’s the best place for a casual lunch date.
I spent Thursday evening in the back corner of the Carolina Coffee Shop, observing the chaos that was Senior Bar Golf. At times, close to 100 students were packed into the shop, waiting to order the drink specials written on a whiteboard at the front. The eagle special was the $6 Tar Heel Tail Kicker, a lovely, electric-blue color drink that I imagine would be horrible to throw-up later. The birdie was the $5 Green Monster and $4 drafts were served as the par drink.
Austin had perked up the atmosphere for the party night. They played a mix of 70s hits, the kinds of songs everyone knows the lyrics to.
All in all, it was a great night for seniors looking to go out in style, and bars who were set to make a lot of money off the alcohol sales. The seniors wore the requisite Bar Golf attire: khakis, polo shirts and boat shoes. Some tied cardigans around their shoulders, while others wore visors and one white, golfing-glove like Michael Jackson if he’d gone through a country club phase.
I spoke with countless students, some of whom were ardent fans of the shop, and others who confessed this was their first time entering the restaurant. But the most interesting conversation I had was with a man who wasn’t even a current student.
Nick Williams stood at the back of the bar and nursed a pint, slightly away from the crowd of seniors hell bent on having a great time. He is in his thirties and used to work at the shop when he was a teenager.
“This was a neighborhood family thing,” Williams said. “All our friends worked here together. It used to be a totally different scene. Coffee shop during the day, casual bar during the night. It was classy, very classy.”
He shook his head and gestured at the students.
Williams said, “As a Chapel Hill local, this place means a lot to me. I used to come in here, get a coffee and the free rolls. It’s transitioned into a college bar over the years. Seriously brings a tear to my eye, the idea that it can change even more.”
Williams isn’t alone in thinking that. The Carolina Coffee Shop is grandfathered into the landscape of Chapel Hill. It just remains to be seen if this sale will keep the shop’s traditional roots, or move forward into unknown territory.
Edited by Travis Butler