The Eco–Institute is a sanctuary for those seeking to return to the basics

By Janna Childers
There’s a metal arch flanked by a vast blur of green. It reads “Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute.” As soon as I crossed that threshold, the atmosphere shifted. The grumble of gravel beneath my tires softened as my red Hyundai Elantra slowed and a sweet wind brushed its way through the leaves and into my small car.

I could no longer hear the distant hum of cars speeding down Jo Mac Road, but the stillness here was not silent. There’s a quiet roar to the invisible activities of the creatures, hidden underneath tall grass or nestled high in the branches of trees. The frogs bellowed as the sun began to drop through the sky. Birds released bursts of sounds that were carried through the expanse of open sky.  And the constant underscore of cicadas and crickets could not be ignored. I don’t know whether it was the pungent smell of nurtured earth or the crisp taste of clean air, or maybe something more intangible, but something struck me as different about this place. I exhaled deeply.

Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a place of hope. The educational farm offers many different programs, including summer camps for children, workshops in organic farming techniques and a ten-week immersive educational experience for young adults, all of which center around the work of restoring a broken relationship between the earth and humanity.

The 38 acres of land, owned by Megan and Tim Toben, offers a place for a community to gather, to learn, to build and to recharge. It attracts wanderers who sense something wrong with the traditional trajectory of education and career, burnt out environmental activists who want to be reminded of their motivation to do their work and people who are looking for a place to connect with others who share similar concerns about the state of the earth.

At Pickards Mountain, real work is done not only to teach people about the plight of the earth and crises that humanity is facing, but also about how to build a new way of doing things. Somehow, despite all of the negative things this place was built in response to, hope has seeped in to this place and refuses to leave.

A quick 15-minute drive west will take you from the paved and manicured world of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus to an unkempt land of oaks, separated by tracts of land for small houses and big fields. It’s here that you will find the Eco-Institute, tucked away behind Honeysuckle Tea House, an open-air tea house and herb farm owned by the Tobens.

While I was making this drive, I rolled the windows down to let the warm evening air blow through my hair and drown out the sound of the radio. I was rehearsing the questions I wanted to ask and the appropriate way to greet Megan Toben, the founder of the Institute, who had agreed to meet with me that evening. The repetition of “Hi, thanks so much for meeting with me,” and “Can you tell me more about…” was underscored by a flood of memories that I kept trying to ignore.

See, the majority of the first two years of my college education were spent sitting in white-walled classrooms being bombarded by devastating information. I heard stories of these structures of injustice that we, as a society have trapped ourselves in, and facts about the tipping point of parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere and how humans have passed that point. I saw examples of disparities between the rich and the poor and the way that greed and power seduce even the wisest of people to keep widening the gap– stories of a failing government, a failing economy, a failing society.

It was hard to find hope. And that same lost feeling started bubbling up again as I drove through the woods to this place I knew was full of people who had devoted their lives building a better future. I just couldn’t imagine how they could do that.

A conversation by the pond

Megan Toben greeted me with a hug, welcoming me to the farm like I was family, like I belonged there. We walked through the gardens of neatly planted vegetables, like spinach and potatoes, asparagus and mint. We passed farmer Dave, the bare-foot garden manager at the Eco-Institute whose shoulder-length blonde curls almost touched the ground as he bent over the rows of plants, pulling out weeds. We stopped by the pond, which takes up about four acres of the land, and sat down in a large red gazebo, with flags of faded primary colors rocking with the wind.

Toben took me back to her days as an undergraduate at Elon Univeristy, where she graduated in 2002. Toben studied biology, but was not able to detach herself from the phenomena she was studying the way her classmates could.

“How is it that things like deforestation and species extinction and water pollution rates and climate disruption are just continuing,” she said. “I mean, it’s still worsening every day. I got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t sit in a classroom and hear the data any longer without doing something. My intellect was being engaged with this desperate information. But there was no engagement for my hands, or my heart, or my voice.”

That’s where the story of the Eco-Institute began. Toben longed for a more holistic education experience, and searched for a way to provide one for herself and to work with others who wanted the same thing. She fell in love with the bodies of work of two environmental activists, Thomas Berry and Joanna Macy, who later would become the philosophical pillars for the work of the Eco-Institute. Then she met Tim Toben.

“When my husband, Tim, and I fell in love, he owned this land,” Toben said. “Part of what drew us to one another was our common love for earth. A big question for us in the beginning was, how can we offer this place to bring people together to support the movement?”

Together, they began to open up their land to the community, hosting potluck dinners and summer camps for children, and teaching people about a new way of living and being in the world — a notion supported by a global ecological and social movement that writer Joanna Macy has deemed “The Great Turning.” Macy wrote that The Great Turning “is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

This global movement encompasses more than just a need to reduce carbon emissions. It is broad and diverse, but essentially is working toward a new way of doing things. It is built on the basis that our current societal and economic systems are disruptive to the balance of the earth, the balance of society and the balance of humanity itself.

“I think that it helps to remember that there was a time when humanity saw itself as a member of the earth community,” Toben said. “At some point, humanity began to see itself as sort of lord and master, and everything else then became, what we call, resource.”

The movement itself can be characterized by many different social movements, like the indigenous movements of Latin America, the Occupy Wallstreet movement in the United States and many other small movements happening in communities around the world. The Eco-Institute sees itself as a gathering place for this movement, a place where people can come to rest and to learn and be a part of the greater community.

“I think there have to people who go out there and picket,” Toben said. “There have to be people who petition for change. There have to be people who use their bodies to stop the bulldozers from taking down the old growth forests. There also has to be midwifing of a new way of doing things. So, there has to be both at the same time. And we’re more in the midwifing of the new way of doing things, like organic agriculture and renewable energy, social justice and cooperation, collaboration, creativity.”

The Eco-Institute offers a variety of programs, including permaculture classes, mushroom growing lessons and outdoor yoga sessions. But, the most important program they offer is a 10-week immersive educational experience called the Odyssey Fellowship. The fellowship was developed after years of hosting young adults who wanted to be a part of the work the institute was doing. Many of them found the farm through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of organizations that connect volunteers with organic farms. The program was named after a period of development between adolescence and adulthood called odyssey and marked by wandering.

“When I read that description, I immediately thought of the hundreds of young adults that have come wandering through here in the ten years that the eco-institute has been here, wanting to work on the farm, wanting to spend time here, wanting to engage, wanting to build community, wanting to talk about the issues that are challenging,” Toben said. “We realized that what young adults were really wanting was an opportunity to come and engage on all levels in a truly holistic educational experience.”

The Gathering Place

Apollo, a golden retriever, was lounging in the grass behind the barn and next to a gathering of a few of the current fellows. They had finished cooking and eating dinner together and were gathered around a picnic table with a large sheet of brown paper before them, thinking through plans to publish a zine. Even though they were all outdoors in this common space, they sat around in comfortable clothes with their shoes kicked off. It was like stepping into an outdoor living room. I could tell that this was home for them.

These fellows had gone through the first 10-week Odyssey Fellowship, and were here for another 10-week program, the Odyssey Leadership Program. Jimi Eisenstein, one of the fellows, called it the “graduate program” for the fellowship.

“We graduated from it and wanted more,” he said, his black poufy hair highlighting the swirls of colors on his tie-dye shirt.

Eisenstein was born in Tai Pei, Taiwan, grew up in Pennsylvania, but calls North Carolina his home. Growing up in multiple places was a common theme among the fellows. Anna Feldman is from New York, but lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Hayley May, another of the fellows couldn’t even name a place that she was from. “That’s a hard question to answer,” she said. “I’m from all over.” It made me wonder if part of the attraction to the Eco-Institute was its roots.

Jessica Cudney sat at the picnic table, leaning against Michelle Rozek. The two sat facing the gardens, both dressed in black sweatpants and sweatshirts, with long brown pulled behind their shoulders. For Cudney, the Eco-Institute was a place to learn how to actually live an alternative life.

“A lot of young people are curious about what other options are out there for them, and through social media, a lot of young people are discovering that there are other options available and that people are living alternative lives,” Cudney said. “It’s just difficult to figure out how to start on that journey.”

For Eisenstein, the Eco-Institute was a place where the dread of a meaningless life could be replaced by something more beautiful.

“I guess like a lot of people who grow up in just this culture, the dominant culture, they kind of go through the motions, but there’s also a part of them that feels like there’s something wrong with what they’re doing,” Eisenstein said. “Like, should I really be in school seven hours a day on a beautiful day? There’s this sort of innate rejection of the system that gets kind of quieted down as someone grows up. But here, that voice is nurtured, listened to and so, it kind of comes from the understanding that there is a more beautiful way to live.”

For Christine LeRoy, who graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, coming to the Eco-Institute was a supplement to formal education.

“I went to university and I double majored and I really excelled in that environment, and then I graduated and I realized, I don’t really have very many practical life skills and that’s really a large part of what that is, learning how to live in community, learning how to milk a goat, plant a garden, and like care for yourself and other people and the environment,” she said.

Conclusion

Wendell Berry is a farmer in Kentucky, an environmental activist and a prolific writer. In an interview with filmmaker Laura Dunn, he said: “This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do, is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things! Not all things.”

Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a place that is putting two things together. It is a place of community, of care, of hard-work on all levels. It is a place of hope. And those pit of your stomach, desperate feelings that accompanied me to the farm dissipated at the threshold. I couldn’t be in such an abundant place and feel empty.  I may not yet know what my two things will be, but I’m hopeful that I, too, can find two things to put back together.

Edited by Luke Bollinger

Carolina Coffee Shop: the Times They Are A-Changin’

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.

Management

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.

Literally.

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

Everybody eats: cooking up equality in Chapel Hill

Vimala Rajendran is on a mission to feed the entire community through her restaurant, Vimala's Curryblossom Café. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)
Through her restaurant’s prominence in the community, Vimala Rajendran stands up for social justice for all in Chapel Hill. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

By Sofie DeWulf

Vimala Rajendran has seen her fair share of miracles, all of which seem to connect back to her. Sometimes they’re big ones in the traditional sense of the word — characterized by the extraordinary.

Like what happened a few weeks ago, for instance. A man was on life support in a coma for three weeks at Duke Hospital. Vimala visited him one day and started rubbing his feet and talking to him.

He opened his eyes on Good Friday, and by Easter he had started talking. Vimala tells me the story with very few details, but despite this, I have no doubt that it actually happened.

Most miracles Vimala has been a part of, though, aren’t so big in the traditional, extraordinary sense of the word. It’s the little, everyday miracles that have defined her.

The community dinners that turned into a full-fledged restaurant. The fried chicken she makes that’s just as good as her traditional south Indian food. The “Everybody Eats” policy that ensures no customer goes hungry, even if they don’t have the money to pay.

It’s the details of her past, adjusting from life in India to the United States; her work in Chapel Hill and connections with the local community; her passion for social justice and peace; and her restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, that are the true miracles in Vimala Rajendran’s life.

The Place Behind the Woman

Vimala, 56, is a successful restaurant chef and owner, long-time Chapel Hill resident and mother to eight kids, now all adults (three are her own and five are her current husband’s, Rush Gleenslade, whom she married 12 years ago.)

While the United States has been her home for many years, Vimala is originally from India. This shows in the food she cooks as well as in her distinct accent, her brown eyes and skin, and her hair, which you can tell used to be a rich black but is now turning white.

Vimala was born in the state of Kerala, the southernmost tip of India, in 1961. She grew up in the populous city of Mumbai, although she doesn’t call it that. To her, it’s still Bombay.

She gets a faraway look in her eyes when she talks about Bombay.

“I was a very content child. I just loved the city,” she says.

When I ask her what she disliked about it, she waits for a moment and smiles.

“Nothing. I didn’t know any better not to like anything,” she says. “Now I long for everything.”

Her greatest memory? The food and the fact you could find signs of it everywhere: the sounds of it cooking, the smells at all hours of the night and day, the sight of street vendors and large piles of produce on the side of the road.

It was during her childhood in India that she learned how to cook. She laughs, because the reason for her getting into food preparation didn’t necessarily stem from a desire to learn, but instead came from a sense of impatience. Food was never ready soon enough for her.

She bothered her mother endlessly, to the point where she would get frustrated enough to hand Vimala things to do. At three years, she could sift and sort grains. By the time she was seven, she could cook entire complex recipes.

The Restaurant Behind the Woman

While Vimala loved to cook, she never thought it would become her livelihood.

In the beginning, she had the financial support of her now ex-husband, whom she joined in the United States in 1980 after completing studies in political science. However, years of abuse led her to leave, which suddenly left her a single mother of three struggling to make ends meet in Chapel Hill.

Community dinners became her saving grace.

Vimala cooked the traditional south Indian recipes she learned growing up, and neighbors would come and donate money to offset the costs. The dinners started in 1994.

Their popularity grew through word-of-mouth, and soon she was implementing takeout orders, catering and even serving outside of Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro.

Anyone who tasted the food told her she should open a restaurant, but that was never something she thought she could take on.

Despite this initial doubt, she couldn’t deny the opportunity, and with the help of investments from those in the community who believed in her and her food, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café opened in May 2010.

You could easily miss it if you didn’t know it was there. It holds an ideal location on West Franklin Street—just before the start of Carrboro where the road curves and turns into Main Street—but it’s hidden behind Kipo’s Greek Taverna, tucked in a courtyard.

The benefit of the courtyard is that there’s an outdoor seating area that will fill with people when the weather is nice.

The restaurant itself is fairly small, but the L-shaped layout is efficient, with a bar to order on one side and an open kitchen on the other. The brick, wood and warm colors on the walls as well as the smell of spices that greet you when you enter add to the welcoming feel of the place.

The staff is very diverse, drawing from all walks of life in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Justine Benjamin, a 24-year-old who’s been working at Vimala’s for about a year, appreciates the different backgrounds of her coworkers and how they are embraced in the restaurant.

“Sometimes they’ll make tacos or empanadas back there,” she laughs.

She also never fails to notice Vimala’s involvement in the restaurant.

Her boss gets in around 8:30 or 9 a.m. and constantly works until 4 or 5 p.m. She spends a lot of that time cooking and preparing food in the kitchen, but you can also find her serving meals and chatting with customers.

“She’s definitely involved in each step,” Justine says.

That includes dealing with all the logistics. Before she started Curryblossom Café, Vimala thought owning a restaurant would be impossible. Now, she says it’s even harder than she imagined.

“Cost of overhead, cost of food, cost of labor, human resource management, people’s moods and motivations and morale… it is a super-human task to own and run a successful restaurant,” she says.

Yet she does it, and she does it well.

In addition to being a phenomenal cook, Vimala is a skilled businesswoman. Before she starts to cook every morning, she catches up on emails and phone calls, which can involve everything from possible auction items to potential projects.

Her business decisions are not only in the best interest of the restaurant but also the community. This can be seen in her partnerships with local businesses, such as Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Vimala is in the process of finalizing a deal with the company. Initially, she plans to buy their existing products, but her ultimate goal is to “do something no one else has done” and possibly collaborate on a beer that complements her food.

She’s always trying to come up with new ways to do things and grow the restaurant, and her efforts have certainly paid off.

In its first year of business, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café made $680,000, and that number continues to grow. Over seven years, the restaurant has gone from eight employees to 30, four weddings per year to 30, and $200,000 to $400,000 earned from catering to UNC-Chapel Hill.

The Food Behind the Woman

One of the very first things Vimala asked me when I met her was if I had eaten. It took a little encouragement, but I did end up accepting the free meal she offered me.

I told her to surprise me, and soon after, a worker brought out what I later learned was Vimala’s favorite thing on the menu: appam — a rice and coconut pancake.

It was served with a side of chicken curry on a stainless-steel Thali dish, completing the truly authentic feel of the meal. We talked while I enjoyed the sourdough taste of the fluffy-in-the-middle, thin-at-the-end appam that perfectly balanced the flavorful curry.

Later, she revealed to me why she offered the food: it breaks down barriers.

“When you eat it, I am making a crack in the closed door for you and me to interact.” It was also a chance to show me more about who she is.

“My entire history is on that plate,” she told me.

The menu at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is filled with items inspired by Vimala’s roots.

To someone unfamiliar with traditional south Indian food, the menu can be a bit overwhelming, full of names like paratha, bhatura, samosas and uttapams.

Surprisingly enough, Vimala also offers her own take on Southern classics, such as fried chicken and plantain fritters. (She’s even won an award for her grits.)

If nothing on the menu tempts you, there are always plenty of specials written on the chalkboards in the restaurant, which are constantly changing based on what’s in season and in stock. Whatever choice you make, though, won’t be a wrong one. Everything is delicious, which is why people keep coming back.

Many of Vimala’s assorted mix of customers are regulars, who have grown to love the food as well as Vimala. You can distinguish the regulars from the newcomers because of the familiar way Vimala will greet them or hug them, or their confidence when they order from the menu and sit in the restaurant for a while.

Frank Worrell, 66, is one of those regulars. Like many of the visitors to Curryblossom Café, you can tell he’s interesting just by the look of him, with his white beard and mustache that’s curled at the ends, round eye glasses and all-black outfit.

He’s been eating at Vimala’s regularly — about five days a week for the past three years — and orders the same thing every time: rice and dal, a split pulse soup Frank says is the “comfort food of India.” (I try it later, and I can’t disagree. The soup is instantly comforting.)

Frank remembers Vimala back when she served food outside of Johnny’s, and he’s still impressed by the commitment to quality she has to this day. The reason he and many others love Vimala’s food so much is because it’s prepared with “a certain consciousness.”

“It may sound really weird,” Frank says, “but the food seems really clean.”

That’s because all of the ingredients Vimala uses are wholesome, healthy and organic. In addition to that, everything is sourced from local farms.

The inspiration behind this? For one thing, it reaffirms Vimala’s dedication to supporting the community. The other source of inspiration, not surprisingly, is her home country.

“Back in India, we always ate what was unloaded from a farm to the market,” Vimala says.

She or her mother would go to the market twice a day to buy produce because her family didn’t have a refrigerator, so everything was fresh. She missed that freshness when she came to the United States, where everything was bought at a grocery store, so she decided to bring it back with Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.

The Mission Behind the Woman

Vimala’s community involvement is further strengthened by her commitment to social justice.

There are signs of this throughout the restaurant. There’s the “Everybody Eats Community Meal Fund” jar on the takeout counter in front of the kitchen, which supports the day-one policy that anyone who wants a meal, regardless of finances, will be able to eat at Vimala’s. The goal is to make food accessible through affordability.

There are also the “Refugees are Welcome Here” and “Stop Profiling Muslims” signs on the window near the side entrance of the restaurant. Vimala is a strong believer that anyone is welcome to work and eat in her restaurant.

She’s held lunches to support refugees and migrant farm workers. On ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ on Feb. 16, when immigrants protested by not working, all profits made at Vimala’s went to staff members because a lot of the employees’ family members are immigrants.

In addition to that, Vimala speaks up for domestic abuse awareness, women’s rights, truth in advertising and international peace and love, which is inspired by her strong Christian faith.

Anyone in Chapel Hill who knows Vimala considers her an activist in the community. She believes it’s because she has a lot of ideas, but she also takes action.

“I stand up for what is just and right,” she says. “I question injustice and do something about it, while feeding people at the same time.”

Vimala’s efforts don’t go unrecognized.

Just a few weeks ago, she received the Public Health Champion Award from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health for her commitment to healthy food and social justice. She doesn’t care as much about the recognition, though.

“I am more proud of the daily reports of the impact of the food we serve here to heal and grow people than the awards we’ve received because I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says.

It’s just one more confirmation that it’s the little miracles, not the big ones, which define Vimala Rajendran.

Edited by Molly Weybright

Raleigh Flyers have become a presence in the ultimate Frisbee community

By Luke Bollinger

Casey Degnan should have the day off. It’s Good Friday and since he’s employed by Cardinal Gibbons High School, he shouldn’t have to be doing any work. Instead, the holiday gives him time to work at his second job as co-owner of the Raleigh Flyers, a professional ultimate Frisbee team.

Today’s mission is to finalize arrangements for the team’s away game on Saturday. His first appointment is at 10 a.m. with Clouds Brewing in Raleigh to finalize plans for a viewing party the next day. He’s about 30 minutes late.

Degnan arrives with George Lampron, the team’s physical trainer, and Mike Wittmer, leader of The Hangar, the Flyers fan club. Degnan apologizes for being late, but explains he had spent the morning with his 9-week old son, Cash, who had rolled himself over for the first time. But now he is focused on his task ahead, which is sampling beer to figure out which ones would go over well with Flyers fans.

Most of his job as co-owner is not as leisurely as going to a beer tasting, though.

Degnan, Mike Denardis and Sean Degnan founded the Raleigh Flyers in 2015. It’s a young team, in a young league, trying to gain a foothold as a non-traditional sport in an area dominated by three universities that regularly compete in the highest levels of Division I sports.

flyers2
Mike Wittmer (center right) is in charge of the Flyers unofficial fan club, The Hangar. He helps to promote and increase turnout at games. (Photos courtesy of the Raleigh Flyers.)

It’s a tough job, especially when you already have a job. Because of an already blossoming ultimate community, though, and the vision and drive of Degnan and everyone who has bought into the organization, the Flyers have become a welcome addition to the Triangle sports environment.

Friday’s agenda wasn’t looking too daunting, a nice change of pace for Degnan. Once he and John Oldendorf, chief brewing officer at Clouds, agreed on the type and quantity of beer for the viewing party, Degnan and his team began brainstorming ideas for a short video to promote the event.

After a few minutes of discussion and about ten seconds of filming, the final product was the three guys sitting around a homemade monopoly board they found at the brewery, rolling die until they hit doubles, yelling, ‘that’s a jail break,’ and knocking over a tower of oversized Jenga blocks.

The video then ended with Lampron standing up, pointing at the camera and saying, “Clouds Brewery, Saturday night viewing party, 7 o’clock.” It would immediately be posted to Facebook for the enjoyment of the Flyers faithful.

To most people, this video would make no sense. But it was somewhat loosely related to Flyers fans’ in-game tradition of smashing a plastic bucket, or any breakable object they have on hand, with a large rubber mallet after the team scores a big goal. It’s a bit ridiculous, but they don’t care.

The viewing party ended up attracting about 40 people. Not a bad turnout, Degnan said, and all the proceeds went to the Flyers.

“Got to make that money, man,” he said. 

Background

When Degnan was attending college at High Point University, owning a professional ultimate team seemed ludicrous to him.

While at High Point, he was a member of their Division I tennis team, but immediately after practices, he would join his friends to play in whatever intramural sport was in season. When ultimate was in season, he played that too. Degnan continued to play ultimate and as the sport got more intense, so did he.

After graduating, Degnan moved to Chicago where he played for the Chicago Wildfire ultimate team while also working as a trader for the Chicago Board of Trade. It was here where he became devoted to ultimate, in large part because of how involved and immersed the team was in the community.

Though Degnan could’ve played for the Wildfire into his 40s, he said with a laugh of confidence, he wanted to establish a professional ultimate team in Raleigh.

“I thought I could do it better,” he said. “All those things that were offered to me, I wanted to offer it to the people in my hometown.”

The Team

In 2015, the Raleigh Flyers became a member of the 24-team American Ultimate Disc League. In its first season, the Flyers won its division and advanced to the playoff semifinals. But Degnan’s ambition has always extended beyond a winning record.

A large portion of Degnan’s job as co-owner is offering himself, and the players, as mentors to youth in the Triangle. Upon joining the team, players are required to sign volunteer contracts with minimum service hour requirements. Many of the players opt to coach middle and high school ultimate teams.

The team also offers mini-skills development clinics before games, as well as multiple weekend clinics throughout the year that have seen as many as 2,000 participants at one time.

This kind of involvement can be taxing for the players, though. They work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs because, according to an estimate from Degnan, the average pay-per-game for professional ultimate players is about $100.

The pay for being a Flyer gives the impression it is only a part-time job, but the time requirements make it feel full-time, Degnan said.

“So there’s not a lot of big egos,” he said.

“Although there are actually some big egos,” he said with sarcastic concern to the team’s media guru, Hugo Sowder.

But what the players lack in financial compensation is made up for in material benefits. Thanks to team sponsors, players receive free gym memberships, chiropractic and physical therapy care and lots of team gear. They also have their travel paid for, receive a per diem and don’t have to pay expensive club dues.

A bonus, Degnan said, is the possibility of making it on SportsCenter Top Ten, a nightly TV segment highlighting the best plays in sports from that day. A couple of Flyers have made the segment, including JD Hastings after making an incredible summersault catch for a goal.

Whenever Degnan talks about his team, there is pride in his voice and excitement in his body. He’s proud of what they do, but no one does quite as much as he does for the Flyers and its outreach. Degnan recognizes the crucial role he plays in the development of the team, and thankfully he has the energy to keep up with a rigorous schedule.

“If you go to sleep early, something’s not happening for the team,” he said.

Degnan often handles the day-to-day and long-term operations of the team from his home or his office at Gibbons. Degnan’s job with the school involves coaching the ultimate team, providing students the opportunity to play sports during their lunch period, starting an intramural program and organizing as many major school functions as he can. The latter task is something he feels he has a particular knack for.

Pre Game

The Flyers hosted the DC Breeze for the first ever cross-divisional game in league history on Saturday, April 22. The game was scheduled for 7 p.m., but Degnan showed up to the fields 12 hours early.

Before he could begin preparing for the Flyers game, he had to set up and manage a 14-game high school ultimate tournament. North Carolina Ultimate, a statewide ultimate organization, was originally supposed to be in charge of the tournament, but for some reason, the responsibility was passed on to Degnan. He only showed a hint of exasperation toward the organization, but never complained.

“If it can be done, I’ll do it,” he said.

At one point during the day, he almost threw out his back setting up a tent.

“Maybe I should have had someone else do that,” he said.

After the tournament, Degnan took a break to get lunch with his dad, and then it was back to the field to set up for the Flyers’ game. One of his main tasks was making sure the live stream to the league’s website would be running by game time, all while coordinating with referees, both teams, and volunteers who would help out at the merchandise and ticket tents.

The weather had been mostly overcast that day but was particular gloomy as game time drew closer. The wind began to pick up and the air became a bit too cold for an afternoon in late April. But the storm warnings only added to the increasing anticipation.

The game garnered about 200 fans. Degnan said the largest crowd for a Flyers game totaled 1,000. He said it’s difficult to consistently get that kind of number, but it’s not for lack of effort.

Sowder, for example, produces and posts the team’s video and photo content to Facebook on a daily basis and writes blog updates on the Flyers’ performance for the website. Bill Bourret, a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill, creates graphic content for the team on a weekly basis. While not a primary goal, volunteering its time in the Triangle’s thriving ultimate community is definitely good promotion.

It was a lively crowd regardless.

Game Time

The DC Breeze scored the first goal and stayed ahead for 40 minutes of the 43-minute game.

The Flyers started the game looking nervous. After a bout of simple mistakes and a few long passes that couldn’t connect, the team slowed it down. They played conservative, electing to go for short passes to try and work their way to the end zone and only making deep passes when a runner had almost certainly outpaced his defender.

This strategy kept the Flyers in the game for the most of the first half, but it wasn’t enough to catch up, especially when the Breeze capitalized on the Flyers’ lackluster downfield defense at moments when it seemed they might tie the game.

At the end of the third quarter, the Flyers were down 17-12. It seemed like the Breeze could put the game away.

flyers1
Hunter Taylor, in the red, is one of the Flyers’ defensive stalwarts, making multiple diving stops throughout the game. (Photo courtesy of the Raleigh Flyers).

With the score tied, you could feel the collective tension. Degnan paced up and down the track, motivating the crowd to get louder, shouting and waving his arms. Fans roared for what felt like a more high-stakes game than just a regular season match up.

It should be noted that throughout the entire game, the fans remained engaged, especially the fan-club section of the bleachers with their collection of chants, good-natured taunts and the occasional trip to the track to smash a bucket. If it were a collegiate game, they were the student section.

Then the Breeze retook the lead with 27 seconds remaining. The crowd convulsed, but the players remained calm.

After the throw off, the Flyers’ most skilled passers shared the disc a couple of times so there was time to spread the defense. About 12 second passed until Jonathon Nethercutt, a UNC-CH graduate and team captain, found a teammate in the end zone with a 50-yard overhead pass, known as a hammer throw.

There was 10 seconds left, not enough time for the Breeze to get a goal. The score was tied 20-20.

The Flyers took their first lead of the game with 3:27 remaining in the 5-minute overtime period. They maintained that lead for the rest of game, winning 23-21.

Post Game

In the aftermath of the game, Sowder noted how gritty the team was. He’s always looking for narratives to promote, and the team’s toughness is one of its trademarks.

But for Degnan, there was not time to reflect. Immediately after the win, he posted himself by the field’s exit to make sure people received season calendars on their way out. It seems his job never ends.

The next big project, Degnan said, is getting funding for a micro-stadium with team offices. He’s met with city officials to discuss the idea, but admits getting public or private funding for a stadium to be used by a niche sports team will be a struggle.

Degnan said he’s not sure what the timeline will look like for a stadium, but he’s remaining invested in the idea, just as he is with the team.

“I love what we have, but I always want it to be more,” he said.

Edited by Matt Wotus

Durham’s Loaf bakery makes bread, builds community

By Leah Asmelash

At 4 a.m., the streets of downtown Durham, N.C. are eerie. The miscellaneous people who roam the streets during the day — construction workers, the homeless and businesspeople — are gone, leaving only darkness and silence.

The windows of Loaf, a bread bakery on the corner of Parrish Street, are the only source of light this early in the morning. Peering through the one of the two large, square windows, I see a short young woman walking around and setting up equipment. A teal headband holds her short brown hair in place. She wears a clean, white apron over her knit sweater and red and black plaid skirt. This is Maggie Payne, one of the morning bakers at Loaf. I am exhausted, but she holds a large teacup in her hands and appears well-rested, ready to bake.

As she explains her job to me, a man wheels a black bike into the bakery. Maggie greets him and tells me this is Brian Avery, the other morning baker. He flashes me a smile but says nothing, and I will soon realize this quietness is the norm for him. He’s tall and thin with a shock of brown hair. I later learn he rides his bike to Loaf every morning, a custom that takes him about 15 minutes.

Ron Graff opened Loaf in 2011 after four years of selling hearth breads at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Now, the bakery has been featured in Bon Appétit and The New York Times and is among the most popular bakeries in the Triangle.

A Baker’s Routine

It’s a small space, one reminiscent of a hole-in-the-wall bookstore rather than a full-fledged bakery. During the day, the sun streams through the two windows behind the front counter, illuminating the entire space with natural light and highlighting the two pastry cases on display — one filled with croissants, pain au chocolats and danishes, the other filled with tiny cakes and cream puffs. Behind the cases and against the window is the metal bread rack, displaying the breads of the day for purchase, like Market Loaf, Pain de Campagne and Polenta bread. In the back, separated from the front part of the store by a short hallway, is the kitchen where everything is baked.

Loaf’s kitchen is about the size of a small classroom, but the industrial baking equipment makes the space feel even more cramped. There’s a giant wood-fired oven in the back corner, and pushed next to it are four conventional ovens, stacked one on top of the other like a bookshelf. A long table completely covered with a wooden cutting board stretches across the middle of the room. On the right, there are sinks and a small work area next to an industrial stand mixer, and both a walk-in fridge and normal fridge to the left.

Maggie and Brian immediately get to work, Brian slams whole wheat and white croissant dough onto the floured cutting board table, while Maggie quietly melts butter over a plug-in stove top. They don’t speak this early, and the only noise, aside from Brian beating the dough, is the buzz from the large cooler in the front of the bakery.

Brian rolls out each fat rectangle of dough and after beating it, flattens it with a rolling pin. The muscles in his forearms clench with each roll, and he meticulously measures the now thin rectangle to ensure it’s the right size. There’s no guesswork involved here, only precision.

He cuts the dough into squares and lays strips of ham across them. He then tubes a soft cheese mixture across the slices of ham, working quickly and efficiently. On the last one, he makes a tiny mistake and the cheese doesn’t fall exactly where he wanted it to. He quickly smacks his lips and lets out a short sigh before he moves on to finish the pastries.

At this point, Brian has only been in the shop for half an hour, but he already has 30 ham and cheese croissants ready for proofing.

He makes a pot of coffee and offers me some. I notice he drinks it black and slow, only a few sips every 45 minutes. It seems at first that Brian has a cold personality, but I soon realize he just doesn’t talk much. When I start asking questions, he opens up easily.

“I was hoping to have strawberries,” he tells me, now hard at work on apricot danishes. “But we can do that tomorrow.”

He smiles as he speaks, and it’s shy, but warm and genuine. When he works, he is completely focused on whatever he does, whether it’s making coffee or prepping breakfast pastries for the day.

Passion Over Practicality

Meanwhile, Maggie is almost the complete opposite of Brian. For the most part, Brian stays in one place while prepping the pastries, but Maggie is constantly moving — fluttering between the stand mixer and the plug-in stove, juggling multiple tasks at once. She adds butter and milk to the stand mixer for hot cross buns, while melting chocolate on the burner for chocolate éclairs. As she works, she narrates everything to me.

Maggie started baking in high school, ultimately deciding to forego college to pursue a baking career. While in high school, she interned for a woman who made wedding cakes before working at a bakery called Lady Cakes, which is now closed. She considered attending culinary school and spent a year after high school researching the path, but she decided it was too expensive, especially in Durham where so many bakers were willing to take her under their wings.

Her parents were supportive of her pursuing baking rather than school, since it was a craft she loved. Maggie hopes to attend college to study science, but for now she enjoys working at Loaf and plans to remain there for the foreseeable future.

“I really enjoy it,” Maggie says. “Even if I don’t feel like going to work, I still enjoy it.”

It’s clear that she does, her quiet contentment on display every time she starts a pastry. She measures out vanilla extract in a bottle cap and pipes whipped chocolate hazelnut cream to make chocolate hazelnut cream puffs, a last-minute decision that she makes look effortless. The finished cream puffs look like tiny castles, and they glow underneath the pasty case lights, almost too pretty to eat.

In Sync

“I was hoping to make strawberry cream puffs,” she tells me, reflecting what Brian said earlier about the danishes. The two are in sync.

Brian and Maggie don’t talk much and when they do, it’s about work: what ingredients they have or don’t have or what they need to make. Brian gives some direction, but they both have the freedom to essentially do or make whatever they want. As they work, they mostly listen to podcasts and indie music, which Brian plays by connecting his phone to a speaker.

Despite their general silence, they’re engaged in a continuous dance as they go about their shift. Maggie shimmies by Brian as she shuffles to the other side of the kitchen, and he slides by her to get to the back. They work around each other, but somehow never seem to intrude or get in the other’s way.

They’re in harmony, as if they don’t need to communicate. Maggie pulls out the danishes Brian made earlier, spooning cream into the center and topping them with the apricot slices he prepped beforehand. She sprays the proofed ham and cheese croissants from hours earlier with water and tops them with extra cheese. At no point does Brian tell her to do these things, Maggie just knows.

That kind of knowing comes from years of working together. Maggie has been at Loaf for two years now and Brian for six, since the bakery opened its downtown location.

Restaurant Fatigue

Brian started as a line cook at Piedmont, a modern American restaurant in downtown Durham. But he was bored just being a line cook, so eventually he moved up and became the restaurant’s pastry chef, having previously been a baker at Wellspring, a Durham grocery store that is now a Whole Foods.

He met Ron when he was still only selling bread at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Brian discovered he was going to open up a bakery and decided to join.

“I was getting pretty tired of the restaurant business,” Brian said. Bakeries seemed calmer, which appealed to him.

Brian cleans out the wood-fired oven, where Loaf bakes almost all of the bread they sell, sweeping out the ash. Loaves of dough in small straw baskets are lined up on giant, stacked metal cooling racks. He scoops six loaves onto a peel, guiding them into shape using his palms. His touch is gentle but quick. He cuts lines into the tops of loaves using a metal lame, which he holds between his lips while he slides the loaves into the 500-degree wood-fired oven. He repeats this process for about five different types of bread, baking what seems to be hundreds of loaves in total, but the number is probably closer to 50. I don’t see him take a break.

Loaf’s Leader

Around noon, Ron makes his first appearance in Loaf. He’s tall, and his gray hair is pulled back into a braid that falls between his shoulder blades. His double piercings in his left ear sparkle under the light – one silver hoop and one teal stud.

The first thing he does is wash dishes. Ownership doesn’t give him a free pass.

We talk upstairs in a wide room overlooking Parrish Street. It’s a space Ron is still deciding what to do with, but for now serves as a temporary office and storage area.

Ron’s demeanor is lighthearted, and he jokes around with the staff and customers who come in. But when we start talking about Loaf, his tone grows more serious.

For him, Loaf was always about bread. He recognizes that croissants and pain au chocolats may pay the bills, and he’s glad that Loaf is known for those items too, but that isn’t what Loaf was meant to be.

“Bread is why most of us are here,” he says.

Bread was his passion, what he turned to when his day job, a research scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, became stressful. He didn’t set out to open a bakery, but as demand for his bread grew, he decided to find a space to bake full time.

A Community Bakery

Loaf is now what Ron calls a community bakery. He works nourish and feed the Triangle with his bread. Loaf donates any leftovers they have to refugee and homeless organizations, and they sell at two farmers’ markets, both Durham’s and Chapel Hill’s, all of which help increase their presence in the community.

Although Loaf didn’t begin with this intention, the bakery has become a way for Ron to give back to his community.

He stares out the window, looking down on Parrish Street. It’s the middle of the day now, so the construction workers have returned and people are roaming the streets.

“I want to be a good citizen,” he says.

Back in the kitchen, the originally quiet space is now filled with chatter and laughter. Music underlines all the action as Maggie tells jokes that make the other bakers laugh. Everyone is still working, but it’s clear they’re all friends, part of the same community.

The only one who doesn’t talk is Brian, who’s completely focused on his bread, one hand on his hip and the other resting on the door of the wood-fired oven. Although he has separated himself from the group, he still waves at passing customers he recognizes. He’s part of Loaf,  part of this community bakery that continues to flourish, both in and outside the kitchen.

Edited by Sarah Muzzillo

 

Paying it forward with pupusas

By John-Paul Gemborys

On a warm spring day outside the Campus Y, Cecilia Polanco sat in the driver’s seat aboard her food truck, carving up a pupusa with a plastic fork before the midday lunch rush.

Behind her, two little Latina ladies smiled and giggled over a stainless steel countertop as they smacked corn flour dough into thick, round disks. One was Nora Polanco, whom Cecilia called mami, a sweet, soft-spoken mother of four with a round, rosy face and a streak of crimson in her dark hair. The other, a firecracker with short, black hair and laugh lines drawn across her face, was the 61-year-old Victoria Galdamez — otherwise known as tia Vicky. Wetting their hands, the two ladies pinched out balls of dough and patted them into flat cakes before applying a generous dollop of modo, or filling, which on that day was chicharrón con queso (a savory paste made of fried pork and cheese) or frijoles (refried beans mixed with shredded mozzarella). The two sisters then sealed the dumplings and removed any excess dough before flattening them once more to be seared atop a hot griddle. As the rich smell of sizzling pork and cheese wafted through the air, Cecilia stood at the window, taking orders from excited students.

“This is Salvadorian food?” one man asked, his voice barely audible over the hum of the truck’s generator.

“Yep,” Cecilia replied as the two ladies worked behind her, flattening the dough so that it sounded like the clapping of hands. “Do you want the toppings?”

“Sure,” he replied.

She reached for a pile of pupusas set aside by her mother who flipped them hot off the grill — each one was browned and dappled with crispy, black bits. As Cecilia set one on a paper plate, she added a handful of curtido, a piquant slaw of pickled cabbage and carrots, and a squirt of red tomato salsa.

For Cecilia, being the owner of a food truck was never something she had planned on.

“We kind of started talking about it in passing, kind of jokingly that we should start a food truck,” Cecilia said of her mother and her. “Once I started talking about it, I was like, ‘Wow, I really am thinking about this. I do want to do this.’ But it really didn’t become real real until I bought the truck.”

But So Good Pupusas is more than just a business for Cecilia; it’s a mission.

“This is really a means to an end,” she told me. “We wanted to start a scholarship fund for undocumented students. We don’t have any money to do so, so we have to generate it somehow, and pupusas is what we know best.”

Family, tradition and pupusas – a simple recipe but a powerful one. A recipe Cecilia hopes to use to effect enormous positive change.

Journey to the United States

It was 1982 when Jose Alfonso Sandoval left his rural village of La Isla to make his journey to America. At 26 years old, he was leaving behind the only country he ever knew, two daughters and a pregnant wife, but he knew he had to get to America. With his third daughter on the way, he wanted a better life for his children than was available in his village, which at the time had no running water, paved roads or electricity and only offered an education that was equivalent to middle school.

“Everyone there is from el campo. We’re all campesinos — we work in the fields, and you don’t need an education to work in the fields,” Cecilia said. “My dad didn’t really see a future for us there — for his daughters.”

But that wasn’t the only reason, Cecilia said.  “We had no choice but to leave.”

At the time of her father’s departure, a brutal civil war was raging in El Salvador, and her father, a former serviceman, was in danger.

“They were trying to recruit him back into the military, but it was the military against their own people, and then the guerilla forces also wanted him, so you had to choose. If you chose one, you were still fighting against your own people, and if you didn’t join either side you were kind of seen as a traitor to both of them,” Cecilia said.

“My grandmother would tell stories about waking up in the morning to clear dead bodies. And that was just something that happened. Or the military would come, and we would have to feed them. And you already were poor, so what did you feed them?”

In order to escape the violence, her father left. But he couldn’t bring his whole family at once, so he set off on his own, accompanied by only one of his wife’s sisters, to work and send money back home. Before reaching the United States, Cecilia’s father first had to cross into Guatemala and then Mexico.

“There’s a storyline that we tell about how Salvadorians are tres veces mojados,” Cecilia told me. “We say mojado can kind of be translated into ‘wetback,’ but they have different connotations. For us, mojado is just someone who is crossing the border. ‘Wetback’ has a much more negative connotation. So we say that we are that three times because we have to cross into Guatemala, we have to cross into Mexico and then the United States.”

Along his journey to cross three different borders, Jose Alfonso was detained in Mexico and spent some time in a Mexican prison. When he finally got to the United States, Cecilia said he weighed only 115 pounds.

His first time, Jose Alfonso entered the country illegally, and for a whole year he worked.

“That’s one of the hardest things he had to do,” Cecilia said. “(That) was being here by himself without his wife and his little girls. And the little girl he’d never met.” After one year Jose Alfonso had enough money to bring his wife Nora to America to work with him.

Nora said that the first thing she thought about when arriving was work. “Trabajar mucho para traerlos” she said.

“The first thing she was thinking about was working — working to bring her daughters,” Cecilia translated.

“Mhmmm,” Nora said, nodding.

“That’s the story that they tell,” Cecilia said, “is that when you get here you’re indebted. So you get here to work, to pay off your debt and then save up money to bring someone else over, and now you’ve got to pay off their debt. So that’s how it goes. You have to pay the coyote.”

By the time Cecilia’s third sister turned 4, the entire family had resettled in America, though not yet as citizens . “There was a point in time where we were essentially undocumented before going through the process of seeking political asylum,” Cecilia said.

“I don’t know how — he just did the right things,” she said of her dad applying for citizenship. “Part of that was filling out papers to gain residency — to seek political asylum — he just had to figure everything out. He was so smart in so many ways, in ways that are more than scholarly intelligence. Our situation turned out for the best because of a lot of the decisions he made.”

In 1992 Cecilia Polanco was born in Los Angeles, California — the only one of her sisters to be born in a hospital.

Pupusas and tradition

Cecilia has been eating pupusas made by her mother since before she can remember. Growing up, she said, pupusas were a treat only had on rare occasions.

“We would have them probably a couple of times a year — so not that often,” she said. As Cecilia grew older, her mother began to make them more often, and with Cecilia’s food truck officially opening last March, the treats have become more common but no less special.

“Now we have them really often because we’re working on the truck, but this was something really special that I shared with people to show them a deeper part of who I am,” Cecilia said. “They might know me as their fellow UNC student or know me as a Latina, but what they might not know are the specifics behind that — the diversity within that make me Salvadorian. And so I get to share that to people with food. And that’s really special.”

For Cecilia, it’s important to feed people exactly what she was fed at home. But it can be a difficult learning process for her, as her mother has no official recipe for pupusas.

“She doesn’t measure anything. She tastes everything. By smell, taste and how it looks, she knows if it’s ready. And so that’s what I’m learning, which is probably harder than learning the recipe.”

The recipes can also be time-consuming with a lot of prep in advance. But as a second-generation citizen, Cecilia said she believes the effort to learn her mother’s recipes is worth it.

“Something I worried about when I was younger was not learning to cook like she can cook because I’m in school or I’m working or something like that. But now my job is to learn how she does it, so now I’m going to learn how to make pupusas. I’m going to know how to make them, and I’ll make them for my children and my grandchildren and keep her legacy alive,” she said.

Even so, Cecilia confessed that she still hasn’t mastered the art of pupusa-making.

“It’s hard to get it perfect like that,” she said as she pointed to some of her mother’s crispy examples. “Sometimes mine come out with half of it being dough inside, and the other half the filling’s all spilling out, so it takes a lot of time and practice to get to that level of expertise.”

But with her mother and tia Vicky to guide her, it’s likely that she’ll figure it out eventually. “They’re my two main chefs,” she said as her mother flipped pupusas over the stove and tia Vicky roasted a sweet potato. “I’m really like the sous chef in training. I need (tia Vicky) to tell me, ‘OK, yeah, this is right,’ or, ‘This needs a little bit more of this,’ so that’s who she is,” Cecilia said.

Paying it forward

As the child of Central American immigrants, Cecilia is conscious of how fortunate her situation is in comparison to others.

“There are a lot of families that arrived here just like my family, seeking something better, and because they were Mexican or Guatemalan or from somewhere else, they didn’t have the same path — they didn’t have the same opportunities.”

In December, Cecilia got official status for her nonprofit, Pupusas for Education, which gives out two $1,000 scholarships each year to undocumented high school seniors. Last year they had five applicants. This year that number tripled. One of their scholarship recipients received a Golden Door Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships for undocumented students in the country. “Her name’s Maria, she is doing really well academically, and she’s vice president of their Latino organization there. She’s just rocking it,” Cecilia gushed over her recipient.

With no state or federal funding, undocumented students have a massive financial hurdle to clear and often have to piece together smaller scholarships, like Pupusas for Education, to afford higher learning.

“We’re kind of a drop in the bucket for an undocumented student trying to pay out of state tuition, but we feel that through our mission and the assistance we provide, we’re affirming that students are worth investing in,” Cecilia said.

Cecilia also plans to use her food trucks to allow locals who may not have a legitimate platform to sell their own food.

“I’ve always known of food trucks to be a Latino thing,” she said. “They’ve been at soccer fields, at construction sites for decades in North Carolina. Now illegal food vendors who might sell their food in nontraditional ways like out of their van, at church or at a corner store — there’s been a big crackdown on that community. And they’re majority Latinos, majority-minority — people of color who are selling food.”

In exchange for using her truck, a small portion of the earnings will go toward Pupusas for Education, but first Cecilia says she needs to fine-tune the business model so that it’s worthwhile, and so that no one gets exploited.

Near the end of the day, a woman approached the truck informing Cecilia that she had never tried a pupusa.

“Great, I love being people’s first pupusa,” Cecilia smiled.

“But I already know that I want the chicharrón,” the woman said.

“One?”

“Uhmm, is that a good amount to get?”

“One’s a snack. Two or three’s a meal.” Cecilia informed her matter-of-factly.

“Then I want two. Can I get one? Hmmm.”

“One pork, one bean?” Cecilia asked.

“Yeah,” the woman said. “Gonna try them both.”

As her aunt and mother shaped pupusas in the back, carrying on a tradition that had been in their family for generations, Cecilia shared that tradition one pupusa at a time, helping other students like herself go to school — students who might one day share their culture with the world as well.

Edited by Alison Krug.

 

Moving out and moving on: coping with my parents’ divorce in college

By Alexandra Blazevich

On December 31, 2016, my mom kicked my dad out of the house.

Happy New Year, right?

Before my dad left that night, my parents called me downstairs to the kitchen from my room, where I was listening to music. Even with my headphones in on maximum volume, and the makeshift blanket fort I made as a sound barrier to drown out the yelling, I could still hear them. Every night was the same story, but that night they invited me into the conversation.

Part of their discussion now involved me, a 22-year-old college student who was living at home to save them money until I could graduate and find a big-girl job to support myself. I watched them struggle to pay my sister’s way through college and I didn’t want to put them through that again. In turn, I had to put up with them.

“Your mom and I have been talking,” my dad said.

“Yeah, I heard,” I responded, sarcastically.

“We’re giving you the chance to stay here or go with your dad,” my mom chimed in.

It was happening. They had actually decided to separate – something I could see coming since the time I was 12.

What had once been love had become tolerance. From tolerance, it turned to hostility. And from hostility, it became anger. The anger resulted in fights that took place most nights in the kitchen, where my parents would yell until they got too tired.

Then they would retreat to their separate rooms and watch TV. My dad would sleep on the couch. As if they thought I was a little kid who didn’t know any better, the next day they would pretend like it never happened. They would let their issues bottle-up until they exploded.

Still, my mom would ask me why I hid in my room all day. My dad understood – he hid in his office.

At that moment, all I wanted was to escape. I would have done anything to leave that house. I grew up there and it’s where most of my childhood memories took place, but none of that mattered to me anymore.

“I’m going with dad,” I said without hesitation.

With that, the conversation was over. I walked back to my room, to the quiet hum of the heater, and I turned off the music that was still blasting through my headphones.

Silence.

 Reflection

Throughout the semester, I’ve met other people my age who are going through the same thing – their parents waited for them to reach a certain age before separating.

Gloria, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore, opened up to me about her parent’s separation and divorce this semester. They waited until she and her sister were out of the house before deciding to part ways.

Susan Orenstein, a family and couples therapist, said it’s common for married couples to divorce or separate after their kids move out.

“As they (couples) get through the first few years (of marriage), they are really busy building their lives and raising their kids, and they have some common goals,” she said. “What I’ve seen is that once the kids are off to college, then they look at each other and try to figure out what their purpose is as a couple. If they can’t answer that, they may be more vulnerable to getting a divorce.”

My parents both turn 60 this year, which makes them part of the baby-boom generation. Among baby boomers, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2015, 10 out of every 1,000 married people over 50 got divorced. In 1990, it was 5 out of every 1,000, or 0.5 percent.

This is my mother’s second marriage, which increases the chance of divorce up to 16 out of 1,000 people. Among all adults 50 and older who divorced in 2015, 48 percent had been in their second or higher marriage.

According to the same research, each time a person is remarried, the chance of divorce goes up.

 Things fall back together

“Hey dad, will you be here for dinner tonight?” I asked him one day while I made breakfast.

“I’m going out with your mother,” he replied casually.

I quickly made my way over to his bedroom and stood in the doorway. His back was to me as he sat at his desk, staring at his computer screen.

“What?” I said in disbelief.

He repeated the same answer without turning around – as if this was completely normal and expected. After years of fighting and months of being apart, they were going on a date. I don’t even think he would have told me if I hadn’t asked.

When he posted a picture of them smiling at dinner on Facebook later that night, I almost puked. My world had turned upside down.

 The first night

It’s been almost five months since the night I packed up my entire room in trash bags, threw them into my car and drove 15 minutes down the road to the apartment my cousin is letting us stay in.

My entire wardrobe was stuffed into three large garbage bags that sat on the floor. My shoes were in another messy pile nearby.

My new room was previously a bachelor pad. The walls were bare. My grandmother’s old couch was covered in video games and books my cousin probably hadn’t moved since he put them there in the first place.

I hung up some photos to remind me of better times, when I didn’t feel like my life was a carpet being ripped out from beneath my feet.

I wanted to cry, but I was too tired. I ended up combining the two and crying myself to sleep that first night.

 “Talk to your mother”

On January 18, my birthday, my aunt treated me to lunch. As my mom’s older sister, she knows her even better than I do. She understood my hurt, but she encouraged me to talk to my mom. I wasn’t ready.

A week before Easter, my dad told me the four of us – my sister, my parents and myself – were going to spend the holiday together. My parents had been on numerous dates together at this point, and my sister had even come home one weekend and to see my mom. I still wasn’t ready.

After days of telling me to talk to my mother, I took my dad’s advice. The text read, “Hey mom, would you like to get breakfast this week? I’ve taken a step back for a while just to think about things, but I think this will be good.”

Two hours later, she responded, “Ok. We can meet around 9.”

Not exactly a warm and fuzzy response, but at least she answered.

Resolution

That week, we met for breakfast at our favorite place. We shared stories from the past months apart. She jumped out of her chair in delight when I showed her the promise ring my boyfriend gave me while I visited him over spring break. It looked like a genuine reaction, but the whole situation didn’t feel real to me.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked eagerly.

I had no desire to talk to her. I felt betrayed – like the world I’d known for so long was falling apart. My parents were no longer my role models for how I wanted to parent my kids or treat my husband. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I have these last few months.

On Easter, my family went to church and made dinner together, something we hadn’t done since my sister and I were kids. We ate, we drank and we laughed that day – more than I had since long before that cold January night when we packed our bags and left. After dinner, my sister drove back to Charlotte, where she lives. I drove back to the apartment and my dad came back later. It was bittersweet. While some things have not changed, many are different.

I still don’t like to look at my neighborhood when I pass by. I don’t live there anymore. It isn’t my home, and I’m not welcome back. The memories I have there are now tainted.

My dad hopes my mom will let him back in the house soon. He’s been saying that since the day we left. He wants to go back, but I don’t. I moved out, and it’s time for me to move on.

Edited by Paige Connelly

The business of sprouting joy and peace from tiny seeds in Durham

Picture1
Almost 700 plants surround visitors from all angles at The ZEN Succulent. Photo by Molly Weybright.

By Molly Weybright

Shades of green — a gradient so expansive that you didn’t know so many variants of the color existed.  Colors that look like the way a granny smith apple tastes, like the feeling of damp grass between your toes, like petrichor — the earthy smell after heavy rain.  Over 100 different species of plants hang from the ceiling, rest on shelves against the walls and nestle into nooks around the floor.  Succulents and ferns surround you in the 400 square foot space that holds almost 700 plants.  They’re impossible to avoid.

Not that you would want to.

Stepping into The ZEN Succulent, a small store in Durham, N.C., is like entering another world.  It feels like Neverland — wild and untamed but also carefully crafted — every plant has a place where it belongs.  It is the type of place Peter Pan would long to call home.  The greens and browns and organized chaos exude wanderlust and magic; any minute a fairy might flit out from behind the large leaf of a philodendron.  If Tinker Bell were to ever find herself in Durham, this is undoubtedly where she would end up.

Megan George has crafted her small store to be more than just a plant shop.  She has created, as if by magic, an atmosphere of natural, easygoing relaxation that is impossibly inviting.  She wants to create a community of trust and creativity and believes that The ZEN Succulent and her plants are the best way to do it.

“Plants bring me joy, inspiration and happiness,” she said, and through The ZEN Succulent, she is able to share that with the community.

 

A roundabout past

Megan George grew up in Raleigh surrounded by plants.  Both of her parents were ardent plant-lovers and they often took her to greenhouses and nurseries.  Her love of plants is founded in the deep history that she has with learning about plants and how to care for them.

“The seeds that were planted way back when,” she said, “how I’m able to use them now, it’s crazy.”

She moved back to Raleigh in 2011 after graduating from business school at UNC-Greensboro.  Yearning for small-business jobs, she realized quickly that there were very few available.  She found herself working for the North Carolina Education Lottery.

She did not enjoy the job — her creativity was being stifled.  So, in an effort to combat her frustration, she started an Etsy page selling succulents and terrariums.

“Through my frustration in not being able to implement all of the things I learned at school,” she said, “that’s how [The ZEN Succulent] came about.”

And she never looked back.

Megan’s passion continued to grow as she developed ways to increase people’s knowledge about houseplants, succulents and terrariums.  She has since worked with HGTV, published a book titled “Modern Terrarium Studio” and opened The ZEN Succulent.

When Bakara Wintner, the owner of Everyday Magic, which now adjoins The ZEN Succulent, offered her the 400-square-foot space, Megan said she felt like it was fate rather than chance.

“At that point, I’d never said the words ‘I want to have a shop’ out loud,” she said.  “Even though I really wanted it, I’d just never had the opportunity.  But [Bakara] gave me that opportunity and I thought, why not?”

As soon as she knew she had a space to expand her passion, she jumped headfirst into building the business she always dreamed of having.

“In 20 years I can say ‘I did it,’” Megan said, “instead of saying ‘I wish I had done it.’”

Sarah Riazati, who works at Everyday Magic, was there when Megan signed the lease.  In less than a month, she said, Megan transformed the small, box-filled space into a “luscious, green, amazing-smelling little store.”  Sarah said she couldn’t believe how fast Megan created the green wonderland.

“That was really when I saw her design sense coming out,” she said.  “There are so many pieces that go into it.  It showed she had a really strong vision.”

Megan’s design sense and her business intuition work perfectly together to create a cohesive and thriving store where customers feel at home upon their first visit.

Megan said she wants shopping at The ZEN Succulent to be a very personal experience where customers get one-on-one attention to help their plant journey be as successful as possible.

“People can go anywhere to get plants,” Megan said, “so why do they come to me?”

One reason is the holistic approach she takes when dealing with the store.  She believes that if she has all of the things people need to create their terrariums or potted plants, then they will be more successful. So, if a customer buys a plant and a pot from The ZEN Succulent, Megan will put them together for free.

Megan’s sole employee, Julie Ragsdale, described her as knowledgeable and business-savvy as well as hilarious, kind and generous.

“I couldn’t imagine finding a more enjoyable person to work with,” Julie said.

When it comes down to it, those qualities are what make Megan and The ZEN Succulent so successful.  She is more than just a business owner or a plant lover — she is a people lover who wants to impart happiness and serenity upon everyone she meets.

 

Thriving in the present

Since opening the store Megan hasn’t stopped trying to involve members of the community with her business.  Her newest idea is to hold workshops at The ZEN Succulent.

She has collaborated with local artists to host watercolor painting, spoon carving, floral arranging and calligraphy workshops.  Megan herself hosts succulent terrarium building workshops where up to 10 people can make their own terrariums, each unique to the individual creating it.

“At all of the workshops everybody leaves with their own creation and something extra to recreate the exercise again,” she said.  “They are leaving with something to continue their journey.”

From her terrarium workshops participants will leave with their newly made succulents as well as instructions on how to recreate the experience in their own homes.

Her first workshop, hosted on Tuesday, April 18, sold out in five days with little promotion. Megan said that she was thrilled at how quickly the workshop sold out — she wants to help people discover the joy of owning and crafting indoor plants.

“We’re not just putting plants in glassware,” she said, “we’re making a landscape.”

As the 10 participants began to arrive on April 18, Megan put the finishing touches on the workshop spaces.  Each person would have a glass bowl; soil, sand and rocks; six succulents; and the tools necessary to put it all together.

She began the workshop by talking about how the succulents are low maintenance plants, which is what makes them ideal for small spaces with little natural light.

“I went into a low-maintenance business for a reason,” she joked.

But, unbeknownst to the 10 women participating, Megan had just spent the previous three hours getting ready and setting up for the workshop — on her day off.  The ZEN Succulent is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but that doesn’t stop her from tending to the behind-the-scenes work that makes the store so magical.

For almost three hours she flitted around the store preparing the setups for the participants, vacuuming and running out to a nearby shop to purchase complimentary wine for the women.

But Megan doesn’t mind.  In fact, she loves it.

“When you enjoy what you’re doing you really want to excel,” she said.

Many of the participants were first-time plant owners looking to find some low maintenance yet beautiful plants to liven up their living and work spaces.

Diane Ditzel from Durham lives in a small apartment and wants to garden but has no land.  She heard about Megan’s workshop and felt like it was the perfect solution to her lack of space.  As the workshop progressed Diane realized that creating the terrarium was almost its own form of gardening.  She was taking living things and putting them together to create her own miniature garden.

“It’s like art,” she said.

Other participants felt that the idea of creating a succulent terrarium from scratch was daunting, but they found that once they got started under Megan’s instructions, everything fell into place.

Kim O’Brien, a participant from Wake Forest, prefaced the workshop by admitting that she had no idea what she was doing, but by the end felt that the experience was incredibly therapeutic.

“She’s good,” Kim said of Megan’s ease with plants and people and putting the two together.

And she is.

Megan said she purposefully doesn’t make a terrarium during the workshop so that the participants can make the terrariums in their own way.

There is no wrong way to create these landscapes, she said, and the freer people are to work on their own, the more they will appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of the results.

She also lets the participants pick six out of the hundreds of succulents she has available so they can pick the plants that they are most drawn to.  Megan emphasizes that plants are not just decorations, but are living things that individuals can connect with.  She said the terrarium building process is a “very organic experience.”

Many of the participants were thrilled and astounded by the wide variety of plants they could choose from, including Cassidy Johnson from Chapel Hill.

“I’ve never seen some of these before,” she said.  “It looks like something out of Dr. Seuss.”

Some of the plants are fuzzy and some are smooth.  Some are long, skinny and loping while others are squat and round.  There are pink plants and teal plants and red plants and blue plants.  Looking at the succulents side by side does seem like a small world out of the mind of Seuss himself.

Cassidy first noticed The ZEN Succulent as she was walking around downtown Durham, and when one of her coworkers at the Carolina Women’s Center heard about Megan’s workshop, they decided to check it out.

She said that she was thrilled about how relaxing the workshop was and how much she got out of it.

“We all have pretty serious jobs,” Cassidy said, “so it felt pretty nice to come do something like this.”

That’s exactly what Megan strives for — people discovering the serenity of working with plants and taking that discovery with them when they leave.

 

A wide-open future

When it comes to running a small business, Megan said she feels that passion is one of the most important aspects to finding success.  Her love of plants and her business skills create a perfect niche where she finds joy and success.  She described owning and running The ZEN Succulent as an “honor, privilege and responsibility.”

Her biggest piece of advice?

“Do something that you love and be authentic when you do it.”

Striving for that authenticity is something that she says she does every day.  She knows that she needs that authenticity as she continues to build and expand upon her ideas.

“I’m very aware of the mortality of my business,” she said, “because this is something that I need to take to another level, otherwise it’s going to be very static.”

While she is always looking forward to see what she can do to expand, she can’t help but reflect back on how far she has come.

As the anniversary of opening the shop approaches in May, Megan said that it’s hard to believe how much has come out of her passion for plants and her knack for business.

“It could have happened to anyone,” she said, “but I’m glad that it happened to me.”

She is not sure what her next step is, but as far as she can see into the future, Megan sees herself with The ZEN Succulent.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” she said.  “This could be a forever thing.”

Edited by Bridget Dye.

Coaching success: Three coaches, three winning philosophies

By Jacob Hancock

It’s the fourth quarter. It’s the ninth inning. Two-minute warning. Stoppage time. The game is on the line. If you love sports, you live for these moments. How do coaches handle these situations? How do they prepare their players for these, the most intense moments, on and off the field? There’s no right answer. No two coaches operate the same way, and there’s no real blueprint for success. What follows are three success stories from three coaches that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know during my life.

Born with a whistle in my mouth…”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more successful high school basketball coach than Billy Anderson, who runs the show at East Carteret High School in Beaufort, N.C.

With Anderson at the helm, the Mariners have won seven consecutive 1A Coastal Plains Conference championships – perhaps one of the most powerful conferences in the state at the 1A level. Rival team Pamlico County High School gives East Carteret a good game every year. Jones Senior High School is on the rise with new head coach Tod Morgan, who played JV basketball at UNC and has coached at several successful high schools in the state. North Side High School in Pinetown joined the conference in the 2013-2014 season, and were led for two seasons by Bam Adebayo, who played for the University of Kentucky this past season and will enter the NBA Draft after playing just one year in college. Anderson also makes it a point to schedule tough teams in non-conference play, often scheduling games against schools that have success at the 2A, 3A and 4A levels.

“I believe that to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Anderson said. “I want my guys to be the best, and you don’t get that by playing weaker teams. I try to use some of those games in December as a measuring stick – see where we are in comparison to where we want to be and what we need to work on to get there.”

Mariner fans enjoyed a four-year stretch in which the team competed at the Eastern Regionals in Fayetteville each season. They also made it to the state championship in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015. The team went undefeated in 2014 before losing in the final game to perennial powerhouse Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy. The Mariners, led by a trio of the most successful seniors in program history, got redemption over Winston-Salem and won the title in 2015.

“The support that the community showed us during that stretch was incredible,” Anderson said. “It hasn’t quite been the same since, which is understandable because that group was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of group. I consider myself lucky to have coached them.”

Anderson graduated from High Point University in 2000, and promptly started his coaching career as an assistant on his cousin’s staff at West Caldwell High School. He comes from a long line of coaches in his family and said he always knew he wanted to coach.

“I was practically born with a whistle in my mouth and a clipboard in my hand,” Anderson said.

Watching Anderson on the sidelines is pure entertainment – almost as entertaining as watching the team play. Every year you can count on high-octane offense from the Mariners. Anderson demands that each of his players puts his foot on the gas to get out in transition. Anderson is animated and emotional during games, pacing the sideline with his sucker in his mouth.

“It’s usually a cherry Dum Dum,” Anderson said. “It keeps me calm – sort of.”

Anderson has coached teams where the tallest player was (generously) listed at 6’2”. He’s had groups that can light it up from beyond the arc, and groups that “couldn’t throw it in the ocean from the shore.” Though he always wants his team playing at a blistering pace, he says it’s important to make slight adjustments when necessary.

“You have to have an idea of what your kids can do,” Anderson said. “Figure out what they do best, and then go from there.”

Asked about the secret to his success at East Carteret, Anderson said the answer was simply getting the kids in the gym.

“When I got here, we had some good athletes,” Anderson said. “But they weren’t in the gym every day. I started challenging them. Our guys now are gym rats. I have guys now that ask if they can come into the gym during lunch to get up shots. Now, our guys are all playing AAU during the summer and getting better year-round. Because we’ve had success, it means something to play for East Carteret, and I think guys want to live up to that.”

Anderson can be very demanding of his players, but the respect they have for him is clear. Former players are spotted at home games, and they stay after the game to see their old coach.

“That’s my favorite part of coaching,” Anderson said. “Building relationships with these guys, and seeing them grow up and become good men. It means a lot that so many of them still come back and support us. Some of them will even come around and play pickup with our guys during the summer, which is a great opportunity for the young guys to play against quality competition.”

Anderson said the toughest part about his job is having to make cuts and trying to find playing time for everybody.

“We really have a great talent pool here,” Anderson said. “There’s so many good athletes, and so many good kids. But you can’t run a program with 40 kids on your JV team.”

That’s not an exaggeration by Anderson. I tried out my sophomore year of high school, along with more than 40 of my fellow classmates. I was the last person to be cut. But Anderson encouraged me to come try out the next season, and even though I elected not to because of a heavy academic workload, I appreciated the interest that he showed in me – someone who didn’t even make the team.

“If you make the effort, and you genuinely take interest in their lives, they’re going to respond,” Anderson said. “They’re going to trust you, and that’s when you get the best out of them.”

“I was speaking a foreign language…”

When Antonio Diaz first came to East Carteret High School from Cordoba, Spain, as part of a teacher-transfer program, it had what could be called a soccer team. It had had some marginal success, winning a couple of playoff games in the 1990s, but was a complete mess in 2005.

“There just wasn’t a very good soccer presence in the area,” Diaz said. “We had guys who didn’t even play in middle school coming into high school.”

My brother was one of those guys. A freshman, he had played growing up and was offered a spot on a Classic League team in Cape Carteret that played year-round. But the traveling was going to be expensive (a 40-minute drive to practice every day), and he didn’t want to give up baseball. When he got to middle school, there weren’t enough people who wanted to play, and they couldn’t field a team.

“I knew that if I was ever going to turn the program around, I had to improve the development in the middle schools,” Diaz said.

Diaz met with members of the local parks and recreation services to encourage them start classic teams in Beaufort that would travel. This happened as I was coming up, and even though I did not play, a classic team was established and many of my friends joined. By the time I was in middle school, we had plenty of players to field a team.

“The difference that made, it was incredible,” Diaz said. “The group your freshman year was probably the most talented group in program history, and the group the next year was even better.”

The team only won four games my freshman year, but we improved at the end of the season and were competitive in a conference with Dixon High School and South West Onslow High School, two of the best 1A teams in the state. Diaz blamed himself for the early season struggles.

“I was a little hesitant to play some of the freshman at the beginning of the season,” Diaz said. “I didn’t want the older players to feel like they were being tossed to the side.”

The next year, the team made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1995, and the year after that we won a playoff game. The next season, conference alignments were adjusted, and Dixon and Southwest Onslow moved up to 2A and were replaced by North Side High School, South Side High School, and Bear Grass Charter School – all three much weaker teams. The program seemed to be peaking at the perfect time.

“Fans were starting to take notice,” Diaz said. “I think everyone could tell that big things were coming.”

The team had some unfortunate injuries early on. I sprained my ankle two days before the season opener against 3A county rival West Carteret, our star freshman sprained his the next day, and two senior would-be starters were already lost for the season.

“That was a very trying period,” Diaz said. “You really hate to see good kids out with injuries. You want them to get back out there as soon as they can, but safety is the top priority. You have to keep them motivated and make sure they understand that you have their best interest in mind. You also have to keep players on the bench mentally prepared, because they may have to replace someone at any time.”

But the team overcame those early season struggles and captured the first conference championship in program history. The team earned two first-round home playoff games before losing an unlucky draw in the third round. The next season they made it to the fourth round, losing to eventual state champion Wallace Rose Hill High School. East Carteret has now won four consecutive conference championships.

“The difference from where the program started and where it is now is night and day,” Diaz said. “It’s truly my proudest accomplishment.”

Before Diaz came to town, you might see students walking the halls wearing the jerseys of professional basketball or football athletes, but never soccer. Now, it’s not farfetched to find a student sporting a Messi or Ronaldo kit.

“The culture here has completely changed,” Diaz said. “I feel like when I came here, I was speaking a foreign language, and it wasn’t Spanish – it was soccer.”

Students love Diaz, and many opt to take his Latin class to fulfill the foreign language requirement instead of the more traditional option of Spanish. Everyone loves to listen to him talk – the difference in his voice inflection, the way he rolls his R’s, the way he pronounces “mayonnaise” (maYO-naise!). He’s a very easy-going man and is always looking for ways to make his students and players smile.

“I think it’s important to remember that soccer is just a game,” Diaz said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

I can’t remember one day of high school in which Diaz didn’t make an effort to have a conversation with me. Whether it was in the hallway between classes, in the cafeteria during lunch or in the middle of Latin class while we worked on projects, I’m almost certain that Diaz spoke to me every single day of my high school career.

“You have to get to know each of your players,” Diaz said. “You have to figure out what they’re like, what they’re good at – both skill-wise and attitude-wise – and you have figure out how to make all of the different personalities blend into one cohesive team.”

“It takes a lot of patience…”

When Jason Salter was growing up, he never thought that he’d become a baseball coach.

“It had never even crossed my mind,” Salter said. “I don’t think anyone else who knew me would have expected it either. I was a bit of a troublemaker.”

Salter was a talented baseball player. He had the opportunity to play at UNC-Chapel Hill, but he didn’t even make it to the spring semester before flunking out.

“That was a bigtime reality check,” Salter said. “I had always been able to rely on being smart enough, not having to study. Add that with all the partying, I just wasn’t mature enough. I knew I had to make a change in my life.”

After taking some time off, Salter enrolled at UNCW a changed man. He kept his grades up and started working as an assistant at Roland-Grise Middle School in Wilmington.

“That was a good experience,” Salter said. “It made me realize that I wanted to get involved in coaching.”

After graduation, Salter spent several years working as an assistant at North Brunswick High School, a perennial power in Eastern North Carolina.

“I really learned a lot from my time there,” Salter said. “The coaching staff was so professional, and they expected the same from the players. The baseball culture there is incredible.”

In 2008, Salter became the junior varsity baseball coach at East Carteret High School. He immediately saw a difference in the culture between the two programs.

“The guys running the varsity team really didn’t have a clue of what they were doing,” Salter said. “I really didn’t want them telling my JV players what to do. It was a circus.”

Shortly before the 2010 season, East Carteret decided to promote Salter to varsity head coach. For the first several weeks of the season, he focused his practices on conditioning. Some people joked that Salter was more of a track coach than a baseball coach.

“Those kids simply weren’t in shape,” Salter said. “I didn’t have a chance to work with them in the offseason, and they hadn’t been putting in the work on their own.”

Salter struggled control his temper at times. He’s had to complete mandatory anger management classes on multiple occasions.

“It takes a lot of patience, which was something I didn’t always have when I first became a head coach,” Salter said. “It’s hard when you’re trying to change a culture. You feel like you want more for your kids than they want for themselves. I came in expecting them to play like North Brunswick, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen.”

Implementing the offseason training made a big difference. The team hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2006 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2002. In his first season, the Mariners made it to the third round of the state playoffs. East Carteret has made the playoffs every season under Salter. In 2013, the team captured its first conference championship in decades. Since then, the Mariners have won four consecutive conference championships. Salter saw his greatest success in his last season in 2016, in which the team made it to the Regional Final for the first time since 1984.

But just as his program was peaking, Salter decided to step down.

“I needed to spend more time with my family,” Salter said. “Being a high school coach is a huge time commitment. I loved doing it, but I felt that it was reaching a point where I couldn’t be fully committed to the program and my own children, and that’s not fair to either group of kids.”

Salter now helps coach his daughters’ softball team. He said he loves spending time with her, but the transition from high school baseball to middle school softball has been less than smooth.

“You can’t treat them the same,” Salter said. “With the high school boys, I could pretty well assume they knew the fundamentals. I have to be more patient with the girls. I do O.K. with my own daughters, but I struggle with other people’s kids. I always practiced tough love, but you can’t do that unless your players understand that it’s love. I think I’m still trying to figure out how to do that with a different kind of group.”

Thanks, coach

All three coaches credited their success to their ability to develop a winning culture. Whether that’s through challenging their players, harping on the tactics or showing tough love, creating the expectation for your team to win is crucial before the team can actually tally W’s. It’s also important to show a special interest in each of your players to develop a sense of trust, so that, whatever your message is, they will be willing to buy in to it.

 

Edited by Jordan Wilkie

 

Instagram restaurant brings spice to late-night food

By Lauren Tarpley

Ian Burris has always loved being in the kitchen. When he was a child, he would cook with his mom and ask to help with dinner.  As a teenager, he went to parties and when people would get hungry, Burris would start cooking. Now, at 20 years old, Burris has turned his passion of cooking into his own business.

“I’ve put my whole life into this, so it’s kind of all or nothing,” Burris said.

Burris created the Dankery in Wilmington in 2015 after waiting for the perfect time to pursue his passion, but brought the business to Durham in the summer of 2016. He and his friends were tired of waiting in long lines at Cook Out or Waffle House late at night. Plus, there just weren’t many restaurants that offered quality food after dark.

Burris saw this as an opportunity and began the Dankery, offering “dank food at a great price” from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. From his kitchen at home, Burris prepares wings, chicken tenders, shrimp, and fries with over 20 flavor options ranging from Cheerwine Barbeque to Thai Chili and delivers his homemade trays to hungry customers throughout Durham.

“These foods were the easiest to start out with,” Burris said. “I knew how to do it and I knew a lot of people would like it.”

Ian Burris launched an Instagram restaurant, serving fries, wings and shrimp burgers from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Ian Burris launched an Instagram restaurant in 2015, serving fries, wings and shrimp burgers from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Spreading the word

Business has been booming for the Dankery even though the restaurant hasn’t opened a physical location. Burris has instead managed to gain a loyal following through social media.

Burris essentially built his business using Instagram and Snapchat. While many businesses struggle with promoting their brand on social media, Burris has been able to use this marketing tool to his advantage. Since customers can’t go into the restaurant to look at the food, Burris posts photos and videos of the delicious food he prepares — bringing in new fans, new customers and new orders.

“It’s all ‘bout earned media and people spreading the word,” Burris said. “They get a tray, they like it, and they tell someone about it.”

Joshua Bumgardner, owner of Chef J’s Trays in Houston, Texas, helped Burris in the beginning stages of developing the Dankery.

“It was his own thing and he had his own hustle, but I helped with the development,” Bumgardner said. “I saw all the work and all the pay off.”

Bumgardner opened Chef J’s Trays in March and has adopted a similar business strategy to Burris, with plans to use earned media and word-of-mouth to gain a following. Although Bumgardner is still developing the social media pages for his business, he has gained a following since opening and now serves around 20 people nightly.

Albert Segars, a distinguished professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said social media is vital to small businesses because of its ability to reach a large number of people at little to no cost. However, in order for social media to be effective without being intrusive, it must be managed properly and businesses must find a balance with their social media use.

While Burris has been successful in working from his kitchen, his goal is to someday have multiple food trucks. For now, Burris is  in the process of getting the proper permits to open his food truck and will be looking to hire a staff to help run the Dankery. He hopes to have the mobile location open to the public by the end of the year.

From startup to success

Burris’ journey has not been without obstacles. He handles everything on his own, from marketing to cooking and delivery, meaning he often has to turn business away when demand is too high. Burris is solely responsible for financially backing his business, from raising the initial capital to savings funds for expansion.

“There are many challenges to starting a business,” Segars said. “The primary one is money. This means sacrifice, in most cases, entrepreneurs have to invest their own money which can be a risky proposition.”

Burris believes his dedication combined with his delicious food will help make the Dankery successful.

“I have a really good work ethic and when I want to do something, I make sure I get it done,” Burris said. “I’m kind of a perfectionist. When I’m making trays, I want everything to be perfect.”

As a young and talented entrepreneur, Burris has the qualities that can set apart a successful business from a failing one.

“Successful entrepreneurs tend to be very social, positive, and ambitious,” Segars said. “Entrepreneurs are wired differently and their passion is the business they start. Make sure that your service and product are always the best. Never accept less than perfect delivery on customers’ expectations.”

Burris’ passion and drive for his business have helped his business stand out. He has been dedicated to the Dankery and its customers, putting in years of work to build the brand. Segars said time is another challenge young businesses face.

“It requires a lot of time to get a business started,” Segars said. “You must create a product or service, market its value, and devote many hours to managing the business. You have to be willing to wait for success.”

Burris has done just that and as a result, the Dankery continues to profit and grow. But the Dankery is still in the early phases of becoming a full-fledged and well-established business. The Cousins Maine Lobster food truck is a perfect example of a food truck success story. In May of 2015, Deb Keller launched the Cousins Maine food truck in Raleigh, branching from the Cousins Maine brand, which was created in 2012. The truck is wildly popular and serves Maine lobster rolls.

“I went into this with zero restaurant knowledge other than I love eating food at restaurants,” Keller said. “Now, I’m providing the best lobster you can find and we have a beautiful following. That makes it all worth while.”

Like Burris, Cousins Maine Lobster was able to build a loyal following using quality food and superior customer service. By entering the food truck market with a unique product, the Cousins Maine Lobster truck was able to distinguish itself from competitors, which is what Burris intends to do once he is able to expand.

While the food truck market in Raleigh is relatively saturated, that is not the case in Durham. According to Jaseth Fike, a student at Durham Technical Community College, there aren’t many food trucks in the area that cater to students.

“I don’t see a lot of food trucks around campus,” Fike said. “I think if there were more options, more students would go.”

The Dankery has a unique product and high demand. Keller said she loves the concept and believes the brand could separate itself from the masses of taco and burger trucks.

“I personally believe it would be welcomed,” said Keller. “You have to have your signature.”

Edited by Hannah Smoot