The century mark appears secure for the Carolina Coffee Shop.
Last month, a group of investors bought the Franklin Street institution, which had been on the market since spring, with each carrying their own affections for the tiled floors and wooden booths that countless University of North Carolina students identify with their college years.
“We all have memories of going to the coffee shop,” Jeff Hortman, one of the new owners, said of the investment group. “Close friends got engaged there, had their first date there. You don’t have to dig in too far to come up with something meaningful connected to the coffee shop.”
Hortman declined to reveal the purchase price.
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Hortman graduated in 2006 as a second-generation UNC student. Before him, his parents made their own memories in the coffee shop from their time on campus. He moved back to Chapel Hill a year ago after time in Los Angeles and New York working in the film industry and as a management consultant. Among the other investors are UNC soccer legend Heather O’Reilly and her husband David Werry, a former UNC lacrosse player; and Sarada and Clay Schossow, who co-founded Carrborro-based tech company New Media Campaigns.
“This is just a treasure of the Carolina community,” Hortman said. “A close circle of friends was interested in making sure this institution was going to be able to live on. ... This emerged as a really great thing for us to do. We’re all from the Carolina community and see this investment as giving back to the community.”
A historical marker outside the 95-year-old Carolina Coffee Shop proclaims it to be the oldest restaurant in Chapel Hill still operating in its original location. It’s been a soda shop, partial university post office and classic small town restaurant.
The new owners took over June 30, and things have mostly been business as usual. But small and large changes are on the way for the 2,854-foot-space. Before school starts in the fall, Hortman expects to close for a few days to put in new flooring and update the coffee shop’s lighting and wall decor. He said they’re also negotiating sidewalk space with the town to possibly add some new outdoor seating. The menu will be pared down a bit as well.
“We’ll keep most of what’s been there, but it’s kind of a large menu, so we’ll probably be trimming it down,” Hortman said. “We’ll introduce a few new dishes, potentially some healthier breakfast options. Dinner has been down for the past few years so that will be a focus as well. But we’re committed to modern Southern cuisine.”
The coffee shop will close for one or two weeks over the winter break, Hortman said, as the restaurant looks into opening up its front windows and possibly taking out the drop ceiling, adding a few more feet of height to the dining room.
“We want to brighten it up and make it more inviting,” Hortman said.
Hortman said this the new owners’ first foray into restaurant ownership, but they’ve found the coffee shop is important to a lot of different people, many interested in contributing to its survival. They’ve gleaned wisdom from dozens of restauranteurs and developers from Chapel Hill to New York, Hortman said, and leaned on the coffee shop’s existing staff to keep things going.
“All you have to say is ‘Carolina Coffee Shop’ and everyone has a memory and wants to help,” Hortman said. “Even locally, it’s not competitive; everyone wants to see this win and flourish.”
The Carolina Coffee Shop will turn 100 in 2022, and its next century might be even harder than its last one. Franklin Street sees ribbon cuttings and shutterings on a regular basis as development turns a college town into a small city. Hortman said they’re excited to usher an important piece of Chapel Hill’s past into its booming future.
“Any institution going this long has to continually reinvent itself but hold on to the core of what makes it special,” Hortman. “We take this pretty seriously and are committed to making the right changes. Bringing modern comfort but balancing that with with charm and old school atmosphere.”
Drew Jackson: 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson