Midtown Raleigh News

Shop seeks to add local flavor – cream and sugar optional

John Luther moved to Raleigh to be a pastor and wound up opening a coffee shop.

An unusual career move, for sure. Luther, who spent eight years as an associate minister at a North Raleigh church, says he yearned for a return to the restaurant business, a field he always loved and, it turns out, could not resist.

Luther and his wife, Jeanne, said they want to instill a sense of community at Sola, set to open within two weeks in a former bank branch at Greystone Village on Lead Mine Road.

The couple ran a bagel shop in their previous town, Severna Park, Md., where Luther earned the nickname “mayor” for his good cheer and friendships with customers.

“While I loved pastoring and I love our church, this was always in the backs of our minds,” Luther, 50, said on a recent morning amid the clanging and sawing of workers doing renovations.

“This was such a big part of our lives.”

At Sola, the Luthers hope to carve out a niche by using locally sourced ingredients in the coffee (Counter Culture in Durham) and sandwiches (Great Harvest Bread Co. in Raleigh). Dairy products will come from Homeland Creamery in Julian.

And naturally, there will be bagels (from New York Bagel in Raleigh).

Fair-trade practices that use small tea and bean farmers are a way to alleviate poverty in developing countries, the couple says.

“Most tea and coffee growers live in squalor,” Luther said. “That, to us, was untenable.”

The Luthers would like to make space available in the parking lot for a Saturday farmers market, though details must be worked out with the landlord and city planning office.

Says John Luther: “In the end, a business with local people serving local people is naturally going to be different.”

David Benson knows about being different. The owner of Third Place Coffee House in Five Points says local shops must go to extra lengths to connect with customers.

“The part I enjoy most is the relationships with everybody who walks through the door,” Benson said. “Some independents aren’t able to do that. That might be why they fail.”

It’s been a unique journey for Luther, who attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest and then served as an associate pastor at Christ Covenant Church near Interstate 540 in North Raleigh.

Luther said his decision to leave the church elicited a mix of sadness and understanding from parishioners. The couple remains active at Christ Covenant, and on a recent Saturday, 50 church members showed up to help clean and paint the restaurant.

Tom Mercer, pastor of the church, said he’ll be one of the first in line after hearing about coffee for so many years from his associate minister.

“A lot of times, people move into the ministry for a season, and then move out,” Mercer said. “He always had a heart to create this kind of community coffee shop. He’s an entrepreneur and has that spirit about him.”

The building, which sat vacant for three years after previous roles as a bank, pharmacy and day care, offered just about everything the Luthers wanted: a neighborhood feel, a drive-through window and a location in front of a shopping center with a grocery store and children’s gym that attracts lots of families.

Talk to the Luthers for a few minutes, and you will hear words like “re-purposed” and “up-cycling.”

The wooden counter comes from a 107-year-old barn that was about to be demolished when Jeanne Luther asked the owner whether she could take a few planks.

Furniture came from a Jason’s Deli and Borders bookstore, both of which had recently closed. The couple discovered a donut machine that makes cake-style donuts with cinnamon and sugar.

The Luthers said they’ve already learned a tough lesson: Starting a coffee shop is grueling work.

“The construction has been far more difficult than I realized,” Luther said, taking a break from renovations. “Once we’re open, that’s really where our strength is.”