Let’s face it: Independent coffeehouses are a rare breed. In a day when Starbucks, McDonald’s McCafés and other behemoths are dominating the marketplace, local mom-and-pop stores are few and far between. But what if you need a caffeine fix and find yourself bored with the typical chain experience?
Fortunately, worthy alternatives exist that provide the standard perks plus abundant charm and individuality. Here’s a roundup of four places we found that are carving a niche of their own.
Crema Coffee Roaster & Espresso Bar
1983 High House Road (Cornerstone Shopping Center), Cary
The first thing you’ll notice upon entering Crema is the large cast-iron coffee roaster. It’s easy to realize this is no ordinary coffeehouse.
“You don’t see this style of roaster much anymore,” said proprietor and master roaster Kevin Pilotti, describing the 1986-built Probat brand roaster that resembles a circa 1950s antique. “I roast every other day.”
The result is a smooth, robust flavor and uncompromising quality.
Pilotti said he strives to source superior coffee beans from around the world. “I like Ethiopian coffee because there is a lot of diversity in the cup profiles,” he said. “You go from fruity to chocolaty to Earl Grey tea-type flavors. They are usually cleaner and more aromatic.”
It’s clear this guy knows his java.
Originally from upstate New York, Pilotti has worked in coffee shops in Manhattan, Charlotte and Durham. While he confessed that Cary has been a challenging area to build a business, a loyal customer base makes his job worthwhile.
“I’ve been coming here almost daily for years because you can’t get better coffee anywhere else,” says regular patron Billy Golden. “The location is somewhat secluded, but it’s worth going out of the way.”
Popular sellers at Crema include lattes, cappuccinos and organic tea. Bagels and baked goods are available, along with tempting varieties of biscotti like English toffee, Mexican mocha and grasshopper mint.
Crema features comfy seating, free Wi-Fi Internet access and a relaxed, bohemian vibe. “I used to frequent flea markets, so that’s how I ended up with the unique artifacts on the wall and shelves,” said Pilotti. “They reflect the exotic areas where coffee is grown.”
Open six days a week, Crema also sells coffee by the pound as well as custom holiday gift baskets.
The Wake Zone Espresso
6108 Old Jenks Road, Apex
On any given day at The Wake Zone, you’ll find customers getting their fill of espresso-centric drinks, lattes and mochas. Situated near several schools, churches and local businesses, it’s a convenient spot for people to come early and often.
A sunny Caribbean motif creates a welcome refuge for those seeking a place to relax and hang out. “Wake Zone represents our self-expression as laid-back, fun people,” said owner Mark Hollamon, an N.C. State alumnus who runs the business with his wife, Linda.
Aqua blue and salmon colored walls, high ceilings and abundant windows afford a cheery environment. Local artwork also hangs throughout the store, as do an assortment of inspirational and whimsical quotations.
When it comes to beverages, the most popular drink is aptly named Wake Zone Espresso. This white chocolate mocha is drizzled with caramel and served hot, frozen or over ice.
Hollamon sources his coffee from Crimson Cup, an Ohio-based roaster. “The coffee flavor and quality are excellent.”
Every Wednesday there are “Happy Hours” from 7–9 a.m. and 2–4 p.m. During these times, 16-ounce mochas and lattes cost just $2.
A convenient drive-through is available for those seeking a quick transaction. Need a place to hold a meeting or small special occasion event? The Wake Zone’s back room is available free of charge. “We’re here to serve the community,” Hollamon said. Free wireless Internet access is also available.
The Wake Zone also specializes in all-natural fruit smoothies and various teas. An assortment of baked goods ranges from muffins and scones to danishes and cookies.
Every Thursday from 7–10 p.m. is Open Mic Night, and the shop occasionally features live entertainment on the weekends.
Open seven days a week, The Wake Zone is only closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
219 N. Salem St., Suite 101, Apex
Located inside the historic Promenade building in downtown Apex, Common Grounds is a warm, cozy coffeehouse with an inviting milieu.
Owner Mark Porcelli said that people like the casual atmosphere where they can relax, use the free wireless Internet and enjoy a quality cup of joe. He also believes his downtown location is vital to his store’s success.
“Our venue draws people in at all times of day,” said Porcelli, a former mortgage broker who hails from Durham.
Exposed brick walls, wooden flooring and pendant lights give Common Grounds an unfussy, intimate feel. A large round table with comfortable chairs beckons patrons to stay awhile.
Porcelli said along with the requisite lattes, mochas and French press coffees, Common Grounds also serves smoothies, frappes, baked goods and other provisions. Raleigh-based roaster 8th Sin Coffee supplies the beans, while artisan baker Custom Confections of Cary provides delectable cheesecakes.
“During the holiday season, we feature specialty coffee drinks like pumpkin and gingerbread,” said Porcelli. “We also carry and sell the Monin line of syrups and sauces.”
Future plans involve adding a bar and serving soups, salads and deli-style sandwiches. “We have evolving ideas that should be in place by the end of the year,” Porcelli revealed.
Open daily, Common Grounds has later hours than most independent coffeehouses in the area; it’s open until 10 on Friday and Saturday nights.
2425 Kildaire Farm Road # 403 (Lochmere Pavilion), Cary
It’s hard to find a more community-oriented coffeehouse than Java Jive, where owner and chief barista Cheri Reed has worked for the last nine years. “I’m single with no kids, so I’m basically married to Java Jive,” Reed said with a smile.
Perhaps Reed’s homemade scones, muffins and cookies draw customers in. Or maybe it’s because she calls most people by name when they come through the door. Whatever the case, Reed has established the arguably most successful locally owned coffeehouse in the Western Wake area.
“Getting established before some of the bigger chains came in has helped us over the years,” Reed, who’s originally from the Seattle area, said. “We also have an extremely loyal customer base.”
Another reason for success? Java Jive serves coffee made from local favorite Larry’s Beans, a free-trade organic trade roaster. Larry being Reed’s brother makes for an even more interesting story. “Love for coffee runs in the family,” Reed said.
While Java Jive serves standard coffeehouse fare, it also proffers healthy options like green smoothies with kale and fruit, as well as gourmet gluten-free fruit and nut cereal bars and all-natural oatmeal. “People are very health conscious these days, and we want to cater to their needs,” Reed said.
Then there’s Java Jive dream cream, their made-in-house ice cream. Consider it the something-for-everyone approach.
A mixture of couches and regular chairs and tables afford patrons the opportunity to hang out or have business meetings in an informal boutique-type setting. The cement floor, eclectic artwork and locally made pottery and jewelry for sale all reinforce the keen sense of community.
“We have music nights when customers come in and play, open-mic style,” Reed said. “We also get involved in important initiatives like Toys for Tots.”
Only closed Christmas Day, Java Jive is open daily. Complimentary Wi-Fi Internet access is provided.