You say you want an evolution

Cafe del Sol in brighter times
Cafe del Sol in brighter times

Five years ago, as Frank & Sally Walker worked to open their new coffee shop, Cafe del Sol, I asked them a question.

“What,” I wondered, “motivates you to open a ‘gourmet’ coffee shop in a county where coffee is measured by thickness, not taste?”

“We’re hoping to change that,” Sally said.

For a while, they did. Floyd — in 2005 — had four coffee shops. Besides Cafe del Sol, you could find premium java at Over the Moon, Blackwater Loft and Mama Lazzardos.

Now, with Cafe del Sol closed and speculation increasing over whether or not it will ever reopen, Blackwater Loft remains the only game in town when it comes to the new breed of coffee shops. Most Floyd Countians still grab their java to go at the express markets or the drive-through at Hardees.

Cafe del Sol’s problems are a notable glitch in the program to transform a sleepy, rural town into a trendy stop for tourists and upscale locals. The locked doors there join empty spaces at various other locations around town and some of those who predicted failure shake their heads and say “I told you so.”

I don’t agree that a gourmet coffee shop in Floyd was “doomed to fail” any more than I felt other businesses that have tried and failed were lost causes. Certainly, the worst winter of the new century, combined with the worst economic depression since early in the last century, hasn’t helped Floyd’s efforts to reinvent itself. As one who has lost a good chunk of his nest egg on two failed businesses in Floyd over the last five years, I can relate to the problems faced by the Walkers and other business owners.

The new economic realities facing Floyd come at a crucial time for the area. Cuts in state funding threaten the future of The Jacksonville Center and county schools. High unemployment and the recession cut into tourism and discretionary income that is vital to the county’s economy. County officials, desperate for cash, jumped at a dubious opportunity from questionable promoters with the hope that it might produce income from a proposed data center but the deal fell through and left the county with thousands of dollars worth of legal bills and red faces.

While there is little question that Floyd must evolve there is room to wonder if the area should be allowed to evolve on its own or forced to do so under a manufactured vision of what the town and county should be. I’m not a smart enough businessman or promoter to answer that question so I leave it to others.

Some envision Floyd as an artistic and cultural center. We have some homegrown artists and a number have migrated here over the years but few make a real living from their art. The Jacksonville Center’s arts-based “business incubator” never reached its potential and the resident school dormitory became an interim doctor’s office.

Music has a long tradition here .  The Floyd Country Store’s Friday Night Jamboree and County Records — both major venues on The Crooked Road — are town centerpieces for the celebration of Bluegrass and traditional mountain music. FloydFest also provides the area with a national stage for music.

But few musicians, like artists, make a real living from their music. Most work at day jobs to support their families and their music.

Floyd remains, for the most part, a poor, rural county inhabited largely by people with modest incomes and even more modest needs. The influx of retiring yuppies over the past few years has bloated the demographics somewhat but nowhere near enough to turn the area into the arts and entertainment mecca that some envision. A downturn in tourism driven by the economy hasn’t helped.

But Floyd is not Middleburg. It’s a diverse community that is unique in so many ways.

Bluegrass remains the music of choice, pickups still outnumber SUVs and Lee and Dickies work clothes adorn more residents than designer “country fashions.”

A group is currently working on “defining Floyd” for marketing and promotion purposes. Past efforts have been haphazard at best because different people have different ideas on what Floyd can, or should, be. Perhaps this group can succeed where others have failed.

Some good people have put a lot of time, money and effort into making Floyd work: Bill & Joanne Bell at Bell Gallery & Garden and Woody & Jackie Crenshaw at The Floyd Country Store along with others.

Long-time businesses like Farmers Supply and Slaughters Supermarket continue as anchor businesses to the community.

New businesses have opened in this tough economy: Mickey G’s on Rte. 8 and a new eatery soon in the old “Over the Moon” location along with Mike Mitchell’s new music store.

Former Harvest Moon co-owner Tom Ryan is putting the finishing touches on The Republic of Floyd Emporium, a retail center for his offbeat view of the area.

Spring — assuming the snow from this winter of extremes ever actually melts — will bring new activity around the Community Market on South Locust Street.

Yet Floyd’s future is clouded by competing visions of what the town and county should become. Strong wills have, and will continue to, clash over whose vision takes precedence.

Level-headed professionals in our county government too often find their efforts stymied by myopia from elected officials with antiquated dreams of an industrial base that will never be part of Floyd County’s future.

A number of businesses that existed in Floyd when we moved here in 2004 are gone: including Lemons Jewelry, Mama Lazzardos, Blue Ridge Creative, Blue Nova Computing and Harris & Baker Furniture. Pine Tavern and The Floyd Country Store changed owners.

New businesses also opened: Bell Gallery & Garden, Cafe del Sol, El Charro, Nancy’s Candy and others.

Floyd continues to change, to evolve and, perhaps, to realize its potential. Those who put their money, resources and future on the line to open a new business or expand an existing ones should be applauded for having the courage to do so.

Some call it evolution.

Others revolution.

And still others devolution.

Only time will determine who — if anyone — is right.

I think Floyd’s future can — and should — be bright one. We may have more hard times ahead before realizing that future but the desire and effort is there.

Let’s hope — and work for — the best.

(UPDATE: Cafe del Sol is for sale. A classified listing in the Charlotte Business Journal has the establishment on the market for an asking price of $50,000.  According to the ad, the “owners wish to have more time for family and for other ventures.”)

(Updated on March 1 to add some additional information and thoughts.)

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8 thoughts on “You say you want an evolution”

  1. Doug-
    I’m not sure how I might respond to your public display of our business listing, except to hope that your publicity will be helpful. I do not agree with your dour opinion on the future of our community, however, and that has nothing to do with my leaving the business. Regards–Sally

    • Sally:

      Our “public display” was information that was already public on the Business Journal web site and, as I pointed out, the ad says you and Frank are selling because you “wish to have more time for family and other ventures.”

      As for the Cafe del Sol web site providing “more accurate information,” the web site as of 11:15 p.m. on Sunday said:

      “We will be closed a week in February for our annual cleaning and refurbishing!

      “Stay tuned! Otherwise-it’s full steam—latte style- ahead!”

      Obviously, what was posted on January 27 and was — at 11:15 p.m. on Feb. 28 — the latest information on the web site was not accurate.

      I hope you will use your web site to keep your loyal customers — myself included — up to date with what is really happening with our favorite coffee shop.

  2. Doug, thank you for letting us know the scoop of Cafe del Sol. I’m sorry the Walkers believe it is better to keep their long time customers in the dark. I talked with an employee last week who felt left in the dark also. That employee felt strung along without knowing if a job would be there or not at the end of February. I feel sorry for the employees.

  3. Sally, I am not a Floyd resident but I have been to your wonderful coffee shop during our visits to Floyd. The thought that it might not be there when we return this year is sad. I hope you find someone to buy your business and hope they continue it in the same tradition you have established.

  4. Mr. Thompson:

    I read your article and was going to respond with a curt “how dare you” talk about a business failure without discussing your own failures in Floyd. So I searched your site to find out what you had so say about closing your business.

    To my surprise, I found your candor refreshing. In a article dated Sept. 16, 2009, you announced the closing of your studio at The Village Green and said:

    “Like so many other businesses — small, medium and large — Blue Ridge Muse becomes partly a victim of a stagnant economy and more of the victim of an owner who just couldn’t come up with a business plan that worked.

    “The primary fault lies with me. I’m not geared to run a business or sell products. I’m a writer and photographer and I need to be out there doing both, not sitting in a studio or at a desk. I’m a lousy businessman.

    “This is my second failure in five years since coming home to Floyd and it hurts. It hurts a lot. Amy and I put all of our heart, soul and resources into these two ventures and it will take us a long, long time to recover from the damage that both have wreaked on our morale and finances.”

    I admire your honesty in dealing openly with the reasons behind the failure of your businesses. Too often we find business owners unwilling to keep their customers in the loop when closings or changes are planned.

  5. I’m saddened to read the news about Cafe del Sol. Even if the cafe is sold it risks losing what it made it so special for Floyd. We saw what happened with Oddfellas after its sale. Prices went up and quality went down. A true loss for Floyd.

  6. I’ve been told that even the Shawnee had enough sense to abandon the windswept ridges of Floyd after the winter solstice – retreating to the sheltered coves of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers.

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