Coffee shops have come and gone in Burlington, though it seems only national chains have been able to survive within the city limits.
In less than a decade, morning lattés and afternoon Frappuccinos have become fairly common for a number of people, as evidenced by long drive-thru lines at Starbucks, the company that appears to have a monopoly on coffee in Burlington.
“When there aren’t many options, people who go to Starbucks think that’s the standard,” said Rod Salazar, owner of Irazú Coffee, which opened in Elon in 2009 before closing its South Church Street location in Burlington in 2010. “Especially with a name like Starbucks, people get attached to that name and it’s kind of hard to convert people or even get them to consider a small coffee shop that’s a mile and a half down the road.”
Salazar recalled that a few days after signing the lease for his Burlington coffee shop in 2005, he learned his West Burlington coffee competition would be far greater than the Beverage Gallery, which was on Huffman Mill Road at the time.
“A few days after signing the lease for the space, I picked up the paper and read that Starbucks was coming to Burlington,” Salazar said.
The business made a go of it for five years, toward the end also opening a coffee shop on Elon University’s campus, which has been a great success, Salazar said.
And Irazu is by no means alone when it comes to locally-owned coffee shops in Burlington that haven’t lasted long.
Despite several coffee shops surviving in the towns and communities surrounding the city of Burlington, in the past several years, downtown Burlington has said goodbye to Roaster’s, the Perk-a-Later and Heavenly Grounds, and never actually got to welcome Ella’s Coffee House, which doesn’t appear to have opened — despite preparations to do so in spring 2013.
The Beverage Gallery, which was nearly right across the street from Burlington’s first Starbucks, closed not long after the Starbucks store opened.
Another coffee shop, Moby’s Coffee, was open briefly several years ago beside Williams High School.
ACCORDING TO Caitlin Vatikiotis-Bateson, prepared foods manager at Company Shops Market in downtown Burlington, part of the reason local coffee houses haven’t done well in the city may be because residents can’t just walk around the block to their corner shop each day.
“When you get in your car and are going somewhere, you might as well go through the drive-thru,” Vatikiotis-Bateman said.
Mother and daughter Debbie and Valerie Brooks, two of the owners of the General Store Coffee of Bellemont on Bellemont-Mount Hermon Road, said even at their location just off N.C. 49 in the southern part of the county, the drive-thru is crucial for business.
“We probably wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for the drive-thru,” Debbie Brooks said, adding that a lot of people prefer not to get out of their cars and come inside on their way to work or after picking up kids from school in the afternoon. The business has been open two and a half years.
Though Debbie Brooks said some of the store’s customers patronize the coffee shop primarily because they want to support a local business, the owners also know there are others who don’t care whether they’re going to a local or national coffee store, but just want to stop in some place with a good-tasting product that’s convenient and close by.
“It’s either here or the gas station,” Valerie Brooks said of the coffee options in that community.
Vatikiotis-Bateson said much of the local coffee culture isn’t centered around drinking specialty coffee — which is what the co-op prides itself on, offering mostly organic, locally roasted and fair trade beans — however it does seem like more people are learning about coffee.
“One of the missions of the co-op is public education,” she said. “I think we’re making strides in educating people on coffee,” including where it comes from and what high-quality beans should taste like.
THE OAK HOUSE, a coffee, wine and craft beer lounge set to open in Elon this August, is hoping its launch can also fill a void in the local coffee culture.
Co-owner Phil Smith said the lounge, which will be occupying the space on Williamson Avenue in the former Town Table location, will feature specialty micro-roasted coffee.
“The key for micro-roasting is it’s in small batches and there’s much more control over how it comes out,” Smith said.
Despite locally-owned coffee shops not faring well in Burlington, Smith said he thinks The Oak House can do well in downtown Elon because of foot traffic from university students and faculty.
“It has to be a place where people naturally are,” Smith said. “Until people naturally are in downtown Burlington in large groups — I think that’s what it will take (for a coffee shop to make it there).”
In addition to the coffee shops in Elon and Bellemont, local coffee shops also can be found in Graham, Saxapahaw and Mebane — but according to local authorities on coffee, none remain in Burlington.