When I moved out of Raleigh in 2005, you might as well have drawn a chalk outline around its dead body. At least, that’s how I felt at the time. Having grown up in North Raleigh, I considered it a cultural dead zone. And I thought that if I went downtown, I’d be mugged. I left, vowing never to return. In 2010, I came back.
When people told me the city had undergone many changes, I was skeptical. Sure, it was a little harder to find my way around, but at first glance the city seemed the same. Then I started to go downtown. It was a wonder. Things really were looking up. Fine, I said, downtown has improved, but the rest of Raleigh was still green with gangrene and begging for amputation.
Then I started doing this North Raleigh News column. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Each week for years now, I have managed to find another cultural, business or individual gem. This week is no different. I’ve written many times about the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre on Lead Mine Road in North Raleigh. Well, I recently discovered that in that same shopping center is a relatively new, family-owned coffee shop called Sola. And when I went Wednesday afternoon, it was bumping.
About 18 months ago, John Luther opened Sola in an empty building formerly occupied by a bank, among other things. Inside is a spacious shop, full of knickknacks like old chairs and typewriters, handmade signs and other vintage detritus. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, in addition to a variety of coffees. At night, you can get a pizza. During the day, tasty sandwiches.
Luther and his family moved here in 2000 from Maryland. John studied at the Southeastern Baptist Seminary and became a pastor for about eight years at Christ Covenant Church behind Triangle Town Center. But eventually he felt a different calling. He had run a bagel shop years back, and he wondered if he could something similar here. When he found the vacant building on Lead Mine Road, he knew he’d found his space.
“After about eight years, I realized that this was probably a bit more of how I was gifted and wired,” He said. “So we made a change, not sure if we would be able to do this or not.”
At the time, there wasn’t much competition. Borders was still open down the street, and it had a coffee shop, but Luther thought he could compete. He decided to go ahead, and in the intervening time Borders closed and a Starbucks opened up.
“As soon as they had opened, we had already committed to this space,” he said. “So we were worried.”
They went ahead anyway. First things first, they had to deal with the building. And it was a mess.
“When we got a hold of it, we had squirrels living in the roof,” Luther said. “We ripped out all the walls and basically refurbished it.”
After that, they got the shop up and running. Despite the Starbucks down the street, Sola was able to thrive. Luther had a pretty good clientele from the beginning, and part of that had to do with his vision for the shop. He considers it a community builder.
In the mornings, mothers and fathers stop by to have meetings after dropping the kids off at school. Businessmen meet there throughout the day. After school, students come by and read, using the free WiFi. At night, anyone still wide-eyed stops by for dinner, or maybe some wine or beer.
Shortly after the coffee shop opened, Luther decided to invite in musicians. He started an open mic night that went OK for a while.
“Then we had some pervert stand up and read poetry,” he said.
The guy had said he was going to read G-rated poetry, but then he got up and read X-rated poetry instead. Patrons started leaving, and Luther ended open mic night.
He soon started inviting musicians back though. But this time real artists, people trying to make a go as true performers. And then he met comedian Mick McKenna.
McKenna had heard some of the musicians Luther was having in. Local band members from Ravenscroft and the like.
“I thought, why not comedy?” McKenna said “When I asked John about it, I don’t think he was so sure about it.”
Luther was worried that comedy might be somewhat risqué; after all, you never know what’s going to come out of the mouth of a funny person. But McKenna assured him, the comedy would be all clean. And thus began the All Clean Comedy Group. It’s been doing regular shows since 2012, and if you want to check it out, the next one is scheduled for Dec. 21.
“People come in for a coffee and some sociability,” McKenna said. “They don’t come in to be offended.”
The food, the entertainment, the ambiance – altogether it combined to make Sola the 32nd best coffee shop in the country. That rating was according to The Daily Meal, an organization that focuses on food and drink.
If you’ve ever wanted to try a coffee from an award-winning shop, check out Sola in North Raleigh. It helped restore my faith in my former neighborhood. Maybe it will help sway you, too.
Alex Granados writes about people, places and traditions in North Raleigh and beyond. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.