Maggie Valley shop offers organic beans and conversation

fr coffeeBy Jake Flannick • Correspondent

He had gained enough wealth as a young marketing executive to fulfill almost any of his aspirations. But the very trappings of success are perhaps what led Justin Phillips, 33, to turn elsewhere for clarity.

“I was feeling overwhelmed … just really stuck,” Phillips said of life in his downtown penthouse in Jacksonville, Fla. 

While it was the culmination of the eight years he had spent running an advertising firm involving Fortune 100 companies, the lavish lifestyle proved more constricting than pleasing. 

“Sometimes, people tend to chase things that are shiny,” Phillips said.

So the exec left for Maggie Valley — an area where he had long enjoyed the natural beauty — and initially settled into semi-retirement. That was before his new ambitions started taking shape, leading him to open a coffee shop on the town’s main thoroughfare late last summer where he has since worked as a barista.

Organic Beans Coffee Co. is something of a novelty in the valley, offering things like wi-fi access and organic coffee beans from a roaster in Raleigh. Located on the edge of town on Soco Road, the emphasis at the shop is on building a sense of a community.

Beyond offering a glimpse into the social dynamics of a town of no more than 1,200 permanent residents — Phillips says that shortly after opening the shop last August, talk about him using the space for drug trafficking spread in what he was told is a “standard rumor” for new business owners in Maggie — the owner envisions the space emerging as an incubator for ideas on ways to spur recovery in a business district where the effects of the recession linger.

“The town needs some help,” Philips said, citing its many vacant buildings and restaurants that close for winter. He noted his plans to finish turning part of the coffee shop into a meeting space for community groups and arranging farmers markets in its parking lot.

That view is shared by Miles Burton, a regular there who runs a nearby hot dog cart. 

He described the town as a “drive-thru,” saying that beyond its hospitality businesses, “there’s nothing here.”

Town leaders say they are working to change such realities, citing a broad plan, called “Moving Maggie Forward,” that includes recommendations for shopkeepers and other business owners to help stem the exodus of tourists during winter months.

“We’re doing our best to revitalize,” Mayor Rob DeSimone said, noting that the town also is discussing plans to increase activity during winter months that include an Alaskan dog sled race.

Such ideas are ripe for surfacing in conversations among patrons at the coffee shop, as any uncertainty about whether such a business might survive in this valley comes into focus in the coming year.

In the meantime, Phillips will continue tending the coffee bar and hoping his space comes to accommodate the kinds of conversations he feels are waiting to happen in Maggie Valley.

“You know,” he said, “the ones that make you feel like they were meant to happen.”

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