Steve Clark has probably made over 1 million lattes since he moved to western North Carolina back in the early 2000’s.
Watching him work on a busy morning is a lesson in barista efficiency. He stands squarely in front of a silver La Marzocco – never leaving his station – steadily building lattes and cappuccinos in the order they were received.
He pours rosettas and tulips and hearts with perfectly steamed milk. He casually chats with customers as he builds their drinks – one right after the other.
If you make it to Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers during the height of the summer (peak tourist time), you might have to wait 15-20 minutes for Steve to prepare your drink. Sometimes there are 12-18 people in line at one time. Steve never gets flustered.
A Day in the Life of a Coffee-Shop Owner
As the co-owner and operator of Buck’s Coffee Cafe, Steve is a work-horse. He’s at the shop by 4:30 a.m. and opens it by 7 a.m. When he’s not pouring lattes, he’s making breakfast sandwiches or lunch paninis. He supports his staff through the breakfast and lunch rushes, then heads home around 2 or 3 p.m. On most days, he’ll run 5 or so miles after work. The rest of the day is devoted to his three kids.
“I have to physically exhaust myself to quiet the mind,” he says. He’s easily been working this hard since 2008 when he opened the Cashiers location with Tommy and Linda Clark (no relation). Before that, he had been a key employee at the couple’s original Buck’s location in nearby Highlands.
When Steve met Buck’s
When Steve first moved to Highlands from Florida, coffee wasn’t on his radar.
“I was an alcoholic and an addict,” he said. And he credits Tommy and Linda with changing his life.
“Linda says I was their first hire, but that’s not how I remember it,” he said recounting the first time he met her. “I was literally walking down the street and she was trying to get in the front door and had her hands full, and I literally opened the door for her.”
That single gesture of kindness was the spark that earned Steve a job at the soon-to-open coffee shop in Highlands, as well as a place to live. “The house I had been living in burned down,” he recounted, explaining that an apartment above the coffee house served as his home for many months.
Later, his work at Buck’s introduced him to the woman who would become the mother of his children. “Although we’re not together anymore, I have three children as a result. I don’t think I would have the family that I have now if I didn’t work here.”
And, becoming a dad was the impetus for his sobriety. “There’s a good chance I’m dead or in jail without them,” he said.
Working for Tommy and Linda at the Highlands coffee shop offered Steve a foundation for how to manage people. According to Steve, Tommy and Linda take care of people “for the long-haul,” and they did things like offer health insurance to employees long before other coffee companies were doing such a thing.
Leading with Kindness
Now, Steve treats his own employees – mostly college-aged, seasonal staffers – with the same support and trust he got from Tommy and Linda.
“It’s very important that my employees know that as long as they’re making a good effort, then I’ve got their back,” he said. “It’s okay if they make a mistake. It’s even OK if they make a big mistake, as long as they’re showing up on time and not being disrespectful.”
The welcoming and supportive culture Steve fosters at Buck’s in Cashiers extends to all customers – no matter their background or socio-economic level. “It’s important to me that everyone feels comfortable here,” he said. And to that end, Buck’s remains open year-round for locals. During the slow winter months, the Cashiers’ population dwindles back down to its permanent residents, which the 2010 census lists as 157 people.
A single random encounter with Tommy and Linda radically changed Steve’s life. And because of their kindness, he is forever changed.
“They mean a lot to me. If my kids end up being similar to Tommy and Linda, I’ll be blissfully happy. Just absolutely blissfully happy.”
Tommy, Linda and Steve opened Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers in 2008. In addition to coffee and light food items, the location also offers a collection of wines, and artisan-designed home decor, including paintings by Tommy and Linda’s daughter, Dawne Raulet. In 2019, Tommy and Linda sold the Highlands store to Leigh and Clay Hartman, who have since rebranded it as Calders Coffee Cafe.
Stop by Buck’s
Buck’s Coffee Cafe
Cashiers, NC 28717