Traveling through a winding verdant tunnel deep in North Carolina’s Nantahala forest, Leigh and Clay Hartman’s 12 year-old-son weighs in on their potential move from Charlotte to the tiny mountain town of Highlands.
“My soul is here. When can we move?”
Despite harrowing curves on the 4,100-foot ascent as you drive up to Highlands, the journey is remarkably peaceful. Especially in the summer. The landscape is flush with rhododendron, mountain laurel, sweet gum, native azaleas, ferns, mosses – an abundance of native flora.
And when other towns across the South reach peak temperatures of 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit, Highlands rarely breaks into the 80’s. As I write this, temperatures in Americus are projected to top out at 96 degrees (one of many such days in July and August). Today’s projected high in Highlands? A crisp 73 degrees.
Moving to Highlands, North Carolina
So, amidst the backdrop of one of the most delightful summer landscapes of anywhere in the United States, the Hartmans make a new life for themselves. Nearly a year after moving to Highlands, they purchased a coffee shop on Main Street.
Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Highlands became Calders Coffee Cafe on May 1, 2019. The date was coincidentally Leigh and Clay’s 20th wedding anniversary.
The name, “Calders,” is a nod to the early days of their relationship. It’s the name of a Scottish pub in Charleston where Leigh and Clay had one of their first dates.
It’s a Scottish-Gaelic word that means “stony rivers,” an apt descriptor of much of the Highlands-area landscape.
Becoming Coffee Shop Owners
Becoming coffee shop owners happened after two very successful and intense careers for both Leigh and Clay.
Leigh retired from 15 years at Bank of America where she worked as a business transformation executive, helping the financial giant navigate acquisitions during and after the financial crisis of 2008.
Clay retired after 25 years in the U.S. Navy where he served as an attack pilot, and had most recently worked for 10 years leading a North Carolina-based renewable energy company.
The early mornings, hard work, determination and entrepreneurship necessary for running a coffee shop came naturally to Leigh and Clay.
But what the couple was really looking for when they started Calders was a sense of community.
“I wanted a place where people could feel like they belong,” said Leigh, who had grown to appreciate the sense of community that Clay’s career in the Navy had brought to the family.
“In the Navy, you really learn this reliance on community. Everything depends on everyone else. If anything happened, I had an instant community,” she said. “When Clay was deployed, I’d wake up at 7 am., and my lawn would have already been mowed. Everybody adopts someone else. There’s very much that feeling that you belong.”
When they first purchased Highlands’s Main Street coffee shop, Leigh sensed that customers were concerned that they might lose the sense of community that Buck’s had cultivated for some 18 years.
“Literally our first week, we had people who looked terrified that we would change. It was overwhelmingly clear that people wanted a positive experience from the company and our staff,” she said.
Fostering Community at Calders
In the year since the Hartmans have owned the coffee shop, they’ve made every effort to protect their customers, fostering a welcoming, approachable environment.
For starters, they kept all of the original staff from Buck’s. They also kept their price-points affordable. They added more lunch items. They kept Cafe Campesino on as their primary coffee offering (thank you!). They added beer, wine and cider to their menu. They added more grab-and-go and souvenir-style items for the tourists who flock to Highlands to fish, hike and cool off during the summer.
Since the on-set of the Covid-19 pandemic, they’ve instituted social distancing measures, keeping their cafe open for carry-out only, and they’ve adhered to the local mask mandate. Most recently, they’ve been working on a pre-order and pick-up system where customers can bypass a line to pick up their pre-purchased food and drink orders.
Supporting Other Community-Oriented Businesses
Calders’s support for small-scale and mission-oriented businesses goes beyond their selection of Cafe Campesino coffee. Their wines come from small-production and family-owned producers around the world. They source Wehrloom Honey, an apiary based in Robbinsville, NC, where Leigh’s mom grew up. They sell Imladris Jams, which produces hand-crafted jams using fruits grown on nearby Western North Carolina farms.
They also source products from Erin Bakers and 1 in 6 snacks, two companies working to end food insecurity, and Clean Cause Sparkling Yeba Mate, which gives 50 percent of its profits to support recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
Plan a Visit to Calders
With their selection of products, their friendly staff and their emphasis on community, Calders is ready to welcome you for a visit.
They are open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hours are 7 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Calders Coffee Cafe
384 Main Street
Highlands, NC 28741
Learn more about their company story and their menu online.