The Garden Cafe, started by descendants of the E.F. Sanguinetti Family ( pictured ) who settled in Yuma, Arizona, in 1887, has evolved into a piece of cherished history. Sitting under the sparse trees of the cafe's courtyard in 1994, Irene Pharr shared the dream of owning her own garden cafe with husband and best friend, Joe.
"It was the ambiance," Irene said. "It was like an oasis and I wanted to own something like that."
Little did either know her dream would become a caravan eventually leading them to their own oasis in Mount Holly, North Carolina.
The Caravan to Catawba Coffee Co
Leaving Arizona, their family caravan headed south east and then north Georgia, led by Joe's profession in the carpet industry. He later became a consultant, accepting a job in North Carolina, which led to a full time position in manufacturing. This meant relocation to Gaston County for the Pharrs. While their 24 year caravan has taken them through many hardships, according to Joe, they powered through together. Many a late night was spent with a ( tweaked Bisquick ) coffee cake and discussion, per Irene.
Irene worked various jobs, including for a bookstore chain, until she started at, ironically, a newly opened Mount Holly location of The Caravan, a coffee shop located in the neighboring city of Belmont. Irene worked two-and-a-half years at The Caravan, and fell in love with the Mount Holly community. If you ask her what was so special about the location, she'll tell you it was filled with the most diverse, friendly, and open people.
The Caravan was a local coffee shop known for its atmosphere and accommodating staff. The decor mirrored markets and cafes of Morocco, reflecting an ambiance of oasis and respite from the busy world. Notice a theme, anyone? When it went up for sale, Irene wasn't ready to say goodbye to Mount Holly or her people. So she turned to Joe, whom she refers to as her "best friend and rock".
In 2014, under the looming sale of Caravan, Joe was insistent upon gambling everything on Irene, and it officially became Catawba Coffee Co. If you ask him why, he'll tell you, "She's my best friend, it was her dream, and I wanted more than anything to make it come true for her ( though I had to push )."
He had observed her interaction with customers, as well as investing at least 10,000 hours of herself into the establishment over 4 years. He knew this is what she was meant to do. Everyone who knows her ( myself included ) will agree. It's the community coffee shop, where heartfelt caring and communion is as common as caffeine. So together, with their children, they established a family environment destined to become a cherished part of Mount Holly history.
It's so loved, as a matter of fact, that a group of volunteers ( L > R: Randi Moore, Teresa Neely, Laken Harris ) insisted on working the shop so that Irene could attend her son's graduation last Friday evening. The makeshift crew included 12 year old Mount Holly Middle School student Laken Harris, who took great pride in his cleaning duties. Irene doesn't have to look far for love and support - after all, it is an oasis!
"There just cannot be enough wonderful things to say about such a special and very kind hearted woman ... I love her so much! She would be a huge reason I would return to Mount Holly! " says Joan Allisen Villa York, Owner, Tenderlane, Wilmington ( formerly of Mount Holly ).
Rachael Harper, Owner, On Track Yoga of Mount Holly, says, " Irene has been one of the most friendly and welcoming people I have met in Mount Holly and I am grateful to call her a friend. She is always so supportive, authentic, and kind. Her energy is what makes Catawba Coffee Co. so welcoming and comfortable and we are beyond lucky to have her and her shop in our town! "
It seems Irene isn't just loved by former and local business owners, residents, and patrons - but also a growing number of musicians as well as fans of local music. That's because Irene believes in the energy of music to bring positivity to a small downtown area.
Midnight at the Oasis
Wanting to do more for her community and neighboring businesses, Irene reached out to musician and local icon David Childers, David Childers and the Serpents , regarding live music performances. Childers says he had to overcome a lot of personal fears and prejudices, and will always be grateful to Irene for nudging him. "When I started playing I was determined that I would do it as bare bones as possible, which meant no PA. After several months of playing and bringing in friends to play with me; it evolved into a lot of song swaps and a core audience started developing," said Childers.
Once Childers started bringing in out of town musicians, it grew too much to handle with the demands of his own musical career quickly rising. Childers convinced friend and Charlotte musician Douglass Thompson to take the reins. "He has done a great job with scheduling and making sure things work right," Childers added.
What does new host Douglass Thompson, of Doug Thompson Songs have to say?
"David Childers loves his hometown and wanted to bring acoustic music to Mount Holly on a regular basis. He recognized that the room would sound good, and brought in other songwriters that he knew, including me. I fell in love with the the place and the people who came to the shows. There’s no amplification, so people shut up and listen. Truly the most engaged, polite and enthusiastic listeners I’ve encountered, and the other artists who come and play are always appreciative and frankly, a little amazed."
Many patrons agree, as evidenced by their reviews, "[It's the] best kept secret for great music in the Charlotte area. A real listening room," says Debbie Lord, who rated Catawba Coffee Co. 5 Stars.
How does Thompson feel about inheriting a local music legacy?
"It's the center of the Universe," he said, as he prepared to host Friday's nomadic travelers, Jay Corriher of Dirty Cosmic, and Paul Lover of Paul Lover Music, who, in addition to Thompson, put on a fantastic interchange of original songs for two hours.
What does all this mean to musicians and patrons alike?
"As far as what it means to other players and writers, I think it's nurtured them, given them a place to be listened to and appreciated; but to also evaluate their own abilities in a relaxed and friendly setting. That's what it's meant to me. It's usually the first place I'll play a brand new song. So I reckon it's like that to others," says Childers.
Catawba Coffee Co. may not be exactly like The Garden Cafe, but the ambiance is just as refreshing and genuinely welcoming. Anyway, who said Irene is finished dreaming?
"Irene, with the support of her amazing family, has spent the last four years working to make Catawba Coffee Co. a community asset. She is smart, kind, funny and very determined ... I would never bet against her," adds Thompson.
I wouldn't either.
As for attendance,
"It's interesting that not many Mt. Holly people come regularly. Beach music is still king around here, and that's cool because it is our indigenous music; I love it too. Most of the audience comes from other places like Charlotte, Shelby, Stateville, Hickory, Cornelius, and Mooresville," adds Childers.
Who wouldn't travel the distance to feel the cool respite of local music and original songs? It is, afterall, an oasis the next generation is already discovering.
Lost in the desert of scheduled routine and cover bands? Look no further than Catawba Coffee Co. to serve original song writers right along with coffee & caffeine communion each Friday and Saturday evening, located at 117 N Main St, Mt Holly, NC. Or, call anytime for more info: (704) 820-6556.
You might just discover your own oasis.
Image Amy Moore