Lessons in ‘Cafenese’
Viewing the Flying Pig Coffee Shop from the outside, you know you’ve arrived somewhere special. The roof commands attention, leaning on a sharp angle. The building is white, teal and pink, and usually there’s a bike resting on its kickstand, which likely was ridden by an Oak Island resident. It can be guessed that the resident is a regular to the coffee house.
Inside, the walls are washed in goldenrod yellow. Folks sip lattes at shabby-chic tables and chairs. One table shows off a map of Bald Head Island, while a map of Long Beach appears on a wall. This is just the start to the eclectic décor. After all, what’s a coffee shop without a bit of whimsy?
Teal and pink once again show up, this time in the form of Bohemian pillows along a bench. A green and gold pennant from UNC Wilmington, before the school’s official color change, hangs as an ode to the owner’s alma mater. Vintage signs and funky art are sprinkled around the room, and a mannequin wearing a feather boa greets guests as they enter the front door.
The most noteworthy component to the scene, however, is the flying pigs. They come in various shapes and sizes, popping up at random like a seek-and-find game. An olive green silhouette of a swine with wings hangs on the wall, while a large, wire, hot-pink piggy statue with string lights and white wings watches over the shop from a high perch. Dozens more dwell, too—one only has to look.
“All these pigs have been given to the coffee shop,” owner Rebecca Jones shares. It’s a testament to the importance of the Flying Pig to Oak Island.
One evening in the early aughts, Jones and her then-husband, Steve, had their new neighbor, Murray Edwards, over for dinner. “We were talking about how we’d always dreamed about having a coffee shop,” Jones remembers. But we were like, “Oh, you know—it’ll never happen—when pigs fly.”
Two weeks later Edwards showed up at their house again. “He said he’d bought a building for us to put our coffee shop in,” she tells. “When he did that, Steve and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, he went through all that trouble—so, I guess we have to.’”
Jones grew up in Asheville, NC, and her parents vacationed in Oak Island. In her first two years as a resident of the island, Jones held jobs prior to running the coffee house: one at the now-defunct Coastal Federal Bank, and another at the Town of Oak Island’s Recreation Department.
She leases the space for the coffee shop from Edwards. “We have arrangements to this day,” she explains. “He bought the building next door, so it was an investment for him. But still, I would’ve never… He gave us the opportunity.”
As preparations went on, the group referred to the building as the “Flying Pig.” When its doors opened in February 2002, the name stuck. It was the island’s only coffee shop at the time.
“It was great,” Jones recalls. “People were very excited. We had our grand opening in May—and when we first opened, we didn’t even have an espresso machine. We just had the coffee, adding as we went. So people were excited when we got our espresso machine. We were just very well received.”
From day one, Jones has tried to keep the Flying Pig’s menu simple—mainly because the easier it is for guests and employees, the smoother things will run in the busy summer months. “‘The Flying Pig’ is our house latte, and that’s sweetened with a little bit of brown sugar, so it’s a classic latte flavor,” Jones describes.
“The Green Swamp,” which Jones named after the Green Swamp in Brunswick County, could’ve been named something else, she jokes. “I was thinking the chocolate and caramel swirls were like swamp water,” she explains. “I probably should’ve named ‘The Mint Condition’ that because it’s green. But people don’t know, and they ask, “Why do you call it Green Swamp?” And then I get to tell them—and a lot of people drive through the swamp.”
The various flavors can be decadent. From “Moon Pie,” featuring toasted marshmallow, to the “Chocolate Charlie,” a liquid spin on Tiramisu, the Flying Pig’s coffees will surely satisfy a sweet tooth. Perfect for Oak Island, the “Beach Bum” is a combination of chocolate, coconut, banana, espresso, milk, whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate on top. When served cold and blended like a frappuccino, a real banana is thrown into the mix.
Year round, The Flying Pig serves fruit smoothies, too. She always carries strawberry and banana, but in the summer the variety changes. Right now, she is offering mango, raspberry, and piña colada.
“You know what I love?” Jones muses. “When people come in and don’t even look at the menu anymore, like tourists from last year. I have the people I see practically every day that live here on the island, and then I have the same people who come in the summer every year, so I’ve watched their kids grow up. Some are getting married and coming back. Then I have the homeowners, they’ll come down on the weekends.”
Despite the anxiety that can come with placing a coffee order at, say, Starbucks, Jones’ advice is to not be nervous. “I get so many people who say, ‘I don’t know this fancy coffee lingo. It’s like a foreign language.’ I say, ‘You’re doing just fine.’”
What most places call a “Red Eye”—a double shot of espresso in coffee—The Flying Pig dubs it “A Shot in the Dark.” “It’s all under the same umbrella,” Jones quips. “My daughter, when she was about 4, asked me if she could have ‘orange juice, no lid, straw, ice.’ I think it’s because she heard people order coffee like that, very specific.”
Adapting to the trends, Jones recently increased her stock of gluten-free items, such as brownies, and soy and almond milks. “I would say probably in the last three years,” she tells, “people have been asking more and more for those things. It used to be just a few people, but now it’s more of the majority asking about it.” Fair-trade coffee is key in owning an independent shop, which guarantees the farmers who raise and harvest the beans make a fair wage.
The ability to “plug in” at a coffee shop is important to customers today, too. “At first I used to have just one computer in here, and I let people use it,” the owner explains. “Then I got Wi-Fi [a wireless network connection]. It used to just be business people on vacation using the Internet, but now it’s everybody.”
The Flying Pig Coffee Shop has become an integral part of Oak Island. One of the employees has been with the shop for the past eight years, beginning in high school. Since opening, Jones has taken in a lot of lessons.
“It has its ups and downs,” she says of running the shop, though she confirms she loves her job. “In the corporate world, there are lots of people to share the responsibility. So sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of responsibility for one person.
“I get worried about things like… muffins,” Jones says, with her large, contagious laughter. “Then I have to remind myself: It’s just muffins. Where if I were at the bank, I’d be worried about it—conscientious—but it’d be a whole corporation’s problem. I used to do my own accounting, but now I don’t. That’s been a help. I had to learn how to ask for help, like for the website and accounting, and a weed eater.”
Likewise, Jones has learned lots of stories, from locals and tourists alike. She says one day she will cull them, names changed, into a book: “Coffee Filters: Tales from the Pig.” “I have met so many interesting people and have heard so many stories,” she tells. “I’m almost like a bartender; I hear a lot of things.”
Perhaps her most important lesson learned is to take nothing for granted. “It touches my heart every year when people come in, and they might come to me and say—even sad stories—like when someone passes away, they’ll say, ‘My mom used to love coming here. It was her favorite part of coming to the beach.’ And that’s just so sweet. It just makes me stop and think—I might be stressed out about toilets and stuff—but this is part of somebody’s vacation, or their memories, and it’s just nice.”
As far as her advice for others looking to open a coffee shop, restaurant, or nearly any other business on the island: Don’t wing it. “It gets really quiet and slow in the winter, and learn how to put a good budget together,” she warns. “Sometimes the winters are very long and lonely. I learned how to make that a little bit easier by paying a lot of my bills in the summertime. I still stay open in the winter, but I’ve learned how to really enjoy it. We do jigsaw puzzles up here, and just relax. It’s nice, because it is just a few people I see every day. It’s almost like a big family.”
Indeed, the coffee-shop family takes part in many extracurriculars together, too. Jones, who has her bachelor’s degree in English, has been hosting a book club at the Flying Pig since 2002. The group meets at the shop the last Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. “We have people bring in selections, we vote, and then the winner becomes the next book,” Jones explains. June’s selection was “Hanna’s Daughters” by Marianne Fredriksson.
Jones and customers of the Flying Pig even partake in a cycling team that raises money for multiple sclerosis, called the Island Riders.
Her daughter, Kezia, was 3 when the Flying Pig opened. This summer she’ll begin working at the coffee house part-time. “That’s cool because she’s kind of grown up here,” the mother says. “A lot of people know her from running around [the shop.]”
Even actress Cobie Smulders, perhaps better known as Robin from “How I Met Your Mother” and Jo from “Safe Haven,” joined the coffee-shop family while filming the Nicholas Sparks movie. “She came in here and actually tweeted about the Flying Pig, and I’ve had people come in and say, ‘I read the tweet from Cobie,’” Jones shares.
The post on Twitter read, “If you are anywhere near Oak Island NC [sic] do yourself a favor and go to The Flying Pig and ask Becky for an Iced Island Latte. It’s heaven.” With Smulders’ over 389,000 followers, it’s quite the word-of-mouth.
The family of independent coffee shops overall is strong as well. Jones often stops in stores in other towns to see what’s being offered, as a learning experience, and she shares her own tips to support other shops, too. “I like to taste it, just to see where I am on the scale,” she quips. “I love coffee, so I’m not a ‘coffee snob.’ I try to pick up if they’re doing something different. It’s a nice way to compare, and we have a little bond. It’s a network; we trade notes. Plus, I make it all day long—so it’s nice to go some place and have it made!”
Jones speaks quickly and laughs often, conversing with every guest as they come and go. “I’ve had too much coffee,” Jones offers in apology for her enthusiastic speech. “I have a new language—it’s called ‘Cafenese.’ You speak Cafenese when you’ve had too much coffee. I think everybody speaks Cafenese every once in a while.”
Like the warm interior of the Flying Pig, Jones’ vibrant personality is as inviting. Even the first visit can make a guest feel like they’re part of the family. “She’s the epitome of Southern hospitality,” regular customer Cathy Jane Bowes assures of the owner. “She’s always nice to everybody.”
“It’s the people who come in that really make it nice,” Jones amends.
The Flying Pig Coffee Shop is located at 6006 E. Oak Island Dr. It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the summer (‘til noon in winter). For more info, call (910) 278-5929.
By: Bethany Turner
Southport Magazine contributor