Hitting its stride


by Jessie Ammons

illustrations by Emily Brooks

Consider Cary. “Everybody thinks there’s Raleigh and then all the other towns and cities outside of it. That’s really not the case,” says the town’s downtown manager, Ted Boyd. “Cary has exponentially grown.” According to the latest statistics, he’s right: The town’s population is three-and-a-half times larger than it was 25 years ago and has grown 13 percent in the past five years alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With its growth have come various “best of” accolades, many in the same vein as the Oak City’s – best place to live, number one city to get a job, top place for technology jobs. But growth and top rankings aside, Cary’s many planned suburban developments and its proximity to RTP and downtown Raleigh have long given the town the reputation as a bedroom community, a suburban traffic jam. “I thought Cary was a place to get lost,” admits Alisa Huffman, president of the Heart of Cary Association. A self-proclaimed former “Raleigh snob,” Huffman moved to Cary in 2000. To her delight, the move was a breath of fresh air. “People here are friendly and welcoming, through and through. It really is a small town.” Finally, the small town’s downtown is catching up with its growth, rising to meet the expectations of its true believers and newest fans. Chatham and South Academy Streets are in the midst of major revitalization efforts that combine the restoration of historic buildings and the construction of trendy new haunts. Here are a few highlights.


Cultural impetus

It all began at The Cary Theater. Built in 1946, The Cary was a live performance venue and movie house and an early center of town life until the early 1960s. Its weekend serial film showings were a hit in the then-rural crossroads town. “There’s a rumor that Patsy Cline played here before she died,” says operations and program director Joy Ennis. The theater became a recording studio, a clothing boutique, and an auto parts store before falling into neglect. Then, in 2011, the Town of Cary purchased and renovated the building, sparking the revival of Cary’s downtown on a broader scale.

“Our goal is to be the art house theater for Cary: independent films, classic films, and other shows that are hard to find.” Behind a cheery retro façade, the theater’s main floor holds a concession stand – snacks, sodas, beer, and wine – and cinema-sized movie screen. Also on the main floor is the Cary location of Brew coffee bar (the original is in Seaboard Station in downtown Raleigh), complete with an outdoor patio along Chatham Street. On the second floor is The Cary News community paper, and the third floor houses a business incubator focused on tech start-ups. It’s a hub of activity.

But at its core, The Cary is a showtime spot. “It’s very happy being a theater,” Ennis says of returning the building to its former glory. This year’s docket includes an inaugural film festival, educational screenings with guest film lecturers, stand-up comedy performances, and open-mic nights. “I see us as the trailblazer. People are looking for an interesting reason to come downtown, and we’re giving them that.”


Beer for the people

Twin brothers Jay and Jeremy Bond saw a thirst. “Cary is 150,000 people strong and they only have one craft brewery,” Jay Bond says, referring to Fortnight Brewing southwest of downtown. “I’d say there’s definitely a market here.”

The Bonds had homebrewed together for years, often sharing the results with friends and family. As they considered turning beer into a business, Andy Schnitzer, a running club buddy, suggested to the Bonds that they check out Cary.

They loved it. Within a month, the three had added “brewmaster” Whit Baker to their Bond Brothers Beer team, and signed a lease for a space on East Cedar Street, one block over from Chatham Street.

The kegs have been tapped for various soft openings since early this year, and construction will wrap for the official Bond Brothers Beer grand opening festivities April 2 at 2 p.m., they say. In characteristic Cary style, “we want everyone to feel like they’re welcome here,” Jay Bond says. He describes the high-ceilinged warehouse taproom as “easygoing but upscale,” with emphasis on an outdoor beer garden. “We brew pretty much across the board,” Jay says, offering “anything from cream ales to imperial stouts to IPAs and American ales.” But their specialty is distinct: “We have a passion for sour beers. It’s a newer style (of brewing) that not everyone has caught onto yet.” Sours have a tart, distinct taste akin to both saisons (highly carbonated pale ales) and ciders. You can always ask for just a taste. If it’s not your thing, no worry. Jay Bond’s glad you tried. “We should have something for everybody.”


Community cure

A few months before the Bonds, Tyler Watt picked up on the same Cary thirst. Without homebrewing experience to draw on, the young entrepreneur instead submitted a renovation proposal for a bar-and-bottle-shop on Chatham Street. He beat dozens of other proposals and earned the town’s backing to refurbish an unoccupied building that had operated as a pharmacy from 1950-1990.

Watts says his is a different kind of cure. Pharmacy Bottle + Beverage opened a year ago and quickly became the watering hole of Cary’s trendy set. White subway tile and chrome taps are a modern nod to the space’s medicinal past. A rotating selection of local and craft beers is updated on a chalkboard, and there are always a few bottles of wine open. If you like what you taste, the majority of the shop is dedicated to aisles of specialty and craft beverages for purchase. With 7-by-15-foot sliding windows, ample sidewalk seating, and a pets-welcome policy,
Pharmacy often becomes a bustling local gathering space regardless of whether you order a drink.


Familiar tune

Across the street from Pharmacy and The Cary is an unassuming shopping center where, if you look closely, humble signage indicates the location of Cary Guitar Lessons. It has no need to be obvious. “Our schedule has been full ever since we opened,” says Cary Guitar Lessons teacher and co-owner Mike Krause. He founded the school with business partner Blair Linthicum in 2011. The two met teaching at a now-defunct nearby instruction center and decided to strike out on their own, but both men say the positive reception has been continually humbling. “There’s no better compliment than to have our name passed along to another person, which is where a majority of our business comes from,” co-owner Linthicum says.

What sets Cary Guitar Lessons apart is a comprehensive approach. “We merge an enormous amount of practical real world experience with an academic background,” Krause says. He went to Berklee College of Music in Boston before embarking on a solo guitar career, including playing on the albums of North Carolinians Tift Merritt and Ben Folds Five. Linthicum is a lifetime musician who began playing at age 10 and today divides his time between teaching and directing contemporary youth worship at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in downtown Raleigh. His Cary students are mainly children, and Krause’s are mainly teenagers and adults.

From their Chatham Street vantage point, Krause and Linthicum have seen downtown change enormously in the past 16 years. Students used to drive in for their lesson and leave: Now, they meet friends afterward to hang out. They’re excited to plug into The Cary Theater’s open-mic nights and live performance programming, and they’ll continue to welcome hopeful musicians. “We’re going to keep on keeping on,” Krause says. “There’s a thriving situation in Cary, and this teaching gig is totally great. We love it.”


Piece of cake

Another unassuming anchor in downtown Cary is Once in a Blue Moon Bakery and Café, nestled into a shopping center on the corner of Chatham and South Academy Street. For years, it was a “destination type of bakery,” says owner Roger Dragan. “People had to go out of their way to come here.” But come they did, mainly for celebration-worthy specialty cakes. “We have 40 different varieties and buttercream is our specialty,” says Dragan.

Over the past five years, increased foot traffic has given Dragan the opportunity to realize his true goals for the bakery. “We have breakfast pastries, coffee, espresso, and sandwiches. There’s a real café feel,” Dragan says. It harkens back to his culinary school training, he says, which he pursued as a career change after more than a decade in the health care industry. “I went to culinary school when I was 40. I was tired of the corporate world. I was following my dream and a passion for cooking.”

Of course, he knows a full menu is icing on the proverbial cake, and he’s not looking to stop a good thing. You’ll find Roger in the bakery most every day, greeting customers and cutting cakes. “We have 15 to 20 cakes available in our showcase every day. You can get a slice of anything you’d like.”


Settling inn

South Academy Street is lined with stately historic homesteads, restored to their former glory to house decidedly modern businesses: fine jewelers, bridal boutiques, a pottery shop. There’s the public library and a town park that’s under construction. The road ends at the front door of the Cary Arts Center. If Chatham Street is full of hip new hangouts, Academy Street has a “signature street vibe,” says downtown manager Ted Boyd. “It’s a pleasant street, meant for strolling.”

That’s the ambiance fueling The Mayton Inn, a boutique hotel that opened in February. Despite its towering traditional Georgian exterior, “we break a lot of rules,” says Deanna Crossman, who owns the hotel with her husband, Colin Crossman. “We don’t come from hospitality, so we don’t do things according to hospitality norms. We do it the way we think it should be done, and the way the community wants.”

The Crossmans had been living above and running their The King’s Daughters Inn, a Durham luxury bed-and- breakfast, when they were approached by Cary town planners in 2011. The town wanted lodging to help invigorate downtown. It was a great opportunity, but what sold the Crossmans was the community. “The people here are nice,” Deanna Crossman says, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s just a nice place. It’s happy and it’s comfortable and it’s like us. That’s how we knew.”

They then spent the next four years figuring out how to reflect that in a luxury hotel. “We started asking people: What do you want? What would bring you downtown, and what will keep you downtown?”

The result includes 45 rooms outfitted in spunky-contemporary décor with amenities and a top-notch spa to match – enough to woo out-of-town visitors and brides alike. But it’s not only for them. “When you stay here, you’ll probably eat breakfast here,” explains Deanna Crossman. “Then, we send our guests off to eat in the community and explore and adventure; then it’s the neighbors that come here. I want the restaurant, the activities, the spa to be for the neighbors, too.” So the spa offers 45-minute lunch hour massage specials. This summer there will be dog-friendly “yappy hours” on the back porch veranda. The restaurant sources local meat and produce. “It’s really a synergistic effort. We want to embrace downtown, and it’s mutual.” 

When you go:

Bond Brothers Beer 

202 E. Cedar St.


Cary Guitar Lessons 

139 E. Chatham St.


The Cary Theater 

122 E. Chatham St.


The Mayton Inn 

301 S. Academy St.


Once in a Blue Moon Bakery Café 

115-G W. Chatham St.


Pharmacy Bottle + Beverage 

120 E. Chatham St.