Western North Carolina Woman

How to live in God’s Country and still eat
by Ann Kernahan

How to live in God’s Country and still eat —that is the eternal question. Many of us moved here from other areas of the country, seeking a life closer to the elements, a more complete life where we could hike, garden and star gaze uninhibited.

But to live in Western North Carolina and succeed financially most often means that you must explore running your own small business. Textile and furniture factories are disappearing at a rapid rate, and excluding mining, that only leaves tourism as a viable means of income. After many experiences working as an Organic Farmer, a Park Ranger and a stint in Non-Profit work, my partner and I decided to take the leap and buy a restaurant. She is a Chef and we yearned to have a place that served the kind of good, healthy food we like. We yearned to be more in control of our own day. A retail store would have been easier, buy nooooooo, we had to take on one of the most difficult industries on the planet. Only 10% of restaurants survive the first 5 years in business. Well, here we sit, two thirds of the way into our first season. I must say, we know much more now than we did in May.

We live in The “God’s Country” of God’s Country. Little Switzerland, NC. Situated on the Blue Ridge Parkway, towering 700 feet above the mountain towns of Marion and Spruce Pine, this summer colony is guaranteed to tug at your sleeve whenever you visit. Tourists have been known to stop by on a Friday on their way to Boone or Blowing Rock, and having fallen in love, will own 5 acres on a pristine hillside here by Monday afternoon.

Commerce here is carefully and wisely controlled. There are a limited number of land parcels that are zoned as commercial. When one of them comes up for sale, wide-eyed Little Switzerlanders beat a path to the seller’s door. It is here that we chose to take the leap and buy a restaurant. My father used to advise me about cautiously choosing between two roads in life. He called these roads, “Easy & Hard”. (Not a rocket scientist, my Dad.)
“Why would you choose the ‘Hard’ way, when you could choose the ‘Easy’?”, he would quiz me.

Well, Dad, I can’t explain, but if it makes people turn their heads and whisper, it only seems all that much more attractive to me. So here I am. We have a lovely rustic Café and an adjoining General Store where we sell healthy sandwiches as well as good ole’ comfort food. We offer travel directions, beer & wine, gossip, and excellent garden advice. Who wouldn’t want to run here and spend all their money? Sound foolproof? Ahhhh, but you didn’t think about Hurricanes did you?

In September of our first year, Jean, Frances & Ivan hit us in succession. (Sounds like a bad folk group from the sixties.) Our roof and parking lot were damaged; our main water line busted and our customers from Florida to South Carolina had hurricane problems of their own. The Blue Ridge Parkway, the second most visited National Park in the Nation—the Park that has weaved its way through our village for 75 years now—washed away, not in one place, but two. The two breaks were located 15 miles North of our Village, and 10 miles South of it. We are left an Island, and a prisoner of the US Government’s schedule for road repair. Tick, tick, tick.

So here we sit. With our beer, wine, delicious chicken wrap sandwiches, homemade soups and whole grain breads, toys, local works of art—it’s all here. Next door the Bookstore Lady has taken up the harmonica. There are tumbleweeds rolling around in front of the Soap Shop across from the Post Office. Where are the people? How many bills can you count in that pile over there? How much beer can you drink while you wait for a confused traveler to wander in and ask to use the bathroom? What kind of screwed up luck does it take for a person like me to wind up in a situation like this? These are all questions that I have plenty of time to ponder while staring across the cash register at the empty road outside.

The American Economy is full of its ups and downs. Everyone knows that. A few million years ago, I lived in New Jersey, wore a suit and solicited Insurance for small businesses exactly like the one I own now. It was a life far alway from the natural elements. I mean, they were there, …rain, snow, lunar eclipses. It’s just that people considered anyone that noticed them, as ‘a little weird’. If it was raining, you were expected to show up for work in your little cubicle, dry and unmolested. (I never did. Rain gets me wet. It always has.)

“Snow? What snow?” they said, barely aware of the sound of my voice. Well, I wanted to roll in it. I wanted to build a snow fort and pound my boss with snow balls as he walked to his new sports car parked outside. At the very least, I wanted to be able to wear Jeans on snow days. THAT was big no-no.
“What Snow?” they said, and went back to the eternal glow of their computer screens.

Anyway my business experience left me grinding my teeth over the whining and sniveling of my clients, the small business owners. I recall seeing businesses that had enjoyed 40 years of success, going under after 6 or 8 months of a recession. I couldn’t understand it. Don’t they know how a savings account works? Do those people think that the Almighty sent that money their way because he liked them, and therefore the money faucet would never be shut off? Those people drink too much, I thought. They probably have drug problems. They’re busy playing when they should be working. I had all the answers.

Now, as I sit at my lonely cash register knocking down a cold one, I feel humbled. I have cleaned all the glass in the store, swept and mopped, completed all the bookkeeping, (it didn’t take long), and filled the soda cooler. I took out the trash, cleaned the glass again, opened the mail, and reorganized all of the candy into alphabetical categories: Chocolate, Gum, and “Other”.

‘Am I too old to become a drug addict?’ I wonder to myself. As I grab the Windex and a rag to clean the glass again, it hits me. I hated selling Insurance. I hated growing older and not being in charge of my own destiny. I hated the suits, the clocks and the Stepford people I worked with. Most of all, I hated my father’s stupid logic.

I am here in this place now, because I wanted to be here, and that’s more than most people can say. And as Faulkner said, “We will not only survive, but we will prevail.” This I know as well as I know how to fight tomato blight in my garden, or that the wandering heifer on McKinney Mine Road most likely belongs to Rollie Hollifield. I just know.

So this past winter, Lora and I pulled those dusty books out of the bookcase. The ones we bought when we were dreaming of owning our own business. We had read them voraciously once upon a time, but when we opened our own business, there was no time for such introspection and thought. Well, now there is plenty of time. Here is what we learned:

- Payroll should never be more than 1/3 of gross, the experts say. We have cut payroll.
- Be a boss, not a pal to your employees. Done.
- Food costs should never exceed 1/3. We cut food costs, eliminated waste, sought out new, local sources for everything from produce to trout. We have expanded our home garden to accommodate the restaurant.
- Know who your competition is, the books warned. We never eat out now, that it isn’t a research project. We know all the trends and what our customers preferences might be.
- Seek out new, innovative ways to advertise. We began using Co-Op advertising with other Little Switzerland businesses. We arranged to hang on to our customers and theirs, by offering coupons, packages and all manner of freebies.
- Hold on. Hold out - during the difficult times. Better times are at hand.

A new season is upon us. Before long the days will lengthen, trees will leaf out, and the tourists and second home people will return. When they do, we will be ready. We know the birds at our feeder at home, and there are many new ones arriving every day now. A tourist arrived yesterday from Hickory and bought two T-Shirts and a good bottle of wine. He thanked me for being here. For the store being open. “It’s God’s Country.” he said. And I knew that. I had just forgotten for awhile. We are in the moment. Alive and happy. I hope it’s contagious.


Ann Kernahan Born and raised at the Jersey Shore, and ran away to the South as soon as my little fat legs could carry me. BA in English, 1980, University of South Carolina, (Go Gamecocks!). Former Executive Director of Mitchell-Yancey Habitat for Humanity. Current interests are biting my nails and reading every business magazine I can get my hands on at Little Switzerland, NC.

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