Drift Coffee & Kitchen in Ocean Isle Beach is a Dream
Brothers Michael and Ben Powell trade surfing all over the world for building community in their coffee shops.
It’s been said by probably more than one surfer that every wave becomes a race to get somewhere else. So when Michael Powell found himself faltering and losing his passion as a professional surfer, he thought intensely about a new direction where he could focus his energy.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Genie Leigh Photography
Along with his brother Ben, and drawing on their world travel experience, they opened Drift Coffee & Kitchen in Ocean Isle Beach. And after three successful years, they’re expanding into Wilmington.
Born and raised in Ocean Isle Beach, Michael and Ben started surfing as children. Not unlike many young surfers, their dream was to compete professionally, riding waves all over the world in exotic places like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, and Europe, to name a few. Michael made that dream a reality for three years, but found that it didn’t live up to his expectations.
“Surfing is such a solitary sport,” Michael says. “You’re doing it by yourself. You’re out there really far. You’re trying to claw apart the ocean to get yourself up on the waves. I started losing interest. One because I wasn’t doing well, and two because I felt like I wasn’t putting anything into anyone else’s basket. It was all about me.”
Going into the ocean alone challenged Michael’s perception of life. The sport fosters camaraderie among other surfers, but at the same time, it’s mostly solitary, self-focused and competitive. As youngsters, Michael and Ben also played soccer, a team sport that “made winning a lot more rewarding and losing a lot less sad,” Michael explains. The connectedness to other people is what Michael was missing in surfing.
Surfing did provide some wonderfully unique opportunities for the brothers, and they learned the impact of human connection. “The real beauty of traveling and surfing was not only seeing other countries, but we got to see how other people lived,” Ben explains. “We also learned about good coffee and good food.”
After long days of paddling and catching waves, they found comfort and rejuvenation in the communities they visited, immersing themselves in the customs, culture and food alongside the locals.
So what does a person do when he loses his hunger for his lifelong dream? In this case, the brothers packed up their surfboards and came back to their hometown with a deeper sense of identity and the profound knowledge that human relationships provide the sustenance we need for our daily lives.
It is around that philosophy that the brothers Powell started Drift Coffee & Kitchen, where they infuse healthy food, excellent customer service and a community of inclusion — inspired by their travels.
Neither Ben nor Michael had any experience in the food-service industry or the coffee business before they decided to open Drift, but what they did have was a passion for learning. Both admit to being very determined to find answers to and reasons for things, so they spent hours asking questions on the internet, researching other cafes and talking to business owners who have similar establishments.
“We went all the way to Ethiopia to learn about coffee and the supply chain,” Ben explains. “A lot of people thought we were crazy for going to that part of the world, but the people there were so friendly and kind and they genuinely want to interact with you.”
The Powells take a methodical approach to their coffee. Even though they’re not the farmers or the roasters, they’re very hands on during the whole process. They describe their coffee drinks as traditional, but through their research they have an understanding of what it takes to make coffee a pleasurable experience instead of something to just get-you-through-the-day.
Their coffee philosophy is to take a step back, put down the phone or the computer, enjoy the drink and don’t just work through the beverage. “Be appreciative that you’re consuming something that is a luxury and then go on your day and do it well,” Michael says. “Because what you’re doing is going to impact someone just as much as what we’ve done for you.”
Another source of the brothers’ inspiration is the traditional Japanese cultural idea of simplicity. “We were drawn to their idea that you don’t need all these materialistic things to live your life and be happy,” Ben says. “That’s something we focus on and put into play here. Whether it’s with the food or the design of the shop.”
Ben and Michael define their shop as a vibrant coffee café that serves real, inspiring breakfast and lunch. What sets Drift apart from a conventional coffee shop is their simple, focused menu that uses raw, fresh and unprocessed ingredients.
“We believe what we serve are things that people deserve to eat; what’s going to make them healthy,” Michael says. “We serve things that people can make in their own homes. We love it when people share what we do with people in their own homes.”
A customer breakfast favorite at Drift is the Avocado Smash, a simple avocado smashed on organic 21-grain toast with a poached egg. Another popular breakfast option is the toasted banana nut bread topped with ricotta cheese, walnuts and honey.
For smoothies, they use only real fruits and vegetables. One of their best sellers, Light Green, combines kale, spinach, strawberries and bananas.
“Consumers want better day-to-day options that aren’t wrapped in plastic wrap and made three days ahead of time,” Michael says.
“They want fresh food that’s better for you., Ben adds. “We’re not just serving any food and coffee, but serving products that we’re proud of.”
A driver that is vital to the Powell brother’s business acumen is the positive effect of human interaction. When locals or visitors and regulars or newcomers alike walk into Drift, they automatically become part of the atmosphere. “Community is what our lives are made of, and when we can provide a place that isn’t so much about the transaction or getting people in and out the door, then we’ve met our goal,” Michael says.
The brothers are very intentional about their interaction with customers and their staff. They want to have a positive impact on a person’s day. They want the passion they put into their food and coffee to inspire passion in their customers, who will hopefully put their own passion into serving something greater than themselves.
For Ben and Michael, the value of human relationships applies to their staff too. As the brothers learned after refocusing from the self-oriented, solitariness of surfing, it’s a lot more fun to work with people and create a team where they can challenge each other, share feedback and work toward a common goal. “So much of what I’ve learned so far is wanting our employees to have an enjoyable experience,” Ben says. “It’s not just about getting a pay check, but they actually enjoy coming to work here,” Ben says. “We’re all going up this mountain together. That inspires me to be the best leader I can be.”
The shop has been so successful that they’re expanding to Wilmington this summer. The brothers are working with Mikey Wiseman, a chef who trained in Australia, to create and cook menu items at their Wilmington location; it will be similar in simplicity and focus but exceptionally creative. They hope to have the shop open in July of this year. The expansion will give them more of a year-round focus. “That’s one challenge of living and working [in Ocean Isle Beach],” says Michael. “We stay open year round, but we go through the ebbs and flows of serving hundreds of people some days in the summer to serving tens of people in the off season. “
Michael knows that they are not reinventing the wheel. “We’re just having fun and we want to serve people in a way that’s meaningful,” he says. “Anyone can do what we do, but when your intentions are in the right place, that’s where it comes back to being a different experience.”
When Michael first walked away from surfing, he felt he was leaving his dream behind. “I felt like [opening Drift] was something that would give me a chance to give to others,” he says. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.” And as both he and Ben can attest, maybe we’re not limited to just one dream.
Want to go?
Drift Coffee & Kitchen
20 E. Second Avenue, Ocean Isle Beach
110 Dungannon Boulevard, Wilmington