[caption id="attachment_145134" align="alignright" width="218"] Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2020. Canton’s paper mill closed in May 2023.Roxanne & Donovan Zook.[/caption] Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2021
Editor’s Note: This story was published in 2021 and updated in 2023.
Crema Brew is filled to the brim on a Monday morning as Donovan and Roxanne Zook dart from the counter to the kitchen and back, offering an upbeat presence inside the popular New Bern coffee shop. Three 20-somethings place their orders with hardly a glance at the menu, then step aside for a newcomer who’s trying to figure out what’s in a Swiss Bear Latte (white chocolate and toffee nut). Laughter erupts from a table of four middle-aged women, suggesting that they won’t be giving up their seats anytime soon. In a second room, beneath a window to the bakeshop, a 6-year-old plays his first game of checkers. In this former gas station turned gathering spot, the crowd overflows onto the patio on a day still warm enough for iced lattes.
Nearly nine years since the Zooks first visited New Bern from Florida, the couple has come outside their shop in search of a quiet place to sit and reflect — not an easy task on a triangular lot with cars passing by on either side. Behind them is one of the life-size fiberglass bear statues that tourists hunt for throughout the city. The bear’s ensemble is almost identical to that of the Zooks — a mocha-colored T-shirt, a newsboy cap, and a denim apron with a gold Crema Brew name tag.
“Bearista” stands sentry at Five Points, a neighborhood that, in the past handful of years, has begun to reawaken with the openings of a clothing company, a French pastry shop, and a takeout restaurant. A couple of blocks away, Brewery 99, Tap That, and Freshwater Beer Co. have moved in within the past two years, forming what some call the “Beermuda Triangle.”
Just a few years earlier, there wasn’t much at all brewing in this part of town. When the Zooks moved to the city in 2016, longtime residents pointed them away from Five Points, explaining that it would not be the kind of neighborhood where the couple would want to set up shop. “I asked several people: ‘If I were to open a coffee shop there, would you stop in?’” Donovan recalls. “There was a guy who said, ‘Maybe five years from now, but not now.’”
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It was not always that way for Five Points, which is considered by many to be the gateway to downtown New Bern. Located west of the city’s historic district, the neighborhood has its own history to tell, one imbued with African American heritage. Bernard George, whose family’s New Bern roots can be traced back more than half a dozen generations, says that the area was a mecca for freed Black residents during the antebellum period. New Bern, one of the oldest cities in North Carolina and the state’s first permanent capital, also boasts several firsts for the city’s Black community, including the state’s first Black-owned bank, which opened on Broad Street in 1898. Due to the disenfranchisement of African Americans at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, “the Black businesses downtown were forced out, and they relocated generally in the Five Points area,” says George, a former New Bern urban planner. “Five Points was the Black business center.”
Then came the Great Fire of 1922, which burned nearly 1,000 businesses, homes, and churches across 40 blocks. It changed the complexion of New Bern. More than 3,200 people were left homeless, most of them African American. “The Black community was disproportionately affected,” George says. “The fire happened right after the Red Summer [of 1919], when we had all the racial unrest across the country, and [1921, when] Tulsa burned. So the fire is not a good chapter.”
Over the next few decades, Five Points seemed to have turned a page, becoming a thriving business and residential district by the 1950s and ’60s. George remembers restaurants, barbershops, nightclubs, and a movie theater sprouting up in the area during its heyday. “It was an invigorating place to be,” he says. “But by the time we get to the late ’60s, early ’70s, it was starting to die on the vine.”
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The former Esso Station where Broad and Queen streets meet later became a dry cleaners and then sat empty for years before the Zooks came motoring along. Dilapidated and with plywood-covered windows, the building had no “For Sale” sign in front — or anywhere else on the property. “It was the architecture, the shape, that caught my attention,” Donovan says. “Of course, I think the other part was God.”
A former pastor and social worker, Donovan sees coffee as a calling of sorts. When their children were younger, he and Roxanne often spent Saturday mornings visiting coffee shops, where the family of six found the flow of conversation around the table somehow richer than it was at home. “One of the visions of the coffee shop was to bring the community together,” he says. “As a pastor, as a social worker, I ran across a lot of people who said, ‘I’m done with church. I’m not going back to church.’ We thought, ‘Well, they will come to a coffee shop, and then we can reflect Jesus to them in that atmosphere.’”
After years in Florida, the Zooks originally planned to return to Oregon, where they met and married 41 years ago, and open a coffee shop there. Although the Pacific Northwest is where most of Donovan’s siblings live, it just didn’t feel like home to them. The couple shifted their search to the East Coast, where a look at the ideal location — proximity to churches and to the water, but not to other coffee shops — put New Bern in the running. Four visits later, the city topped their list. “One of the questions we asked people was, ‘Why would this be a good place to move?’ ” Roxanne recalls. “Invariably, people would mention the arts or the water, the music, but always, always, they would say, ‘People are friendly,’ and that was very true. I always say that Florida is hotter, but North Carolina is warmer.”
While the family settled in and scouted locations, Donovan, who up until then had only made coffee at home, went to work at a local Starbucks. Roxanne, who’d worked as a waitress after homeschooling the couple’s four children, took a job at Ghent Sandwich Shop, a 70-year-old restaurant a mile away from where Crema Brew would open.
The couple fully embraced North Carolina’s culture, from its sprawling cotton fields and tasty collard greens to the conversations they’d have with neighbors on Sunday evening walks. But they found that the same Southerners who were quick to extend hospitality were cool to the couple’s idea of opening a coffee shop at Five Points. “So many people said, ‘Don’t do it there,’” Roxanne recalls.
The Zooks paid only $15,000 for the property, less than a third of the tax value. Still, Donovan says, “I basically put in all my 401K, which wasn’t very big. From a business perspective …” he begins, before Roxanne nods knowingly and then completes her husband’s sentence, “… it’s pretty stupid. I imagine a lot of people, when we left Florida, thought we were biting off more than we could chew,” she says. “It’s a big risk.” A closer inspection of structural damage to the building made the couple wonder if they had made the right decision. But they held on to the belief that there was value beyond those fractured walls.
It took two and a half years to find, purchase, and renovate the building so that it was ready for use. Donovan, who had previously worked as a carpenter, did much of the labor himself. Daughter Regina, a radiologic technologist who serves as a part-time barista at the shop, poured hours into the project to keep it on budget. To cut costs, Roxanne created the brown signage over the entrance out of three dozen galvanized metal letters that she bought from a craft shop.
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Despite its frugal frontage, Crema Brew was a sign of progress in Five Points. When the doors finally opened in February 2019, former Mayor Dana Outlaw was among the first customers in line. Since then, Crema Brew has welcomed everyone from state legislators to people living on the streets. “We had no clue how strategic this spot was when we first started looking at the building, but it’s kind of the dividing line between two different cultures,” Roxanne says. “We’re kind of a melting pot.”
A glance through the journals, where visitors are invited to leave their impressions, testifies to that mix. “Great coffee shop to come to while writing a paper,” reads a student entry made nine months after the shop opened. A few months later are words from someone facing a different kind of deadline: “I’m having major surgery this week and your shop is the last outing I’ll have for a few weeks.” In April 2021, a West Virginia native offered an even more profound thanks for the caffeinated sanctuary. “I am homeless, but this place has always made things a bit easier,” reads the entry, signed Cat. “Thank you for giving me food when I had none and giving me a smile and shelter when I was sad and cold.”
Through a pay-it-forward program called “Add a Cup,” customers are invited to tack $2.25 on to their tab to provide for those who are impoverished. “If you are truly in need,” a sign by the register reads, “just ask for our house special” — which includes free items such as coffee, milk, or a breakfast sandwich. Next to the bakery case is a jar labeled “Coffee Leaks”; the Zooks use it to invite customers to join them in supporting certain causes, such as raising money for a local police officer’s daughter who needed a kidney transplant. Affixed to the side of the building is a small cupboard labeled “Blessing Box,” which the Zooks stock with nonperishable items to allow people to help themselves to free food when the shop is closed.
Crema Brew’s contributions to the neighborhood extend well beyond a wooden box on Broad Street. Some credit the shop with helping revive the neighborhood after decades of decline. Since Crema’s opening, an antiques shop, Kind of Blue, has moved in across Broad Street, where it shares a 1940s space with Five Points Potters. Next door, Broad Street Laundry and Mayte Sweets opened on either side of Precise Barbershop in an early-1900s building that once housed a drugstore at the intersection of Fleet Street. West of the coffee shop, just past Roundtree Street, is Broad Street Takeout, which opened this past April in the former location of a popular rib restaurant.
Kurtis Stewart, who grew up in nearby Duffyfield, is a sports agent and marketing consultant, not a chef, but he saw Broad Street Takeout as a chance to invest in the revival of this historically Black neighborhood. “The area had been dead for over a decade,” says Stewart, the president of the community development group New Bern Area of Improvement and a recipient of a state award for leading recovery efforts following Hurricane Florence in 2018. “There was nothing going on until Crema Brew came,” he says. “I think, honestly, that they were really the people to start getting the area back to thriving.”
On Pollock Street, five minutes by foot from Stewart’s takeout business, Pete Frey has taken a building with a caved-in roof and turned it into a brewery, taproom, and beer garden. Born in Illinois, Frey lived in South Africa and New Zealand before putting down roots in New Bern, He moved to Five Points six years ago because it was all he could afford while trying to start his business in the downtown area. Named for his lucky number, which coincides with his September 9 birthday, Brewery 99 also turned out to be the 99th brewery in the state when it opened in 2015. Two years ago, when Frey needed space to grow, he relocated the brewery closer to his home in Five Points, a move that some predicted would kill the business. Instead, like Crema Brew, the brewery became part of Five Points’ rebirth. “I did think it would be a good investment,” says Frey, whose brewery welcomed 6,000 visitors in a month this past summer. “It’s actually starting to happen.”
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A sunny Saturday afternoon at Crema Brew has a different feel than a grinding Monday morning. A couple in one corner shares a slice of blueberry pie while a teen by the window reads The Lord of the Rings. Next to him, a family of four has stopped in for lunch, leaving a stroller and scooter outside. When they finish, the mother hoists her daughter up to the bakery window, which is situated too high for the preschooler to see inside.
Tourists have followed all of these locals to the coffee shop, and they can hardly believe that it’s been part of the Five Points landscape for less than three years. Donovan recalls a conversation with a local man who marveled at the long line of customers shortly after Crema Brew opened. “He said, ‘I would have told you that you’d never make it, but boy was I wrong,’ ” Donovan says. “We get a lot of comments on the atmosphere of this coffee shop, and we say, ‘It’s God.’” That credit to the Almighty is given over the front door of the shop, too, where the Latin words Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit translate as “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”
Like the little girl straining to look through the bakery window, Roxanne also finds it challenging to take in all that she sees happening around Crema Brew. She has no logical explanation for the shop’s immediate rise to popularity or for its ongoing success, and she doesn’t claim to fully understand how coffee has become a point of connection in Five Points. All she can think is that it’s the result of a power greater than just herself and Donovan. “It’s bigger than what we even envisioned,” she says. “The whole area is coming to life. It’s a totally beautiful thing.”