When Brooke Erceg and Ryan Creery met at the University of Northern Iowa, Erceg was studying industrial psychology and communications, Creery had graduated with an art degree and was making music and the two were used to suffering through Iowa’s long, often below-freezing winters.
Fast forward just over 15 years and you’ll find the two spending sunny mornings at Hillsborough Cup A Joe, trying recipes and planning festive drink specials to celebrate the ten years that have passed since they bought the coffee shop in 2009.
“We wanted a change of scenery and warmer weather,” Erceg said. “So we moved out here together and then we both started working together at Joe Van Gogh.”
Erceg, who had experience working in coffee from three years spent as an employee at a shop ironically named Cup of Joe back in Iowa, knew she was looking for an opportunity where she could work with coffee and the community when the duo arrived in Chapel Hill.
It wasn’t long before she applied at Joe Van Gogh’s store in Chapel Hill — formerly also called Cup A Joe — and was hired to work at both that shop and the newer Hillsborough Cup A Joe.
Creery soon began working at the company’s roastery, and, in 2007, Erceg started managing the Hillsborough store. Only about a year passed before Robbie Roberts, the owner of seven coffee shops in the Joe Van Gogh family and the founder of Hillsborough Cup A Joe in 2006, asked the couple if they wanted to buy the shop.
“Robbie Roberts is the main reason we are here,” Erceg said. “I think he noticed how much I loved the community and how much we loved coffee, but all in all I’m not totally sure why he presented the shop to us to buy. We sat on the offer for awhile and then just decided to take this giant leap forward.”
Erceg and Creery bought the shop on May 17, 2009. Then, on Aug. 1 of that same year, the two got married.
“This many years later, it’s not a surprise that we have the shop, but I think it’s because this was her dream and because we work really well as a team,” Creery said. “I don’t know if many married couples like the idea of working with their significant other, but I love it. It’s like having your best friend and the best worker possible in the same person.”
On Saturday morning, the two hosted customers and friends at a celebration of their ten years of business, providing barbecue, cupcakes, cookies and other treats made by Erceg and a new set of drink specials on a colorful chalkboard designed by Creery to guests while Katharine Whalen — a.k.a. DJ MoneyPenny — spun vinyl.
The celebration took place at the couple’s coffee shop, now an airy space with huge windows and around 13 tables for customers.
When the couple purchased Hillsborough Cup A Joe, it was located three doors over in a much smaller space, with only five tabletops and without a kitchen for Erceg ‘s baking, forcing her to spend long nights after the shop closed experimenting with recipes for the menu.
The long lines of customers every day and Erceg’s increasing interest in adding a baked goods component pushed the couple to consider a transition to a larger space. They moved to the current location in 2016, renovating the space to make way for their shop while managing to preserve the structure’s original tin ceiling and leave the original brick exposed.
“I love old buildings — the walls speak to you,” Erceg said.
Erceg said that the biggest challenge during their ten years of business has been matching the rapid growth in Hillsborough and the rising demand for their coffee.
“When we bought it the community was small and intimate and we knew everyone in line, everyone’s drinks, what time they would come in, little bits and pieces about them,” she said. “We grew through time, and that’s been the hardest thing, trying to maintain our individuality and focus on the community and also grow along with the town.”
When the couple first bought the shop, they had a goal of making $500 a day. Now, they usually hit around five times that amount daily.
With the growth of their town and of their shop, it could be easy for the two to focus exclusively on profits and industry trends. Instead, they have continued to focus on instilling genuineness and character into their shop.
Creery plays and records music and is a visual artist as well. Erceg, a fan of the Southern summers and longer growing season in the couple’s not-so-new home, maintains a garden on the couple’s property.
The pair works to let pieces of their personalities like these interests shine through in their business, too.
“Coffee shops can be a little anonymous from one to the next,” Creery said. “I think a lot of the new coffee shops feel the same, but of course I’m biased. I mean, who else has a record player or a spinner rack of comics or serves pizza? We’re special, it’s ok to admit.”
Pizza Fridays — a new tradition for the shop that started last year — are an Erceg specialty, and she makes the crust by hand each week.
Moving forward, she said the menu might expand to include some more lunch options, potentially with the addition of some kitchen staff to the shop’s team of baristas.
The two have a policy of hiring customers — people who are familiar with the vibe of the shop and who are already a part of Cup A Joe’s culture.
Ella Banker, who has worked as a barista at the shop for over a year, said working at Hillsborough Cup a Joe has allowed her to hone coffee skills that she didn’t have before the job, and has also given her the opportunity to work around creative coworkers and bosses.
“Before I was hired, I used to come in here every morning and order a drip coffee,” she said.
In the tenth year of the business, the staff at Cup A Joe aren’t looking for any major changes in the next while. Erceg and Creery are taking this anniversary as a chance to celebrate — their success, their customers and, of course, their coffee.
“We just want to keep doing what we’re doing, keep providing great coffee and serving our community,” Erceg said. “It’s not an easy feat for a small business to last. We just want to show how grateful we are to our community for letting us grow with them.”