Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Students at Western Carolina University have the opportunity to pay-it-forward, just by grabbing a cup of coffee. Hillside Grind Coffeehouse was first opened in the Fall of 2015 by a board of local leaders tasked with redeveloping the former Cullowhee Presbyterian Church. The result was a two-part approach to reaching out and enriching the whole community in Cullowhee and at WCU by launching a coffeehouse in the main level of the building (Hillside Grind) and forming a Presbyterian Campus Ministry in the upper portion known as UKirk Campus Ministry.

UKirk, which means University Church, is a campus ministry affiliated with the Presbyterian Church PC (USA).  The purpose of UKirk at WCU is to serve the Western Carolina University community and the local community through various forms of Christian outreach and ministry. Hillside Grind was started as a way to complement the UKirk ministry and to expand the offering of typical campus ministries.

“The intent for the coffeehouse was to be a donation-based, local-focused, non-profit,” said Starr Martin, manager of Hillside Grind. “While we are an outreach of the ministry, we do not proselytize. The main mission is to provide a safe place for all students to come and hang out, drink coffee, meet with friends, or study for classes. We also offer free WiFi.”

Rev. Noah McIntee, pastor of the Morrison Presbyterian Church in Franklin serves on the board alongside Rev. Emily Wilmarth, one of the pastors at the Highlands Presbyterian Church in Highlands. The coffeehouse’s board is comprised of community leaders from Bryson City, Waynesville, Asheville, and Black Mountain. Both the coffeehouse and ministry at WCU is supported by many other local churches, including the First Presbyterian Church of Franklin.

When asked how it’s working, Rev. McIntee said, “Most of our customers are happy to pay the suggested price and many of them gladly chip in more. What we want most right now is for more folks to find out about us so that we can improve the sustainability of the nonprofit and increase our ability to give back to the community.”

Hillside Grind is run by Martin, who is the manager and the only non-student employee. The coffeehouse currently has seven baristas, all of whom are students at WCU. “The coffeehouse understands that students have busy schedules so I  provide them with flexible hours for their working shifts, and pay them a fair living wage,” said Martin. “The goal is to hire a variety of students with different skill sets that they can contribute to the coffeehouse. Currently, the employees are each from different geographical regions and earning different degrees, but together help the coffeehouse to run uniformly.”

Along with providing great service, Hillside Grind takes pride in showcasing different coffee roasters from all over the region. “Currently, our roasters are as close as ten miles away to as far as Athens, Ga.,” said Martin. “Since our customers come to WCU from all over, we strive to use a variety of roasters to provide customers with new and exciting drinks every day. We hope our customers ‘come for the coffee and stay for the comfort.’ Last semester, we offered a panel for customers to sample different roasters so they could take part in what their local coffee shop provides for them. At the end of the day, we thought what better way to provide coffee to a diverse group of customers  than through an array of roasters.”

Hillside Grind’s “comfort,” is quickly becoming a favorite for the community. The coffeehouse features two hammock chairs, an eno lounge, couches and tables, a piano, pool table, and relaxing music — that changes daily to mix it up for guests.

“We host several events throughout the semester to encourage students to be involved on and off campus as well as offering a study break,” said Martin. “In February, we had a block party which consisted of Big Laurel, a food truck from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a fire pit with s’mores, live music, and a special s’mores latte. However, we offer smaller events throughout the month as well.”

Hillside Grind is in the process of organizing Free Expression Night for Thursdays which is geared to help student musicians, singers, poets, and more have an opportunity to enhance their performing abilities and increase their fan club. Tuesday night is game night at the coffeehouse and  according to Martin, they are currently planning a gaming competition of FIFA and Madden on the X-box for March.

“Our coffeehouse has plenty of room for the student body to display their artwork free of charge,” said Martin. “Lastly, we offer drink specials that change every month to correspond with the season or holiday. In February, for Valentine’s Day we offered sweetheart’s kiss, chocolate covered strawberry milkshake, and red velvet cupcake latte. Be on the lookout for what March entails.”

Follow Hillside Grind on Instagram and like their page on Facebook as they continue to advertise their different promotions. They are preparing for PIE Palooza on March 14, where they will have a pie contest, free pie, and new drink specials.