Perennial Cafe is a lot of things: study spot, quaint meet-up location and a great place to grab a unique cup of joe — but to owners and creators Mimi and Tanner Hock, it is also a “labor of love.”
“I went to Carolina, I graduated in ‘08 and I had always sort of lamented that the best thing we had on Franklin Street was a Starbucks,” Mimi said sitting on the back patio of her cafe. “We’ve had specialty coffee — I mean, Carrboro Coffee (Roasters), Driade and Open Eye — but on the whole strip of Franklin Street it’s always been sort of devoid of a cool, local spot for students and for locals.”
I was drawn to Perennial for that very reason — in my four years at UNC, I had never seen anything like it, which made my monthly search for a local restaurant to review quite easy.
The Hocks, along with a creative vision of design, food and coffee, found their way to 403 West Franklin Street when the couple bought the building that now houses Perennial — along with Cuban Revolution Express.
“We had sort of searched for a tenant, and it’s kind of a unique space and didn’t find the right tenant for it and thought ‘Maybe this is the right time to build this out ourselves,’” Mimi said. “And so it’s really helped us finally have a vehicle to sort of pursue a design project, and a food project, so all the parts came together …”
That was 2015.
“It took a couple years to build this space out, and then this past August it was finally ready to open.”
And quite the space it is. Perennial’s interior, a small downstairs with a full coffee bar and a larger upstairs with more seating, makes it unbelievably welcoming — and it’s 100 percent the Hock’s. Tanner planted the garden boxes that line the exterior and Mimi picked out all the finishes. Some of the touches inside the cafe, like vases, came straight from the Hock’s house.
“I wanted it to feel kind of like an extension of a kitchen or a home, but definitely a European cafe vibe — just more personal, intimate, authentic,” Mimi said.
Mimi said another goal of Perennial was to keep the menu simple — making sure coffee is the bread and butter of their menu. Simple, I’d agree — but definitely not boring.
There are the classic espresso-based drinks — americanos, macchiatos, cortados, lattes (matcha, vanilla and iced mint) and much more — along with specialty drinks like the London fog latte, pour over and assorted teas.
Their house-speciality is the iced mint latte, made with housemade mint syrup from freshly muddled Funny Girl Farm mint. I heard about the iced mint latte too late, and “settled” for an equally fantastic iced dirty chai. I don’t want to sully my reputation as a black coffee drinker, but I think I’ll always make an exception for their iced dirty chai.
Mimi said, ideally, they would make pastries in-house, but the size of the cafe inhibits their ability to have a full kitchen. This size constraint, though, certainly adds to the intimate atmosphere of Perennial.
“It definitely creates a certain ambiance, it doesn’t feel like some coffee shops that are so big and have so much seating that the details go kind of missed and it feels like it’s like a library, like you’re going to camp out there,” Mimi said. “Here’s it’s like, sure, you’ve got students that come study, but it’s a great spot for a date, it’s a great spot for a business meeting. We get lots of people who come in with their kids.”
Mimi said though she doesn’t see the cafe as a public service, it was something she wanted to create for Chapel Hill.
“I have so many friends who are young and have kids like me and live nearby and want to be able to walk to something like that, and not always have to be like ‘We’re driving to Durham to go out,’” she said.
There is definitely a local emphasis at Perennial — beyond their locally sourced mint, they use Maple View Milk and carry La Farm and Weaver Street pastries. All of Perennial’s coffee drinks are made from Counter Culture Coffee, largely due to the coffee roaster’s environmentally sustainable vision and available barista training.
“Counter Culture sort of has a unique perspective about coffee; we sort of look at it as a science and can get kind of geeky about it so we want to make sure our baristas understand the right ratios, the right brewing techniques and how they can use that training to develop a more nuanced palate for coffee,” Mimi, who practiced on an espresso machine at-home before opening Perennial, said.
This is usually the point in the review where I’ve talked about all the menu items I’ve tried and give a glowing review based on those menu items. But I only had one drink (plus a sip of a friend’s iced coffee), and though I certainly would recommend to anyone to give Perennial a try based solely on their drink menu, the cafe is more than that.
I would recommend anyone to go if they need an inviting, crisp environment to unwind in. I would recommend anyone to go if they wanted to see something new in Chapel Hill. And, I would recommend anyone to go and try the iced mint latte — I’ll be there doing the same thing!