The Powells weren’t necessarily a coffee drinking family. Growing up in Shallotte, brothers Michael and Ben Powell didn't see parents enjoy the addictive caffeinated beverage, or stop in to local shops for lattes and cappuccinos.
After graduating from UNCW, Michael Powell followed a dream of surfing competitively. Traveling to exotic locations around the world was fun, but it was also sometimes difficult and lonely.
“Coffee shops, especially those in Australia, were one of the places I felt taken care of,” he said. “Being served delicious coffee from people who want to share their passion, in various corners of the globe changed my life."
That interest in coffee, and learning about how different countries and cultures interpret the coffee experience, led to the creation of the Drift Coffee & Kitchen.
The brothers opened their first location at 20 E. Second St. in Ocean Isle Beach in 2014.
“We had a lot to learn,” Michael Powell said. “We’d never done anything like this before.”
But it was successful enough for them to open a café in Autumn Hall in 2017, and another in Mayfaire in 2019.
This year, Drift is adding two more locations. They opened in Wrightsville Beach in the former Causeway Café and Gulfstream restaurant in March. They are also days away from opening in downtown Wilmington at 221 N. Front St.
One of the unique things about the coffee shops in Australia is that they are a blend of cultures, Ben Powell said.
"There aren't a lot of chains in the country. They prefer something unique to something homogenous," he said. "They want something that feels good, that tastes good."
Australia's coffee shops are a primary inspiration for Drift, there are others. The Powells say they take a Drift group traveling every year and have been to places like South Africa, Morocco, and Dubai.
"We try and meet with coffee or café retailers when we go places who are doing cool things, just to hear and bounce ideas," Michael Powell said.
In that time and through their travels, the Drift brand has been refined. Their guiding principles are to offer a premium coffee program, high-quality fresh-made food, personal service and interior spaces that are unique.
Ben Powell is the brother with an eye for design. Each Drift is light and airy, with coastal colors and natural materials. But each also reflects its location.
"We want people to feel inspired, and comfortable," he said.
The original café is close enough to the ocean to get salt air. It's also upstairs with a deck that makes the most of the surroundings.
The Autumn Hall shop has more of a neighborhood feel. It's not on a side street and has a quieter vibe compared to the higher profile Mayfaire location, for example.
At Wrightsville Beach, they have a slightly different concept. It still has the washed out, beachy look, but there's more of an emphasis on restaurant-style service with a bigger menu and adult beverages.
Thomas Mathers works with the brothers and helps design the culinary program. He said they use a Maryland-based roaster that specializes in lighter roasts. The menu also leans towards light and fresh, while also incorporating flavor forward ingredients -- like dukkha spice blend for the avocado toast and Kewpie mayo sauces made with Calabrian chili.
Each location also has some unique menu items. They make their own hot sauce at the Autumn Hall café. And you can find Nutella French toast and soufflé-style pancakes at Wrightsville Beach to go along with your espresso martini.
Downtown, there will be some unique breakfast burritos. The idea is to set the experience, from coffee to food, apart.
“I think that’s an Australian feature. Their personalities are very forward and they want you to truly appreciate something,” Michael Powell said.
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The brothers, who are now 34 and 33, see Drift growing to more locations in North Carolina and along the coast.
“But we want to grow in a responsible way,” he said.
Now, they essentially have two models for Drift -- the Wrightsville Beach experience is more restaurant like, while downtown is more of the café style with house-made, grab-and-go fare. One thing they're contemplating is which model should be their focus.
“We are learning so much but have so much more to learn and implement," he said. "We believe there is a strong market for sophisticated food programs along side premium coffee."
Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Drift Coffee & Kitchen adds to business with restaurant in Wilmington