Drift Coffee & Kitchen expands with restaurant in Wilmington

The Powells were not necessarily a family of coffee drinkers. Growing up in Shallotte, brothers Michael and Ben Powell didn’t see their parents enjoying the addictive caffeinated drink or stopping at local stores for lattes and cappuccinos.

After graduating from UNCW, Michael Powell pursued his dream of competitive surfing. Traveling to exotic locations around the world was fun, but it was also difficult and lonely at times.

“Cafes, especially those in Australia, were one of the places I felt taken care of,” he said. “Being served delicious coffee by people who want to share their passion, in various corners of the globe, has changed my life.”

This interest in coffee and learning how different countries and cultures interpret the coffee experience led to the creation of Drift Coffee & Kitchen.

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Michael and Ben Powell, brothers and business partners of Drift Coffee & Kitchen, recently opened in the former Causeway Café location in Wrightsville Beach.  They are now preparing to open a fifth location in downtown Wilmington.  KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS

The brothers opened their first location at 20 E. Second St. in Ocean Isle Beach in 2014.

“We had a lot to learn,” said Michael Powell. “We had never done anything like this before.”

But it allowed them to open a cafe 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 just days away from opening in downtown Wilmington at 221 N. Front St.

The Drift Coffee & Kitchen in Mayfaire is located at 1005 International Drive in Wilmington.

One of the unique characteristics of Australian coffeehouses is that they are a mix of cultures, said Ben Powell.

“There aren’t many chains in the country. They prefer something unique to something seamless,” he said. “They want something that feels good, that tastes good.”

Australian coffee shops are a primary inspiration for Drift, there are others. The Powells say they take a Drift group on trips every year and have been to places like South Africa, Morocco and Dubai.

“We try to meet coffee shops or coffee retailers when we go to places that do cool things, just to hear and bounce ideas,” said Michael Powell.

At that time and throughout their travels, the Drift brand was refined. Their guiding principles are to offer an upscale coffee program, high quality fresh food, personalized service and unique interior spaces.

Ben Powell is the design-savvy brother. 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 cafe is close enough to the ocean to breathe in the salty air. It’s also upstairs with a terrace that makes the most of the surroundings.

The new Drift Coffee & Kitchen location in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina on Thursday, August 4, 2022. KEN BLEVINS/STARNEWS

The Autumn Hall boutique has more of a neighborhood feel. It’s not on a side street and has a quieter vibe compared to the more prominent Mayfaire location, for example.

In Wrightsville Beach they have a slightly different concept. It still has the washed-out, beachy look, but there’s a greater emphasis on restaurant-style service with a larger menu and adult drinks.

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 lightness and freshness, while incorporating avant-garde ingredients – such as the dukkha spice mix for the avocado toast and the Kewpie mayonnaise sauces made with Calabrian chili peppers.

Each location also has unique menu items. They make their own hot sauce at the Autumn Hall cafe. And you can find Nutella French toast and souffle-style pancakes at Wrightsville Beach to go with your espresso martini.

Downtown, there will be unique breakfast burritos. The idea is to set the experience, from coffee to food, apart.

“I think it’s an Australian characteristic. Their personalities are very forward and they want you to really appreciate something,” said Michael Powell.

Look for coffee and a variety of breakfast/brunch items at Drift Coffee & Kitchen.

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The brothers, who are now 34 and 33, see Drift expanding to other locations in North Carolina and along the coast.

“But we want to grow responsibly,” he said.

Now they basically have two models for Drift – the Wrightsville Beach experience is more restaurant-like, while Downtown is more cafe-like with home-cooked takeout. One thing they consider is which model should be their focus.

“We are learning so much, but we have so much more to learn and implement,” he said. “We believe there is a strong market for sophisticated food programs alongside high-end coffee.”

Allison Ballard is the food and restaurant reporter at StarNews. You can reach her at [email protected]

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