Grab a craft beer, shop for specialty items, try ax-throwing and more, all at The Plant
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Dr. Seuss once asked rhetorically, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” Drive down Lorax Lane in Pittsboro and discover a world where the founders of The Plant developed a winning formula for businesses.
“Local is our big focus, and many of the businesses are family run, which makes me happy to see the next generation learning from their parents,” says Tami Schwerin, who co-founded The Plant with Lyle Estill and Lyle’s late brother, Mark Estill, in 2004. Tami and Lyle’s son, Arlo Estill, helps manage operations on-site and has his own business, Hempsmith Clothing Co.
Of the 18 businesses at The Plant, BMC Brewing, Fair Game Beverage Company and Copeland Springs Farm & Kitchen’s chef and owner Kristin Bulpitt were named favorites by readers of Chatham Magazine. The Plant itself was voted one of the best event spaces, and the Chatham Beverage District was named a best live music venue.
“There are a lot of different businesses here, and we each specialize in our own thing,” Kristin says. “There is a living, breathing, passionate human behind each business here, and I think it shows. I think success will come from never getting comfortable and assuming ‘we made it’ just because customers are here today. We should always be working to improve and impress and to keep our customers coming back because we are a great place to visit!”
The Plant is also home to Carolina Hemp Tours, Chatham Axes, Metal Brixx Cafe and Pittsboro eBikes, all owned by Kalim Hasan. Other businesses and organizations include Abundance NC, Cataleya Jewelry Studio, EcoBlend, Oak City Hemp, Smelt Art Gallery, TickWarriors, Vita Mielie and Webb Squared.
A BRIEF HISTORY
In 1946, about two dozen acres north of Robeson Creek were tilled to grow 25-by-500-foot rows of chrysanthemums for Sunshine Gardens, one of the country’s most prolific floriculture operations in the mid-20th century, according to author Roy A. Larson. At its peak, the farm would have produced more than 212 tons of bronze, yellow, white and pink flowers, according to field supervisor Horace Clegg in an undated newspaper interview with News & Observer columnist Jack Aulis.
Then in 1986, a manufacturing plant was built to produce metal alloys for military and aerospace industries. By 1993, that plant closed. The facility sat silent, and its barbed wire fences were overtaken by vines and weeds. In 2004, Tami and the Estill brothers saw the property’s potential as a sustainable industrial plant. They had a plan to turn waste oil into fuel, so they invested in converting the property into a biodiesel manufacturing facility. But they couldn’t keep up.
“Our biodiesel plant had a million-gallon-per-year capacity,” Lyle says. “It felt big to us. The Plant used to rumble and hum with big trucks, 300 gallons-per-minute pumps, etc., but we were too small. Most of the biodiesel plants that survived were [pumping] 100 million gallons per year – 100 times our size. Piedmont Biofuels didn’t survive. We lost our shirts making fuel.”
In 2012, the eco-industrial business park began another metamorphosis.
“When we purchased the property in 2004, it was a scary, deserted, overgrown set of buildings with a terrible mosquito problem,” Tami explains. “No color, no wildlife, just empty, strange concrete buildings. It had been a Cold War aluminum smelting plant. We wanted to bring back the birds, bees and butterflies.”
Tami credits two people – Debbie Roos and Scott Every – for restoring the balance of nature to the property. Debbie is a county agriculture extension agent who reintroduced native plant species and trees. “And Scott, who looks a little like the Lorax, [the eponymous character from the classic Dr. Seuss book], was adamant about saving trees,” Tami says. “We agreed Lorax Lane would be the name of our road. It is even more important today than it was 18 years ago to save our trees and wildlife in this county.”
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO
“We have become a place for local craft food and beverage, and specialty retail, and we will continue developing space along these lines,” Lyle says. “We didn’t know we were in the real estate business. We were trying to make fuel. We didn’t understand property management. When we bought The Plant, it was poison ivy and possums. Had we known what we were doing, we would have developed the destination sooner.”
Tami says there is no secret to success except time, creativity, problem-solving and perspective. “We look at problems with the question, ‘How is this working for me?’” Tami says. “We do consider who is at The Plant and if their values align with ours. I have to say, we are at a place where the people all work together and have sustainability in their business plan.”
Today, The Plant includes the Chatham Beverage District, which is comprised of BMC Brewing, Chatham Cider Works, Fair Game Beverage Company and Starrlight Mead. Nonalcoholic drinks are available as well. There are times when the air is filled with the invigorating fragrance of roasting coffee from Vortex Roasters.
On any given night, visitors drop in to shop at a pop-up market or learn to dance salsa or just hang out with friends. Every Thursday, rain or shine, the Pittsboro Farmers Market offers locally grown vegetables, flowers, meats, cheeses and eggs. Annual events like PepperFest in September and Death Faire in October will draw hundreds of visitors down Lorax Lane.
There is a pétanque court where players can toss steel balls at a target, an oversized chess set and a playground for kids. Unique sculptures dot the landscape. The Pittsboro Farm and Forest Trail was installed in 2016, so anyone can walk the ¾-mile nature path. There are plans to open a tree museum and an art walk.
“I want The Plant to be known as a unique, quirky, otherworldly, delicious, fun, relaxing place to spend a day or have your celebration,” Tami says. “People tend to be at home here, and they get to commune with nature while catching up with friends and letting their children play. … I love seeing the diversity of folks at The Plant. [The] farmers market is an especially fun day on Thursday afternoons. People go buy their local food and then settle into a picnic table and grab dinner, a beer, chat and slow down!”
Lilly Den Farm co-owners Mackenzie Withington and her husband, Tucker Withington, currently operate a mobile unit at The Plant. As of press time, the couple plans to open a permanent deli and retail store on-site by summer’s end.
Mackenzie says The Plant’s unique vibe makes it different from other area business communities. “It is the perfect, eclectic mesh of sustainability, hyper local, environmentally conscious, fun, tasty, laid-back and absolutely beautiful,” she says.