On a cold, rainy February afternoon I took a damp stroll up King street to Charleston’s newest cafe, Harken. Harken, located on Queen street close to Husk, is by all accounts dreamy. The space highlights the building’s original brick from 1705, and is spotted with plants and ceramic mugs that make the place feel like a very elevated version of home.
As soon as I stepped in, the cafe was unbelievably cozy and buzzing with people enjoying slab pies, avocado coffee cake and earl grey lattes. Definitely the perfect place to be on a rainy February friday. As I spoke to the co-owners Cameron Neal and Greer Gilchrist, the cafe only felt warmer.
Neal, a graduate of the College thought throughout her college career that she would eventually become a diplomat. She studied international business, spoke Spanish and Portuguese and was sent to Brazil for a year on a federal grant through CofC’s business school. Shortly after moving to DC and working for the Brazilian embassy however, Neal realized it wasn’t the right move for her.
“I worked for a government and realized I don’t love authority and structure. I can’t sit at a desk all day. I get super antsy, I love getting my hands dirty. I love getting my pants dirty.” Neal explained. “I made the decision during the tail end of my stint at the brazilian embassy to flip my life on its head and move to San Francisco… but I did miss DC a lot, so
I moved back and met Greer and helped a couple of friends of ours open a cafe in DC.”
Shortly after helping open that cafe, Neal and Gilchrist decided that they wanted to open a cafe for themselves. “We talked about it and had some really fun meetings at our favorite coffee shops in DC and were like we’ve done it for other people and we think we have the knowledge and the drive and the work ethic to do it for ourselves.”
After the unfortunate passing of Neal’s mother, her father asked her and her brother to come be with him in Charleston. It was then that Neal asked Gilchrist, who had never lived in the South, if they could bring their dreams of opening a cafe to Charleston. Then in the fall of 2017 they opened the doors of the Harbinger, a cafe on upper King street.
After only being open for 3 months they were actually approached by the owners of Harken’s building asking if they would want to put another cafe in that space. “[It] was very flattering and very sweet. We were like we just opened 3 months ago, we’re not in the position to open a cafe.” Neal said. “We knew if we opened a second one we wanted it to be very different, have its own personality, have its own branding and I don’t think we had the creativity energy at that point to understand what that would be.”
Luckily for Neal and Gilchrist, they had almost two years to consider not only the decor and menu, but to think about what kind of business the space needed. The pair ended up choosing the name Harken to evoke a harkening back to the past. Not only because the building and the neighborhood are historic, but because the menu embodies pieces of their own past and food that’s a little more classical.
When I asked them if it was difficult finding the right aesthetic and structural choices, they explained that they created a business that they were drawn to. “What’s really great is that’s is so much easier to build a business if you are your demographic, we understood what we wanted and we built that knowing that our friends would want it and that there are more people like us.” Neal said.
“It’s like when they tell you to write the novel you want to read, build the business you want, make the lunch you want to eat.” Gilchrist said.“I think that’s how you do the best job, when you’re not trying to impersonate something, when it is from the heart, then I think you do a much better job. Whether someone thought they wanted harken or not they are drawn to it, because they can feel it.”
Neal and Gilchrist are proud that The Harbinger and Harken go across gendered and generational gaps. They speak fondly of babies they’ve known for their whole lives, older men who bring chess sets daily and even a couple who was married in Harken earlier this year. For Neal and Gilchrist, they want their cafes to be community spaces that their regulars feel ownership over.
“We were never trying to be trendy, I hope we never are, it is for the community always. Use it as you will.” Neal said.
Neal and Gilchrist have a lot of ideas for the future. “I think Harken would do well for more open to the public events like lecture series, author talks, musicians.” Neal said, comparing Harken to the private events they often do at the Harbinger.
“I think we’ve been overwhelmed thinking about a vision, but we said ten years ago that we wanted a family of three little tiny spaces.” Neal said. “We have two now, I can’t imagine a third downtown. I don’t know where that would be and I don’t think it would be anytime soon but I think we have these other little passion projects that will drive us.”
“We’re just insatiated people. Greer’s always hungry,” Neal jokes “I always want to do another buildout, so i think we need to figure that out. We’re often approached with other possibilities, and we consider them. We haven’t said yes to anything.”
“There’s also still a lot of work to do on the Harb and Harken. They can always improve they’re living and breathing little babies, so that still takes a lot of time.” Gilchrist adds.
“I think long term we both expect more and to be challenged continuously because I think that’s how you continue to grow internally and in your business.” Neal adds astutely. “Yes 33 is old but it’s also still young.”
As I reassure Neal that she is still very much young I’m excited thinking about the future of these two spaces. Hopefully you’ll become a regular of Harken, take some ownership and watch it continue to grow.
Harken is open Monday through Friday from 7am-3pm and Saturday and Sunday from 8am-3pm. Be sure to check out Harken for your next coffee date and as warm weather approaches spend a leisurely afternoon out on their patio.