Conversations: Amy Coughlin, Community Helper

Amy Coughlin and her husband, Andy Pignatora, own one of our favorite local restaurants, Breakaway Cafe on the Pittsboro/Chapel Hill line. Their food is consistently fresh, creative and very tasty. During these difficult times when folks aren’t venturing out much, Amy and Andy have stepped up to the plate and have been serving first responders, neighbors in need, and offering a weekly farmers’ market in order to help out our local farms, all while keeping their restaurant open for pick-up and now once again for dine-in. Amy and I had a conversation about what has been driving her to this point…

Barbara: Can you start by telling me a bit about yourself? How do you see yourself? What’s important to your life?

Amy: I decided in 1997, after recently graduating from college and while traveling across the United States and Canada on a road trip with my best friend, that whatever I decide to do career wise had to positively contribute toward society in some way. That led me to Peace Corps (following in the footsteps of my father) in Zimbabwe, a masters in public health and the past 18 years working in international health programming. That desire and drive to want to give back to society in a positive way, especially given the so many challenges we face globally and our country specifically, trickles down to everything we do, including how we run our business. I hope to integrate more of this as our business recovers and continues to grow.

Barbara: How did your restaurant, Breakaway Cafe, which you own with your husband, Andy, come about?

Amy: The idea of Breakaway developed over several years. I guess it all started when Andy and I started working at a local coffee shop in our hometown of Buffalo, NY where we met. When Andy and I lived in Boston, we were really into road riding and combining that with stops along the way at our favorite cafes. That, along with finding the best place to hike with our dog, made up much of our free time and we were really happy. In 2008, Andy, my father and myself rode Cycle Oregon, a 600 plus mile ride with 2000 riders across rural Oregon over a one week period. A caravan of support staff, good food and drink followed the city of riders and set up in each town we stopped. We were a larger population than many of the towns we stopped in and it was overwhelming for the towns. Our desire was to combine our love of cycling and good food and drink in a space that brought community together. When we moved to NC for my job, and then Chatham County, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start our dream.

Amy and her husband, Andy Pignatora, outside Breakaway Cafe.

Barbara: What are the positives to owning this restaurant? And what worries you about it?

Amy: The biggest positive for me has been meeting such amazing people in our community who I would most likely have never had a chance to meet. I wish I could spend more time at the restaurant because I see the great relationship our staff have with many of our customers. I do feel like we succeeded, with customer and staff support, the community feel we were striving for.

Well, I have learned being a small business owner is really challenging. It definitely requires a lot of work and there are many things to worry about–probably too many to go into. But, I will say, I feel like Breakaway is an extension of our home. I want people to feel comfortable and have an enjoyable experience when people are in my home as well as Breakaway and I am constantly thinking “how are we doing”. I take it personally if someone doesn’t have the experience we strive for and want to always do better.

Barbara: How do you think a restaurant can promote community-building? What steps have you taken at Breakaway?

Amy: I think first, creating a safe space that anyone and everyone can enjoy. That is really important to us. We want everyone to feel welcome and at home regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability…. I think it is important for people to know this is what we stand for. We have continuously let people know that our space is their space and many people use Breakaway for meetings, book clubs, and other personal events.

Created by Maesey Coughlin, Amy and Andy’s daughter.

We have used our business platform to support social movements in the community such as saving the trees in Chatham Park and protecting Briar Chapel’s Beavers, and we partner with individuals and groups in the community to promote their efforts, such as PORCH and CARE. We have held fundraisers for Type 1 diabetes, Cystic Fibrosis, CARE and local schools and we have donated to other community fundraising efforts. During our current pandemic, our friends, family, neighbors and customers donated to Breakaway and we used those funds to appreciate and support those in need in our community. Through partnership with Chapel in the Pines, a local church, and The Farm at Penny Lane, we were able to prepare meals for individuals in Chatham who needed extra support. We also support local farmers as much as possible–we are so lucky to have so many great ones in Chatham.

I think it is important we don’t remain silent, especially now, when it comes to some of our most pressing social issues in this country. There is so much more I would love to do through our business and hope to continue to grow this part of Breakaway.

A sampling of produce from Breakway’s weekly farmers’ market.

Barbara: Why do you feel it is important to run a farmers’ market each week? What type of feedback do you receive from shoppers?

Amy: We are lucky to have access to a lot of great produce from our vendors, many from local or regional farms. We have tried to balance what our vendors had surplus of and what our customers wanted–sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Whatever we don’t sell, Andy tries to integrate with meals. The farmers market seemed to be a need on both our customers’ and vendors’ side. Both have been very appreciative– being able to enter a less risky environment to purchase groceries and reducing the amount of food going to waste. Many customers have thanked us for being there (and our vendors). It makes us happy to know we are serving a purpose and, while a small drop in the bucket, reduce the amount of food that winds up in a landfill.

Barbara: How do you find balance in your life?

Amy: Running, mountain and road riding with Andy, spending time with my human and animal family, being around nature. I am not sure I have achieved balance yet, though.

Barbara: What brings you the most joy?

Amy: Evening walks with my dogs and listening to the choir of frogs, young bunnies eating clovers, watching baby birds learning how to fly, when our foster dogs or cats have found a wonderful forever home, when my animal and human family are happy, when people are good, when I know I have helped someone.

Breakaway Cafe is currently open Monday-Saturday, 8:00-5:00 and Sunday 9:00-2:00. Visit their website, and you can order online for pick-up or dine-in. According to Amy, they are taking all necessary precautions, and the patio is also open for dining at a distance.

Location: 58 Chapelton Court, Suite 100, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Created by Maesey Coughlin