Cat’s Nip for the Catamounts

At 7:30 each morning, Monday through Friday, Lauren Loper opens the Cat’s Nip Café nestled between Wachovia and Subway. A giant chalkboard hung high behind the counter proudly proclaims her menu to the world in bright red, green and yellow chalk. Over the course of the day, she and her staff will serve dozens of varieties of candy, milkshakes and coffee to the students, faculty, staff and locals who make up Cullowhee. If someone happens to want locally produced bread or eggs, or even just a greeting card, the Cat’s Nip carries those, as well. At first glance, this sounds like a description of almost any other local business. Sure, the menu is fairly unique but not exactly foreign. What sets this business apart is the owner. Lauren Loper is a fellow student here at Western, currently majoring in Elementary Education. So how did she come to own a successful business even before she graduated? “It was an accident, really,” she says. Lauren came to Western for the excellent education program and took a job at Jack the Dipper (before it moved to Sylva). When the owner decided to sell his business, Lauren found financing through a family member’s business and made an offer. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The landlord of the Dipper’s old location wanted to go month to month on the lease, and Lauren just wasn’t comfortable running a business under those conditions. But when the local outlet of the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory went on the market, Lauren already had most of the legwork for her business loan in place. In just three weeks, she bought the tiny shop that specialized in fine chocolates and transformed it into the flourishing enterprise the Cat’s Nip is today. Even from the beginning, it was a learning experience. “I literally made my first latte my first day on the job.” But that’s Lauren’s style. Instead of spending three months planning out every nuance, she’d rather jump right in and figure it out as she goes along. Of course, she always had a rough idea of where she wanted to take the shop. “Good food, good coffee and good friends make a good combination.” As I sat interviewing her for this article, a customer walked in, and I saw first hand just how seriously she takes her motto. She called the customer by name (Amanda, I think it was), knew her usual order, and quickly served it exactly the way she likes. After a few seconds of clean up so she’d be ready for the next customer, she sat down to continue. “This is my life now, and I love it,” which naturally shows in her dedication. She works twelve hours most days. “We [do] close around 5:00 on Fridays because campus empties out so much,” but otherwise you’ll likely see her at the Cat’s Nip Café when she’s not in class or catching some shuteye. Owning a business has taught her things she could never learn in a classroom. “I know how much it really costs to make a cup of coffee …I feel sorry for the people who go to Starbucks because I know just how badly they’re getting ripped off.” She has also made dozens of new friends who regularly visit her, sometimes for a quick treat and sometimes just to chat. “That’s what makes my job interesting-getting to know my customers.” I asked her how she was able to keep such a large staff. It turns out they’re all actually volunteers. Many come from Smoky Mountain or other local high schools and need to work as part of their academic requirements. “We get a lot of people from the entrepreneurial program, as well.” It helps keep her costs down while benefiting the local community. She stocks Annie’s Naturally Baked Breads and locally grown eggs for the same reason. “We want to keep up with what our customers want,” and what they’ve been asking for is fresh, good-quality, local goods. As I wrapped up my interview, I asked Lauren if she had any advice for budding entrepreneurs. “Don’t be afraid of loans. You get out of college and have this huge debt to pay back and you don’t want to make it any bigger,” but if you’re starting a business, you obviously have to. For Lauren, her business cost about the same as a college education, and it’s just as rewarding. As she puts it, “we need more small businesses” because small businesses are where new, quality jobs come from. If you open a business of your own, think of it as “creating decent job opportunities for our generation.”