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The story behind Moonbow Tipple Coffee & Sweets

By Sky Marietta

Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: Geoff and Sky Marietta are opening Moonbow Tipple & Sweets in the Buttermore Building in downtown Harlan. Sky has written about their journey creating Appalachian magic in this historic building. This is second of a three part series. This story is insight into how the Marietta family renovated the Buttermore Building.

As much as we love the Buttermore Building, the truth is that we almost had to walk away from the project, and 2018 was nothing if not a hard candy Christmas. In that stretch of time, we faced some very difficult times financially, but we also went from having a building in Harlan that was nothing more than a roof to one that was fully operational with bathrooms, HVAC, and electric. Let me tell you the next step in the transformation of the Buttermore Building to the Moonbow Tipple.

Fun fact about Geoff: He is the President of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce. He was walking around town one day in March of 2018, doing his Chamber duties and trying to sign up more businesses, when he came across a business owner who had just heard their rent was going up to unaffordable levels. At the very moment Geoff was recruiting, he happened across someone on the verge of packing up and leaving Harlan with their family. If you know Geoff, you know how very stricken he was with the idea of Harlan losing even one more business. There he was, with a problem to solve, and he just happened to have recently come into ownership of a downtown building.

There was never a question of IF we would help out, just how. We talked it over and came up with a plan for how we could squeeze the renovation budget for the Buttermore out of the money we had to renovate 2nd & Main. We had to do just enough to make it a good customer experience until the business owner could settle into something more permanent; because it would be imperfect there was no lease and no rent. We would fix the floors and stage, install bathrooms, put in a HVAC system, update the lights, get electric and internet fully going, as well as patch up the roof. Geoff estimated it would cost $50,000. There were two pots of money we could use to fund the work. I had recently gotten a micro-loan to start up Moonbow Mercantile (then Mountain Arts Gallery, if you can believe it) for $43,000. I took $20,000 of my startup funds and gave it for the renovation. The second pot of money was the funds that were going to build/renovate the apartment we were moving into on the 3rd floor. Geoff told the business owner in Harlan he thought he could get the Buttermore Building operational by April 30 — before their current lease was up — and he set to work on it.

The difficulty with renovations, I can tell you now, is that one thing always leads to another. You think you are going to simply lay down some flooring, then realize that the sub-floor is rotted out to the joists and needs to be replaced. You have an idea for plumbing, but it has to change for code. You think you can leave the ceiling tiles alone, but when someone is occupying a space they have their own ideas for how the space should look. A building as old as the Buttermore had plenty of needs, and we stopped all work in 2nd & Main to put our focus on Harlan.

The Buttermore was occupied in April, and by August we were living on the 3rd floor of 2nd & Main. The main event space of 2nd & Main was finished, but our own apartment was far from done. And when I say it was not done, I am very serious. There was no ceiling, no kitchen, unfinished walls, and windows covered in plywood. For our kitchen area, we put appliances on folding tables and installed a simple mop sink that could be changed out later. We had no HVAC on the third floor, although we did put in a window unit into one of our windows that was still covered in plywood. We started out with just bathtubs and only exterior doors. I insisted on those exterior doors, because we had a very active and curious 3 year old who would have happily wandered away if given a chance.

But the cost of the renovations in Harlan were far from over. With a business occupying the space, new problems just kept emerging. Our expenses piled up and piled up, and pretty soon we were barely swimming.

The problem was that winter was coming, and we had no heating system in either our apartment or in the Buttermore Building. And we were completely tapped out. We had cashed in almost all of our retirement to buy Second & Main, and the renovation costs at the Buttermore had gone far, far beyond what we predicted. Our credit cards were maxed. Moonbow, which I was trying so hard to grow when I only started with $20k, had no cash to spare. In fact, we were so tight on cash that we couldn’t afford to outsource cleaning the event space, and Geoff and I spent plenty of early mornings mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms. We were doing our best to stem the tide of expenses. But you can only put off heating buildings for so long. It was getting cold, so Geoff went ahead and made the call to get heat installed in the Buttermore, praying that God would find a way to get us through. We knew there was no way we could put heat in our apartment. We would try to dress warmly and just hold out.

It was an early and cold winter, and we certainly felt it in our apartment. We bought space heaters and doubled up on sweaters and fleece when the temperatures dipped. We were fortunate that our unheated apartment sat above the heated space of 2nd & Main, or else we probably could not have made it. As it was, those unfinished ceilings and windows seemed to just pull any warm air out. There were a few days that we brought in a propane heater in our apartment for just a little while, just to get our kids warm. I know that sounds like a very dumb and dangerous thing to do, but that is where we were at.

I don’t want to make it sound like we were sitting around, freezing and sad. We were not discouraged. Geoff and I had good jobs, cars to drive, food to eat. If the project failed, it failed. We could eventually sell one or both of the buildings. I knew that Geoff would work overnights at McDonalds if he had to take care of his family – it is the thing I value about him over any riches, especially as someone who grew up in houses that weren’t always able to shelter the cold. A billionaire can lose his fortune, but would he have the humility and fortitude to work his way out?

And not to put too fine of a point on it, but we live in Eastern Kentucky, where many people are struggling far more mightily than our situation. They live in inadequate housing, not for a season but for years. On some of the coldest nights I sat very still and thought about the families and children who were shivering and cold. The homeless. I thought about our purpose in buying these buildings in the first place, which was to create jobs. Maybe somebody would be lifted out of their situation if we could just be resourceful enough to pull through.

The day came that Geoff had to pay the $3,700 bill for the heat install in Harlan. I still tear up when I think about him trying to figure out how that bill would be paid. He said a prayer and gave it up to God. We had one last retirement account that he had saved as our last emergency reserve that was worth $3,500. He took the penalty and transferred the money. He wrote a check and took it to the heating guys as late in the day as possible, hoping that the check wouldn’t process until the next day and he could get home in time to finalize a transfer to cover the cost.

To this day I feel so bad for my husband, knowing how worried he felt as he went for our very last reserve of cash, wondering how we would build up enough money to pay off our debts and finish the project. I know that many of us have had these moments, where we wonder if we have made the right choices, if we have really followed God’s plan. And then, in your darkest hours, God shows you the way.

For us, that came in the form of an email Geoff received the very same day, simply entitled “Giant Otter Acquisition.” Giant Otter was the name of the software company that Geoff had started in Cambridge. He had left the company when we moved to Kentucky, but retained a small amount of ownership. It turned out that the company was being acquired for four million dollars. Geoff’s ownership meant that he would be getting a paycheck for a lump sum of $50,000.

Doesn’t that give you goosebumps? In our worst moment, we had been provided for. On the same day it seemed impossible, an answer was given. Many happy, grateful tears were shed.

It was just enough to see us through some more tough times ahead, because the expenses got worse before they got better. Utility bills alone were killing us. You can imagine that 2nd & Main, with its 20ft ceilings and event space was expensive to heat. It is. In the winter, our electric bills for 2nd & Main can top $2k. What was unexpected was that our utility bills for Harlan, where a much, much smaller space was being used, were even worse. Our utility bill in January for the Buttermore Building was $2,700. You can imagine the math on this one, with two salaries, but almost $5k in utility bills alone, plus a construction loan to repay. Not to mention the cost of daycare, food, and all the other normal expenses. Geoff was commuting from Corbin to Pine Mountain Settlement School almost every day. And we had our children, our family. There were bedtime stories to read and laundry to be folded and dinners to be cooked. Kids need new shoes and winter coats, doctor’s visits and sports equipment.

But that gift, it was just enough. It allowed us, at the end of January, to finally get a heating system installed in our apartment. It allowed us, in February, to finally install a kitchen. And it allowed us to cover all the costs that emerged from hosting TedxCorbin in our building that March. It did not wipe out all of our credit card debt or obligations (we are still working on that credit card debt), but it set us in a position that we could once more begin to make headway, when before we had simply been drowning.

To me, this is what a miracle looks like. Nothing extravagant, just what you need. Just enough to affirm that you are on the right path, but not so much to take away the responsibility. This was the gift that allowed us to keep both buildings and get them in useable condition, and I began to see the light at the end of the storm. The business we had been helping out found a new place in March, so we were no longer facing the big expense of utilities and all the smaller repairs that occupancy can entail. Second & Main was beginning to grow, and Moonbow, too. I no longer worried every single day about cashflow and payroll.

To be honest, I would have been happy right there. What was the rush on a coffee shop? And then a crazy set of occurrences put an entire coffee shop’s worth of equipment right in our lap.

I think God really wants that coffee shop in Harlan.

I will tell you next time about how we got all the coffee and restaurant equipment.