Whether at home or at work, husband-and-wife duo Andy Pignatora and Amy Coughlin seem to instinctively bring people—and animals, for that matter—together.
At home in Chapel Hill, in addition to two children, they currently house 12 cats and two dogs. Their restaurants offer similar, welcoming spaces that aim to serve the community more than just delicious food. The owners of Breakaway Cafe, which opened in Briar Chapel in 2016, recently expanded to Carrboro, where latest venture Breakaway Carrboro opened for breakfast and lunch on August 1.
Looking back to the beginning of Pignatora and Coughlin’s journey, their story could be the plot of a romantic comedy. Long before opening their own restaurants, the couple first met in 1998 working at SPoT, a coffee shop in Buffalo, New York. It was a meeting that foreshadowed where they’d eventually end up, but first, there were some twists and turns along the way.
Coughlin was working in public health and Pignatora in action sports sales in 2008, several years before their joint business endeavors, when their experience on a bike trip with Cycle Oregon sparked the idea that would eventually take form at Breakaway. The trip’s joint focus on biking and food awakened them to the notion of a business that married their shared passions.
“It’s 2,000 people riding bikes, eating awesome food, drinking really good coffee, beer, wine, and music,” Pignatora recounts. “Just bikes, community, and food. We came back with the idea that that would be awesome to have where we live. A guy was opening a place like that two towns over from us, so we put it on the shelf.”
In 2011 Coughlin and Pignatora moved to North Carolina, and in 2016 when they were settled in, the timing and location were finally right to open Breakaway.
“There’s 20-something miles of trails built into Briar Chapel for biking,” Pignatora explains. “The roads out there are still pretty accessible for road bikes. We get groups in every weekend from Raleigh, Cary, Apex, out toward Hillsborough. People come from Carrboro out to Mebane, then Briar Chapel, get coffee, and then come back up here where their cars are parked. It’s been a linchpin sort of spot for that café culture that we wanted.”
While the original location is accessible by bike, the Carrboro location caught the pair’s interest because of its walkability and proximity to downtown Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
“That rooted feel of being someplace where people are around was something that was super compelling to us,” says Pignatora. Coughlin also notes that they were aware of a lack of healthy, casual breakfast and lunch options in Carrboro, a gap that they hope Breakaway will help fill.
Breakaway’s menu is built around brunch.
“I’m hyper-obsessed with Australian brunch culture—from the coffee to the way that they treat ingredients and presentation; that’s something that’s super compelling to me,” Pignatora says. “My wife’s coming at it from a different angle. She does a lot of menu development; she doesn’t know how to cook, but she has an impeccable palate.”
Pignatora explains an unexpected similarity, comparing Australian cafés to the food in areas of Africa, noting Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Namibia, where Coughlin has spent time. The fusing of inspiration is seen in menu items such as the Mushroom Tartine: shiitake and king oyster mushrooms roasted with herbs, garlic, shallots, and butter on grilled bread with fresh ricotta.
When I visit Breakaway Carrboro on a Friday after the lunch rush, the bright, airy space is scattered with students sipping coffee while typing away on their laptops and clusters of friends chatting over sandwiches. The clientele at the original Breakaway Cafe skews slightly older, in addition to the regular groups of bikers refueling with hearty baked goods.
With the Breakaway spots, Coughlin and Pignatora aim to both pursue their passions and serve the community’s needs, which was evident in their response to the beginning of the pandemic.
“All the produce vendors that we dealt with had a bunch of produce they couldn’t sell because restaurants were closed down, and nobody wanted to go to supermarkets because they were freaked out about getting sick, so we were selling it on the patio,” Pignatora says, explaining how the pair turned the original Breakaway location into a makeshift farmers market. “We bought, I think, three pallets of cabbage, because our main produce vendor, Blue Sky Farms in Wendell, had all this cabbage that was gonna go bad. Eventually, we found people to take it.”
Coughlin and Pignatora are also intentional about where the food they serve comes from. Most of the café’s menu items cost $10-$15, prices that take into account the extra cost of ingredients that are humanely certified, pasture-raised, and cage-free.
“We end up using a lot of the same raw ingredients that much-higher-end restaurants would use,” Pignatora shares. “You go in and you see the things that they’re tagging on their menu being from this farm or that farm, and it’s the same stuff we use.”
Impressed by their commitment to their customers and how consciously they put their principles into action, I asked Pignatora if his early experience working in restaurants taught him to go about things “that way” or “not that way.”
“There were a lot of ‘not that ways,’” he says. “Restaurants now are so different than they were 30 years ago or 10 years ago, the way that people approach the industry, the ways that people get into it, the commitment that they make. When I was younger restaurants were a haven for bad business.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.