If you like friendly people who have time to chat with you, plenty of outdoor space filled with farms and fresh produce, then Johnston County is for you.
It’s an easy 20-40 minute drive from Raleigh, depending on where you’re coming from and going to. There is plenty to see and do here, and to keep you coming back for more, as we do.
We’ve been exploring Johnston County since we first moved here in 2004. For those who don’t know, I was randomly placed to teach elementary school in this county when we first moved over from Australia, so JoCo has a special place in our hearts – mostly for the warm friendly people who live here!
If you’re open to conversations and community, you will love visiting too. It’s also a largely rural area – although this is slowly changing, but many people relocate here or visit for that tree change experience.
We visited the towns of Princeton, Pine Level and Micro on this day trip in partnership with Johnston County for a more rural experience that included strawberry picking and small, family-owned farms.
While the spring strawberry picking season is coming to an end, you may still have a week left thanks to an extended season in 2023. So, act quick and book it in for this weekend (Phone ahead to check first). But first, coffee at…
Milltown Java, Princeton
We always start our day in Johnston County with coffee. And Milltown Java Cafe & Coffee House in downtown Princeton is the perfect place for that.
Husband and wife team, Sharon and Don Creech, had no previous experience running a café, or making coffee, but dived straight in once the opportunity aligned with their desire for a lifestyle change. I love this example of how you don’t have to know it all before you create something successful. You just have to start!
They built the dream in a downtown area that was quite empty of businesses, but since their opening has started a promising revitalization with boutiques, gifts stores and soon to be opened hot dog and burger grill.
For the past seven years, Don and Sharon have worked hard to put community back into coffee. In other words where conversations (even with strangers) replace staring at digital screens.
So, when you visit, don’t just come for the coffee – either straight up black or filled with over thirty flavors they have to suit your style – but to chat with the friendly staff making them.
Milltown Java has added a cool bar seating area to make that easier for you – just look for the frosted cupcakes!
Now you’ve had your coffee and conversation you can return to your phone to snap a photo of yourself in front of the cool mural on the side of the building!
But don’t keep it out for too long as the conversations will continue to flow as you explore Johnston County further. I’d highly recommend adding extra time for talking at each stop!
Strawberry Picking at J&L Produce
We’ve done a lot of strawberry picking across the US, in the Raleigh region, and in Australia and I’ll have to say the strawberries at J&L produce were some of the prettiest and sweetest I’ve ever picked. In fact, they were near perfect.
This local family-owned business has been growing strawberries for 14 years at the fourth-generation family-owned Worley Family Farms.
What is their secret to longevity with a fruit known for being a difficult grower in a very short season? LOVE.
While Lisa’s husband Jason and his brother take care of their other grain crops, Lisa has taken control of the strawberries with a lot of love and commitment to producing quality strawberries that look and taste good. She personally oversees the quality of each strawberry for sale in their store or local grocery stores. If it’s not near perfect, it doesn’t make the shelf!
There is no wastage here at the farm, however. The strawberries that don’t make the cut, go to a local distiller for some special Joco drinks!
Fill up your bucket as much as you like and pay per pound. The strawberries are spray free here so you can enjoy a sweet snack while you pick straight from the field.
They also have a small farm store with produce from other local farms, strawberry preserves and jellies made on the farm, and other products like soaps and candles.
Ashlan Meadows Farm
Another example of an inspiring young family going after dreams and doing things a little differently, is Boone and Emily Langley from Ashlan Meadows Farm. They both met at NC State with the intention to become veterinarians but had a huge career move when they saw the opportunity to do something with Boone’s family farm in Micro Pine Level.
On their farm they produce a variety of vegetable crops which you can purchase in their small store inside the old horse barn. Their main offering, however, is pasture raised pork.
While visiting the farm, we cruise around to meet many of their healthy and happy looking pigs, including their newly born piglets. We learned a lot about their smaller farming operation and intention to create food with as minimal wastage, land degradation, and pesticide harm as possible.
We also took home some pork chops and can verify that the meat was exceptional. As was their fresh produce which also came home with us. Their sweet corn paired beautifully with the pork covered in a BBQ rub!
Continuing the theme of this day out in Johnston County, Boone and Emily and their two-year-old son Hank were friendly, warm, and passionate about serving the community with quality products that honor the legacy of Boone’s father and sister who both passed when he was younger.
In the summer, Ashlan Meadows has a vibrant sunflower field, and pumpkin picking in the fall with Boone’s favorite activity – taking the kids on the hayride through their haunted forest. And in the winter, you can find your perfect Christmas tree.
Before we left, Hank insisted we come see his puppies – adorable Great Pyrenees – the perfect farm dog that Boone breeds and sells!
- Address: 1912 Pine Level Micro Rd., Selma, NC
- Instagram: @ashlanmeadows
- Website: Ashlan Meadows Farm
Lunch Break at Waffee Station
You would not be considered strange if you drove from Raleigh to the Waffee Station just for a Sunday breakfast.
Owner Reed Taylor says he frequently meets many patrons from Raleigh who do just that. That’s how strong the word on the street is that the food at the Waffee Station is something to remember – or drive 50 minutes for!
Reed knows this as he takes the time to talk to his customers. He has a background in the culinary and hospitality world, which is clearly evident in the deliciousness of his food and how he engages with customers.
Reed and wife Rachel started this innovative food experience with the Waffee Wagon food truck in 2018. It quickly gained popularity and in 2021 they opened their permanent Waffee Station in Micro Pine Level.
Service is simple, order and pick up from the window, and then sit and enjoy in their cute outdoor seating area with plenty of activities for kids like toy trucks and corn hole.
Wait a minute. What is a Waffee you ask? Waffee stands for the perfect breakfast or lunch blending of waffles and coffee.
We’re not talking frozen Eggo waffles either – if only Elle from Stranger Things could try this real deal – Belgian Waffles cooked fresh to order.
Each dough ball is hand rolled and mixed in pearl liege sugar imported from Belgium, they’re cooked on a Belgium waffle iron, and then generously topped or filled with delicious quality ingredients, including strawberries from local farms.
What kind of waffles can you have? You can stick with your more traditional sweet like strawberries and cream; The Chocolate Dream topped with chocolate, banana and whip cream; the Cinnabliss with cream cheese, cinnamon, sugar and caramel; or the S’mores which you know will be just like a toasty campfire.
Or if savory is more your flavor, you can have a waffle sandwich (or alternatively a croissant) packed with tasty fillings.
Signature waffle sandwiches include:
The Scrambler with bacon, egg, Pesto, and cheese; The Burger Waffle with 2 patties, bacon, cheese, and the secret sauce; and the Monte Cristo with turkey, cheese, and strawberry jam. And it wouldn’t be the South without some chicken and waffles on the menu.
What if you’re gluten free like me? Easy, get the keto bowl with bacon, sausage, eggs, and cheese. It looks simple, but trust me, on first bite of that flavor bomb, I could tell it was made by someone who knew how to cook. I was pleasantly surprised.
Waffee Station will be a regular stop now for us on our JoCo visits. Now we’re ready for the next part of our Pine Level adventure, shopping and ice cream.
NC Paper Company
Talking about history in Johnston County, if you’re in need of party supplies, bulk paper supplies, and cake decorating pop into NC Paper Company, around the corner and over the railway line from Waffee Station.
This family-owned business has been serving the community with quality products at reasonable prices since 1919! It was founded by Edwin Byron Haynes and is now owned and managed by his grandson Byron Haynes.
And of course, you’ll have a friendly and welcoming atmosphere!
Also in this area is Hinnant Winery – y’all know we visited this winery in the Fall on a Johnston County date experience. I highly recommend adding this to your day while you’re in this area.
Pine Level Hardware & Furniture
Now that we’re homeowners I really enjoy looking in furniture stores, and the Pine Level Hardware & Furniture store has a classy collection of furnishings you’ll fall in love with.
While foodies will think a trip to Waffee from Raleigh will be worth it, avid home DIY renovators and interior designers will think a trip down here just to visit this furniture and hardware store in Downtown Pine Level will be worth it.
As with many local businesses in Johnston County, there is history here. Pine Level Hardware & Furniture Co Inc. has been serving Johnston County and the surrounding areas for over a century, and their personal, friendly, one-on-one customer service is what has kept their customers loyal.
We really enjoyed their selection of furniture and furnishings – it was a pleasant mix of traditional and bright modern colors and textures.
Even Craig got excited, especially with this brown leather single sofa and ottoman for our speakeasy room in our unfinished attic when we get to finish it with those fun plans.
And I can’t stop thinking of this pillow arrangement on this bed.
I’m thinking when we get back from Europe in July, I’ll have to make a trip back down here. I’ll be stopping in at Waffee House on the way and picking up some more pasture raised pork from Ashlan Meadows for a summer grill out!
Serving Up Scoops Ice Cream
Ok, it’s ice cream time. Walk around the corner from the furniture store to Serving up Scoops Ice Cream Cafe, a relatively new business in Pine Level from the owners of Serving Spoons, catering, and event venue next door.
We loved chatting with Joyce and Wayne Jenkins and hearing how the idea for scoops came about.
When they purchased the former Pine Level Post Office next to their event space, they didn’t have any immediate plans for it.
Joyce happened to be looking at some of her journal entries from a couple of years before and came across an entry where she wrote, “Pine Level really needs an ice cream or candy store for kids.”
That’s the power of journaling! Now Pine Level has a healthy population of happy kids – big and small!
I love how they have paid homage to the post office roots in their ice cream store. Joyce has filled the post office’s shadow boxes with photos of the historic building and U.S. Postal Service memorabilia, including Wayne’s postal carrier uniform.
Their homemade ice cream is locally made by Old Fashioned Ice Cream in Selma, and you’ll find a variety of flavors including a Johnston County (and Craig Makepeace favorite), butter pecan.
Serving Up Scoops are also well known for their ham biscuits!
Their event space and venue next door at Serving Spoon 119 is a gorgeous space in a refurbished building near the railroad track in Pine Level. It’s a beautiful event space and I loved the photos on the wall sharing the history of the buildings and its previous owners, and a portrait of Joyce’s great-grandmother, a huge inspiration for her hospitality business.
All the dishes on her catering menu are hand selected and made from scratch from locally sourced, fresh ingredients, including meat from Ashlan Meadow Farms in their catering menus!
Sadly, we had to rush home from here for carpool pick up. But how easy is that though – you can have a great day out in JoCo while the kids are at school and still be home in time for pickup!
We enjoyed our day discovering these local businesses, hearing the stories of the owners – their history and heritage and innovative modern twists – and eating delicious food made fresh and straight from the local farms.
A day in Johnston County always reminds me of why we fought so hard for 17 years to make Raleigh our permanent home. You know we’ll be back.
Now you don’t have to drive all that way just for waffles and coffee. There are loads of things you can do in this area either before or after!