Magnolia Social Café: Created From a Childhood Memory

Written By: Debra Mccormick | Photography By: Soriano Photography


Tammy Tilghman is a determined woman. Her long, carefree blonde hair and wide,
bright smile are the first qualities one notices, but after a few minutes of conversation, her
inner strength becomes quite apparent. She is the owner of Magnolia Social Café, located at
Riverlights, one of Wilmington’s newest living communities located along the Cape Fear
River. Her fortitude has helped her overcome an extremely challenging health crisis, and it
has assisted her in her other line of work as a Bail Bondsman. She describes this work as
very fulfilling; it can be exciting and adventurous at times, but it also allows her to help people
who really need nurturing and support.

Most people might wonder why a Bail Bondsman would want to open a café. The answer goes way back to the beginning of a long and arduous journey. Soon after the death of her father in 2010, Ms. Tilghman’s health began to decline. At first she noticed that she
could no longer exercise at the same frequency she had been accustomed. Eventually her
speech began to slur, she developed debilitating headaches, dizziness, all-over body pain,
and extreme weakness. Added to that challenge was the frustration she felt when doctors
could not tell her what was wrong with her. Finally, one of her doctors ordered an MRI,
revealing that she had a brain ailment called Chiari, in which the brain literally slips down
inside the skull. The diagnosis led her to choose treatment at the Cleveland Clinic in Weston,
Florida, where she was able to receive surgery. Her particular form of Chiari blocked the flow
of cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord. The lack of this
protective fluid was the cause of her intense headaches and body pain. Additionally, the life-
saving surgery she needed was also very dangerous as it involved the removal of a small
section of her skull and the placement of a patch over the affected area.

After a successful surgery, she developed a clot on her brain and further diagnosis
revealed that the surgery had left her susceptible to contracting spinal meningitis. It is at this
low point that she became inspired to open a café. Told by her doctors that she might not
survive, she tried to find a way to make peace with dying, but one question kept nagging at
her – “What would I do differently if I were given a second chance at life?” She thought about
her beloved father and a cherished memory of him. As a child, he would share his coffee with
her, letting her have sips of the delicious brew much to the chagrin of her mother. It became
like a little ritual, and in remembering this shared time with her father, she realized that if given
a second chance, the thing to do would be to open a café where people could relax and enjoy
each other’s company over coffee. As she shares this memory, she says, “I promised God in
that moment that if I survived this illness, I would open a café.”

And recover she did. As soon as she was able, the hunt for the right place became her
sole focus. She found out about a new development along the Cape Fear River called
Riverlights, and contacted Jim Henry, Vice-President of Operations at Riverlights, who
showed her the plot of land that he envisioned could be her future place of business. With
some imagination and careful planning, Magnolia Social Café opened on April 1, 2017.
Part of her strategy involved hiring experienced chefs. Mr. Henry emphasized that food
should be offered in addition to specialty coffee, but not having experience with cuisine made
her plan a bit challenging. She sought the help of Kevin Vermilyea, a chef with twenty-four
years of experience in the culinary arts and trained under renowned chefs Wolfgang Puck in
Hollywood, California and Larry Forgione in Rhinebeck, New York. Later, she hired a second chef, Chelsea Moran. Together they designed a menu that offers a wide span of culinary
items—breakfast dishes, sandwiches and wraps, BBQ Tots, Old Bay shrimp over salad
greens, as well as specialty sides like spinach with caramelized onions. Plans are in the
works for a brunch menu, flat breads, and new weekly specials. The full coffee menu is a
testament to Ms.Tilghman’s great love for the drink, which proved to be an antidote for
reducing the brain swelling she experienced during her illness.

Regular customers greet her several times during our interview, a testament to the
sense of community the café provides. The atmosphere is open and carefree, with an
abundance of sunlight pouring through the large window spaces. On the counters and walls
are uplifting messages such as “Love Never Gives Up,” “Dream” and “Be Happy.” She is very
proud of the role that Magnolia Social Café has taken at Riverlights, as she knows many of
the new residents, and she feels that the café is a place where people can feel inspired: “I
have a true one-on- one relationship with many people here at Riverlights. It’s so surreal to me
that I had this vision and I chased it. With God’s help and my children’s help, I made it