Along a dark country road in Alamance County, the red and gold stripes of a Shell sign glow in the distance, beckoning drivers.
The gas station is at the Saxapahaw General Store, where inside you can get the usual: domestic beer, cigarettes, a package of Carolina Pride hot dogs.
Or you can sit down to a dinner of veal shanks over mashed potatoes and spinach for $18 or crab cakes with duck-fat fries, wax beans and lemon aioli for $15. Most of it is from local farms, such as Cane Creek and Chapel Hill Creamery.
This local foods-focused convenience store is the work of Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff, the duo who left Chatham Marketplace, a cooperative grocery in Pittsboro, to open this store and cafe in June 2008.
Saxapahaw was a textile town until the mill closed in 1995. The town, situated along the Haw River 17 miles west of Chapel Hill, was home to 1,400 people at the time of the 2000 census.
Since then, the old cotton mill has been turned into loft apartments and townhomes, where professors and professionals are buying homes. "Saturdays in Saxapahaw," a weekly event during the warmer months, have become a weekend destination with live music, vendors and an evening farmers market. There are plans for a pub and a butcher shop. The Saxapahaw General Store is part of that renaissance.
Heather LaGarde, who runs the farmers market, and Mac Jordan, whose family owns the redeveloped textile mill, persuaded the couple to come to Saxapahaw to open this store. LaGarde explains that the store located in a former dye house was once called Poppies and used to be a community gathering spot. But in recent years, the gas station had lost its place as the village's nerve center.
One day, LaGarde says, she, her husband Tom, Ratlifff and Barney were walking past the gas station talking about their project when someone jokingly said, "'Wouldn't it be funny to be in there?' and Jeff replied, 'I can see it.'"
Their envisioned local foods-focused grocery store and café took over the space. They have transitioned from Hunt Brothers Pizza and hot dogs to local goat meat burgers and kombucha, a fermented tea that for a while was outselling Gatorade.
Jordan says, "It's exceeded our expectations. It helps that he is a fantastic cook," referring to Barney.
On a recent Friday night, Ratliff is rolling out dough for cranberry scones to be frozen overnight and baked in the morning. Barney is writing the dinner specials on a chalkboard menu. A section of the menu falls under this heading: "Shanksgiving" and includes entrees using local veal, goat and pork shanks. Line cooks Josh Coburn and Alec Stinson are preparing for the dinner rushes: one right at 5 p.m. and another at 7 p.m.
"We came in here without knowing what was possible," says Ratliff, a former high school English teacher who deferred UNC law school for this gas station dream.
They evolved slowly trying not to alienate customers. Their shelves reflect that transition: agave nectar next to pure blackstrap molasses; Goody's powders around the corner from a local herbalist's products, Suki's Blends. They also hired Ron Veitel, a nutritionist who used to work in the health food industry. About Veitel, their nutritionist-cashier-manager, Ratliff jokes, "Every gas station should have one."
Barney says they discovered you can't guess what people will buy based on their appearance. A gentleman who sells them cigarettes bought a liver-cleanse loose tea. "It's really chastening because you realize we develop unconscious stereotypes about what people will buy certain things," Barney says.
They asked regulars, such as Edmund and Meredith Moseley, what they would like to be able to buy without having to drive to Carrboro or Chapel Hill. Their list included kombucha, coconut milk, kefir (a fermented milk drink).
"As you can imagine, we were excited to have a local grocery store with local foods, organic foods," Meredith says.
"And delicious meals," adds Edmund, before sitting down to dinner in the cafe with the couple's infant son and toddler daughter.
A busy dinner hour
Before ordering his own dinner, Matt Diehl, who owns a nearby bed and breakfast called River Landing Inn, says he loves the cafe's proximity. Before, Diehl says, "We didn't have a place to send people to eat without getting in a car to go to Chapel Hill."
Dinner service churns on with Barney and the line cooks grooving to "Papa was a Rolling Stone," by The Temptations. Families line up to place their dinner orders and grab tables in the back. Workers in paint-splattered pants buy cases of Milwaukee Best or a couple 24-ounce beers. Half a dozen folks gather around the cafe's center tables, drinking Dogfish Head microbrews and Izze sodas.
Jerry Whittaker, a bushy-bearded builder wearing jeans and a denim shirt, pays for a 24-ounce Natural Light and a pack of Camel filters. "I like it," he says. "You can get almond butter without running into Chapel Hill." He points to his purchases adding, "They still got enough of this redneck stuff to keep everybody happy."
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