Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An Interview

Last week, Jeff and I were asked to participate in an interview, of sorts, for a convenience store (c-store, in the biz) trade magazine--CSP (Convenience Store/Petroleum) Independent. We were intrigued. I've no idea what will come of it, but I've just finished answering the questions for the fellow who wrote us, and I wanted to post them here in full. Interesting is that the person who inquired is from the Chicago area, and said he read of the store in the Chapel Hill/Durham Herald Sun article about us written in early spring of 2008. Ahh, the information age.

1. Please provide details/background on your business:
We are Saxapahaw General Store, located in the unincorporated former mill village of Saxapahaw in rural/agrarian Alamance County, NC, on the banks of the Haw River. Our building, which is surrounded on all sides by mill cottages, forms the tip of a 1930’s cotton mill that ended its operation in 1996 and is now in process of renovation. Over the next year, a pub, an arts center, and almost thirty condos will assume use of the now-vacant space in our building. At present, we serve a population of about 2500 residents in the three miles around us, including seventy-four apartments that sit just below us in another building of the original mill.

We took over the store’s operation a year and a half ago, and when we came to the business it was a typical convenience store with prepackaged foods, gas, cigarettes, snacks, Hunt Brothers Pizza, and hot dogs. The store had struggled through two owners and several years of losses. Lots of restaurants and boutique stores the country wide have begun to focus on their localities first when deciding what products to sell—choosing local farmers’ vegetables and meats over those shipped from far-flung places and huge industrial farms. We thought, why can’t a neighborhood store participate in that model? After all, c-stores usually draw their customers from a two-mile radius around the store—wouldn’t those folks most of all be interested in supporting their local community? We decided that, to our existing product mix of convenience foods, motor oil, etc., we’d serve food made with fresh, locally produced ingredients, good coffee, small vintage wines, and microbrew beers.

We immediately added to our cafĂ© a menu of sandwiches, salads, chili, beef stew, and in-house scratch-made biscuits, cookies, scones, muffins, and pies. Eventually, in order to market for ourselves instead of for a large pizza chain, we decided to make our own pizza—the crust and sauce from scratch. Over time, we added menu items for dinner, including beef short ribs with mashed potatoes and turnip greens, made from locally raised hormone-free beef and local vegetables.

2. Your (and Cameron's) professional backgrounds (as in-depth as you would like; can include any personal info you want to add), including official titles.
Jeff is a butcher, a cook, and an armchair philosopher (he was a philosophy major in college at University of Michigan-Flint, who’s long tested his ideas in his workplace and found retail and foodservice a sort of hot spot for interacting with folks in a vital way). Jeff has run a green grocery in Boston, butchered in the old world style for an old specialty shop in Durham, NC, and started/managed a specialty grocery in an upscale community outside of Chapel Hill. He was building a house from scratch and helping found a cooperative grocery store in his town when he met me (Cameron); we share a mission now of working with food as a vehicle for building community in a time when people have become alienated from the sources of their food. At the store now, Jeff supervises the food operation. He’s the food professional among us, and he’s receiving really nice accolades from the community for his work (I can say this, as I’m not involved in the savory food except to serve and to eat it).

I (Cameron) am a UNC-Chapel Hill grad and former school teacher who wanted to work with people in a new way—helping connect people with their food supply, serving folks surprisingly good food, surprisingly well. I worked at a food cooperative before coming to this project, where I baked first and then became the marketing director. Cooperatives can be dogmatic in their business models, and a little exclusive. I wanted a broader experience, so the gas station was really appealing. I started my time at the general store doing mostly baking and some cashiering. Now I’m a sort of general manager, though the store is so small (we have 12-15 employees usually) it’s almost too big a title. I do dishes, serve food, bake on occasion, schedule small caterings (which we do on occasion for the intrepid event holder who’s willing to source such goods from an inauspicious-sounding provider), serve customers, and work with our staff. We have staff who are full of potential and have really grown over the last year and a half. We have been lucky to begin to draw folks to the store who are interested in what we’re doing and are willing to grow with us.

3. When was the gas station/c-store first opened, and when and why did you buy it?
The store opened around 2000, a few years after the cotton mill stopped its operation. The family who’d owned the mill wanted to reuse the building productively in the community. We got involved when one of the younger members of the family was looking for ways to offer more to his community—in the way of real food and a real general store atmosphere. It’s a sort of traditional country store, modernized a little so as to offer choices for Saxapahaw’s broad range of residents. We were intrigued by the community and the opportunities the store presented. Since it was failing as it was, we knew we had a chance to do something truly different. Out of the ashes of the old model, we have raised something fresh—and so far, it’s resonating with folks.

4. When and why did you add the foodservice? (Especially in the format that you offer it.) Also what is the menu? Much of this is discussed above—the menu ranges from barbecue sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs (one local, one national all-beef brand) to specialty Panini grilled sandwiches to pizza to evening dinner specials (even including a pan-seared sea scallops dish with asparagus and risotto). We serve what Jeff likes to call soul food from around the world—dishes influenced by lots of culinary traditions, usually with a little of the American South to Midwest in there somewhere, all approachable and with emphasis on flavor, not culinary tricks. We are a gas station, after all. But for us, the food comes first.

5. What are the joys of operating such a mix of businesses? (Provide any anecdotes.) The blog is really the place for this answer. We mostly sit back now and watch folks noticing the juxtapositions that exist in our store and in the village. Last weekend, a horse-drawn carriage full of folks came nose to handlebars with a group of cyclists from Chapel Hill. Some ladies inside chuckled as they watched the groups of very different people noticing each other in such close proximity. Since we’re so close to larger cities (and we’re on the way to the dump) but also in a very rural corner of the state, we get a really interesting and sometimes hilarious mix of folks who end up interacting in refreshing and surprising ways.
The product mix in the store reflects that. We have beanie weenies next to organic grains, and our wine section is also home to our fishing worms. People love finding these surprises when they visit, and everyone is fairly comfortable here because nothing feels exclusive. We also find that no one is really one-sided in their purchasing—the organic produce buyers often like Coke, too—so we have a great opportunity to break down barriers.

6. What are the challenges? (Provide any anecdotes.) Well, folks think/thought we were crazy, and we probably are. We’ve fought with Bud and Miller to reorganize and rebrand in the way we want to, rather than just taking the products they push on us. We’ve asked our customers what they want and carried those products, deciding not to offer every new gimmick on the market unless someone wanted to buy that item. That’s hard, because you have to talk to your customers a lot and be willing to make mistakes. But we’re getting there. The food has been a challenge, but a nice one—we have really increased our prepared foods sales since we began (from $200 daily in food sales to somewhere around $1000 on average—with upwards of $3000 on days when we have farmers’ markets in the village that bring 2000 extra people to town). We had to invest in some food loss at the start to get things rolling until the customers came along with our plan. But now we’re bringing costs in line with sales and seeing a sustainable flow. We’re busy now even on rainy days, which used to be a killer for sales in the store. People come in to use the internet and have lunch, drink coffee, and take home food for supper. It brings a great feeling.

7. Plans for expansion, additional stores? We are working to finish plans for a pub/restaurant in the same mill building, at the other end of the space. The pub will feature NC brewed beers and a few classics, along with the same very comfortable style of food we have in the store. We also have this dream that someday roadside markets and interstate c-stores will make a move to brand themselves instead of allowing the big corporations to brand them—and that they’ll feature their neighbors’ produce and value-added foods. That will come from the people in individual communities, though, as they grow tired of seeing their margins eroded by corporations squeezing them for higher profits while they struggle to get along on the slim margins they currently earn

8. Any comments about the c-store/gas station industry in general that you'd care to make.
That’s a can of worms you may wish you hadn’t opened. I’ll keep it short.
We are actually getting ready to de-brand our fuel in favor of our own brand. The gas is the same. The supplier is the same. The price is lower. Our people don’t use fuel credit cards much anyway because we’re not on the interstate (if we were, we couldn’t do this); we don’t like the insidious and parasitical relationship petrol corporations create with c-stores. They promise higher sales and offer breaks on new computers, etc. but they make their bucks back and so much more from folks with these tactics while stores don’t make enough on fuel to run the lights for their canopies.
C-stores provide an important service to their community, and more of them should assert their right to be their own stores, instead of paying for the dubious privilege of advertising for a multi-national corporation that cares not a whit for them or for their business. The same goes for a lot of other companies, but that’s another conversation. There’s a better way for us as independent retailers to interact with these entities that lets our businesses thrive while purchasing products that customers want from large companies. We should not be forced to barely make it while corporations rake in record profits.
But I’m not sure if you can print that and keep your advertisers.

9. What is the origin and official pronunciation of "saxapahaw"?! The village is named for the Sissipahaw tribe of native people, and it is pronounced sax’-uh-puh-haw (or sax-p’haw, as the locals have shortened it for speed). The village has a very interesting feel, and as I have written in our blog, it’s been influenced by the Quaker tradition that was strong here and has stamped the land with a very independent, libertarian, yet strangely open character.