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Feels Like Home

At Checkers Grill and Grocery in North Carolina, it’s all about the personal touch.

​By Al Hebert

Checkers Grill & Grocery in Madison, North Carolina, fits perfectly in its small town of about 2,200 residents. From the fresh produce on the porch to the bologna sandwich on the menu, everything here feels like home.

Steve Barlow and his wife Wanda worked in and operated stores for most of their lives. In 1990, Steve built Checkers Grill and Grocery. His son Todd worked with the family and learned the business, and when Steve passed away in 2012, Todd took over.

Tough Competition
Competition is hard for the little guy—but growing, according to Todd Barlow. “Things have changed in our little town over the years. There are so many restaurants: Wendy’s, McDonald’s, three Mexican [restaurants], two Chinese, a Japanese [restaurant] and five or six pizza places. Every day you have more competition,” Barlow said.

The menu offers customers simple choices— things like bologna sandwiches. “We sell a bunch of them,” he said. “It’s two pieces of fried Jesse Jones Bologna with mayo on toast. We also sell tomato sandwiches. It’s two big slices of tomato on bread with mayo.” Barlow observed that these are the kinds of food people eat at home, so it’s no surprise when they want it at his store, too.

As a result, Checkers Grill & Grocery stands out from its corporate competitors. “We fix anything you want. Some people want bacon on a hot dog. Some people want pickles,” Barlow said, adding that his customers not only get the food they cannot get anywhere else, but get it the way they like it.

Tea Time
Checkers Grill & Grocery sells 40 gallons of sweet tea a day. That seems like a lot for a small town, but it’s the attention to detail that makes the difference. “We don’t have fancy machines,” Barlow said. “It’s boiled in a pot. Everyone says we have the best tea in town and it sells by the gallons.”

Adding fresh-squeezed lemonade has also increased business. “We give free refills on lemonade and we’re a lot busier because of that.” Barlow first started with his wife’s lemonade recipe, and the process is painstaking—but worth it. Each lemon is squeezed. Sugar is boiled with water so it’s completely dissolved. This sweet, syrupy mixture is then combined with the lemon juice. “It takes longer but tastes better,” Barlow said.

Farm Fresh
There’s something special about shopping for produce outside. “I have 30 baskets of homegrown tomatoes on the front porch right now,” Barlow said. He puts them out when they’re green right before they turn ripe. Depending on the season, customers can find tomatoes, bananas, red and yellow apples, white and green onions, white and sweet potatoes, small cucumbers, pickle cucumbers, oranges, tangerines and more.

“My dad grew up working in a produce stand [so] we’ve always sold it,” Barlow said. “I sold 300 pumpkins this past Halloween. We’ll sell 60 boxes of tomatoes and 200 watermelons in a week.” Barlow added that it’s a lot of work to keep produce fresh. “You have to throw away anything that looks bad. Each day I’m going through something to make sure it’s fresh.”

Selling a large volume of produce depends on how it’s merchandised. It lasts longer in a cooler, but doesn’t sell as well. “Anything outside the door sells well. People drive by, see the produce and stop,” Barlow said.

Anything that grows might end up being sold at Checkers, including Christmas trees. “You don’t make a lot on trees, but customers buy a lot of other stuff when they come," Barlow said.

Cool and Sweet
Customers have come to rely on Checkers for quick, fun necessities. For example, everyone sells ice, but in his market, Barlow says, people want a certain kind of ice, and that special ice is only available in one store: his. “Our crushed ice is like snow. We sell out during the [winter] holidays and on Fourth of July, Memorial Day and at graduation time,” he said.

From coconut bonbons and chocolate-covered peanuts to plain peanuts and pecans, Barlow’s bagged goodies are also a hit. Nut sundaes and banana splits bring customers in from neighboring towns and they're responding well to a simple frozen drink offering: a candy bar mixed into a milkshake.

Social Hour
Many aspects of life in Madison reflect small-town America, but Checkers communicates with many customers through social media. Barlow’s sister, Jessica Martin, manages the store’s Facebook page.

A successful strategy has been to run contests where people share posts. Each person who shares a post is assigned a number based on the order in which it was shared. Additional shares result in more chances to win. Barlow picks a number at random and that person wins a gift certificate. “For the first contest, 47,000 people viewed it. It was amazing since   we have only about 2,000 people in town and 3,157 Facebook fans,” Martin said. She also makes a point to answer questions submitted as quickly as possible.

There are often few changes in a small town, and when new stores do come, it means new competition for established businesses. Barlow keeps moving forward doing things the way his family has always done. Simple, fresh menu items in the deli or the freshest produce in the county are what customers have come to expect—and what keeps them coming in time and time again.

Al Hebert is the Gas Station Gourmet and showcases America’s culinary treasure—gas station cuisine. TV host Hebert shares these stories and on occasion, a recipe or two at GasStationGourmet.com. He is a regular NACS Magazine contributor, bringing foodservice ideas to readers.