By Sarah Hamaker
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Little’s Restaurant and Convenience Store in Marion, Virginia, doesn’t have the appearance of being a trendsetter. The business, housed in a 100-year-old brick building, has served the local community as a general store since it was built. Its current owners recognized early on the value of offering fresh foodservice to its clientele.
“My mom and dad put in a hot dog machine shortly after purchasing the store in 1972,” said Mike Little, who worked in the store for 43 years before semi-retiring in January. “We sold 300 to 400 hot dogs a day because of the store’s proximity to several factories in the area.”
THE RESTAURANT SIDE
The journey from the hot dog roller grill to a full-service kitchen took Little’s Restaurant and Convenience Store only a few short years. “The location has always been a general store,” Little said. “Back in the early days, staff made grocery deliveries and got ice off the train to keep meat and other perishables cold.”
When his parents bought the store, groceries were the biggest seller, along with fuel. “It was basically a small grocery store with gas pumps,” he said. Even back in the mid-1970s, competition from Walmart, dollar stores and other retailers horned in on Little’s grocery business.
“The competition for groceries effectively killed that part of our business, so we decided serving food would be the way to keep customers coming in,” Little said. After seeing the popularity of the hot dogs, they started the restaurant a few years later. “I made the first menu when I started working there full time in 1977,” he said.
The most popular menu item is the Big Daddy Burger—a double cheeseburger with everything on it. “We’ve had people from California, Washington and elsewhere say it’s the best burger they’ve ever had,” Little said. “It’s consistently been our top seller.”
Other menu items include hot dogs, cheesesteaks, chicken sandwiches, fries and tater tots. The restaurant also has daily specials such as chopped steak, spaghetti and meatloaf. Guests can enjoy a meal in the 24-seat indoor dining area or outdoors on picnic or four-top tables, as well as order it to-go. “During the pandemic shutdown, our customers still came by regularly for takeout, so we didn’t lose as much business as we might have,” he said.
THE CONVENIENCE SIDE
While the restaurant is flourishing, the convenience side of the store hasn’t fared as well. About 25 years ago, the Littles decided to remove their gas pumps because of new government regulations concerning underground storage tanks.
“We would have had to pull the existing tanks and install new ones to the tune of $150,000—money we didn’t have and weren’t likely to recoup, given the low gas margins and volume,” Little said. So, they tore out the pumps and had the underground tanks removed, a move Little has a few regrets about. “If I were a younger man, I would probably consider adding fuel pumps back, given the amount of traffic on Highway 11, which goes right by our store,” he said. “But even then, I’m not sure the margins on fuel would make it worth the effort.”
Instead, he focuses on stocking essential groceries, like bread and milk, and snacks, like chips and sweets. About five years ago, he ditched tobacco because the number of tobacco outlets popping up nearby siphoned off his cigarette business. Then a year ago, he stopped carrying alcohol because the profit margins weren’t enough to keep it on the shelves. “I really thought not having cigarettes would hurt my bottom line, but the truth of the matter is, we’re more of a fast-food place than a convenience store, and not carrying tobacco or alcohol hasn’t really impacted our profits.”
While Little officially retired in January after leasing the restaurant and store to Kevin Shaffer, he still comes in a few days a week to help out. “I don’t work as much as I used to, but I’m still part of Little’s,” he said. “It’s always been my hope that our customers are happy and enjoying good food—and that they keep coming back for more.”
This Ideas 2 Go article was originally published in the October issue of NACS Magazine. Read the digital issue here.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer, NACS Magazine contributor and romantic suspense author based in Fairfax, Virginia. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.