A Five-Star Gas Station

Published in Gourmet Live 02.01.12
Jean Anderson visits Saxapahaw General Store in a North Carolina textile town that’s reinventing itself

It’s the sort of place you duck into for a Coke after pumping gas, a low-slung red-brick building as nondescript as a hundred others scattered across North Carolina’s rumpled midriff.

The sign over the door reads “Saxapahaw General Store,” but its design—capital letters, cotton-white, crisply painted on a field of teal—suggests that this may not be your everyday convenience store. Oh, you can get a Coke here all right. Plus Slim Jims, fried pork skins, cheese nabs, and such.

But how about a barbecued pork belly sandwich with toasted anise slaw on a homemade English muffin? Or braised short ribs on focaccia with caramelized onions, roasted tomato, and lemon-garlic aïoli? These are only two of four or five daily specials scribbled on the chalkboard up by the cash register and case of fresh-baked scones.

The printed menu’s unexpectedly upmarket, too: duck salad with dried cherries and crumbled chèvre on mixed greens…tapenade-topped goat burger on English muffin with Manchego cheese. Best of all, much of what’s served is grown or produced locally, some of it practically within hollering distance. The Cane Creek Farm heirloom pork, for example. The Goat Lady Dairy chèvre.

And to drink? Instead of a Coke why not an East Carolina Duck-Rabbit Beer or maybe a Muscadine wine from the Benjamin Vineyards just down the road?

This is a gas station quick stop? Absolutely. You can still buy motor oil here, fishing worms, and T-shirts that read “Your Local Five-Star Gas Station.”

Chef/coproprietor Jeff Barney wears one as he whips about the open kitchen grilling sandwiches or tending his soup of the day—an ocean-fresh seafood gumbo, if you’re lucky, or a silky butternut squash bisque that’s pure gold.

Convinced of the gas station’s potential, Barney and his partner, Cameron Ratliff, left Chatham Marketplace, the co-op grocery Barney helped launch in nearby Pittsboro, to take over the General Store Café and upgrade its menu. A delicate task. That was four years ago and already the two are accomplishing their original mission: to become the new nerve center of an old mill town that refuses to die.

Unlike dozens of down-and-out textile towns dotted across the South, Saxapahaw (population approx. 1,500) has reinvented itself as a cultural center and “green” bedroom community. Not quite as middle-of-nowhere as it looks, Saxapahaw lies just 16 miles west of Chapel Hill, and its abandoned cotton mill—now rehabbed and renamed Rivermill Lofts, Apartments & Townhomes—is filling up with artistic types who can’t afford the pricey university town.

The general store, like Saxapahaw itself, is quirky—schizophrenic even, but in the best possible sense. Barney and Ratliff have moved slowly in transitioning the store from a typical gas station quick stop, stocking enough of the big-brand six-packs, headache powders, and biscuit mixes to keep old-timers happy while wooing newcomers with microbrews, herbal teas, and organic almond butter. So far, few complaints, they say.

“At Saxapahaw General Store,” Barney and Ratliff write on their take-out menu, “we provide the village of Saxapahaw with hearty, soulful food, a caring and familiar environment, and a selection of products that serve the whole community’s everyday needs.” That menu lists more than 30 North Carolina farms, mills, breweries, and wineries whose products are served or sold at the store. Many are old friends from Barney’s Chatham Marketplace days, “a crucial moment for me,” he says, “of connecting good food with local food.”

Neither Ratliff, a Floridian and former high school English teacher, nor Michigan-born Barney has had any culinary schooling, though he has cooked all his life and in his career as a butcher (first at a kosher shop in Boston, then at Fowler’s, a high-end grocery in Durham) Barney “traded skills with chefs.” It was at Fowler’s, now long gone, that Barney “crossed over from butcher to chef.”

And how. Barney’s jazzed-up café food has people buzzing, the stick-to-the-ribs breakfasts (from bacon burritos to sausage-gravy-smothered biscuits), the offbeat soup/salad/sandwich lunches, and ever-changing dinner menus more haute than humble. Café regulars show up early to grab a table.

Subscribe to Gourmet