Country Store Revival
On a vanishing frontier, two partners plunge into business and times past — out Highway 28, where log trucks grind to a halt for rag bologna, pig’s feet, hoop cheese and caramel cakes.
Jefferson Country Store is the kind of place where you sit and visit while you’re ordering food or picking up supplies, the kind of place where “store dog” welcomes folks in the parking lot.
Betsy Compton was the last person qualified to run a general store, or so she thought.
Marketing skills, financial training and inventory management savvy are mandated for running a grocery empire. She and partner Tony Luker had zero. But that was so 2013.
Today, the dynamic duo owns and operates Jefferson Country Store, Marengo County’s grocery, café, truck stop and ground zero for fried bologna.
This is a happy place, not much larger than a three-bedroom house, at 26120 Alabama Highway 28, near Demopolis. But this tin-roofed mercantile selling industrial strength hoop cheese is not to be confused with convenience stores dotting Alabama like warts on a frog. This is retro 1950s, complete with hardwood floors, checker games and circa 1970 gas pumps that used to work. Jefferson Country Store operates much as it did during the 1960s when Betsy’s ancestors ran it. Now it’s her turn.
“Not a day goes by when we aren’t scared,” laughs Betsy, referring to the store that has been in her family for generations. “In this community, you are either a Compton, kin to one or know one.” Her grandfather, Hayward Compton, bought the store in 1967. Betsy’s father, David Compton, ran the business through 1976 and mother, Connie, assisted in operations in the 1980s. Then aunt Hattie Compton Morgan took the helm until closing it in September 2012.
Enter Betsy Compton.
A year after her aunt closed the store, Betsy reopened it, in October, 2013, but not without anxious moments and serious thought. As a child growing up around and in Marengo County, Betsy recalls visiting the family business.
“I loved coming here, everyone did,” she says, recalling after-school ventures for nachos and chocolate milk. “But I never dreamed one day I would own the place.”
The dream changed in August 2013.
At a family dinner, the Compton clan discussed the then quiet and dormant building. All agreed if it was to stay in the family, a family member must re-open it. “Why don’t you run it?” inquired a family member. The idea seemed preposterous at first. Betsy had no nest egg set aside for general store operation.
She was and is the director of public relations at The University of West Alabama, Livingston, with a background in journalism. “Words are the tools of my trade, not numbers,” she says. “Taxes, inventories, ordering supplies were all new to me. And who would start up a general store in this economy?”
Tony’s background is in sales, but neither had experience running a business. “We had a cheat sheet,” the new operator says. “We know our store and our customers. We know their needs.”
The couple saved, researched, secured a loan, and in October 2013 cut the ribbon on the all new Jefferson Country Store. After about a year vacant, the building returned to life.
Neighbors pitched in to help with cleaning and making ready for reopening. After all, this was more than a convenience store, it was Jefferson’s icon. “Everybody goes there, and has for years,” recalls Buster Glass, a native of nearby Linden. “If you drive up or down Highway 28, eventually you’ll stop in.”
On a wing and a prayer and a freezer stocked with rag bologna, the Jefferson Country Store moved from good idea to reality in two months. For Betsy and Tony, reality set in. The duo learned Convenience Store 101 on the fly.
“The key is to stay ahead, have everything prepped and ready,” says Tony, unloading a truck of souse meat for the cooler. “I open at 6:30 am,” he notes, “and start prepping for lunch almost immediately.” He learned that a trucker’s lunch break may be 9:30 a.m. “You must have everything ready, because he won’t wait.”
Tony’s recipe expertise is from stints in the restaurant business and concocting new creations tailored for Jefferson. It’s working. The chief cook and cashier already is planning to expand the kitchen.
Patrons buy motor oil, soap or pickled pig’s feet, or rock in chairs by the space heater, while sipping store-brewed country coffee. Tony runs the day-to-day business while Betsy administers after hours, weekends and as needed.
Breakfast starts at 6 a.m., with softball-sized biscuits, tangy sausage and eggs. Log trucks grind to a halt to replenish supplies of traveling necessities, check the news and weather and buy hoop cheese for the road.
On a good Saturday, 60 Jefferson burgers are sold by noon. On a good week two 20-pound wheels of hoop cheese are served, sold, divided and conquered. And there are the obligatory pickled pig’s feet, pickled okra and homemade caramel cakes that make Jefferson Country Store so much more.
“We had a couple drive up from Chunchula (about 120 miles) for our fried bologna sandwiches,” recalls Tony. “And on the third day after the October grand opening, a motorcycle club pulled in for lunch, all 50 members.”
Though much of the charm of Jefferson’s Country Store remains from the ’60s, “the times, they are a changing.”
“Back in the day,” recalls Betsy, “customers bought supplies and real groceries, in a shopping cart. Flour, eggs, bacon, food for the family and livestock were common purchases.”
Today most come in for one or two items or something to eat from the kitchen.
“But we do have a shopping cart around here somewhere,” she smiles.
Patrons aren’t missing the wayward buggy. They are too busy reaching for frigid bottles of Coke from an ice-chocked washtub. There are racks of Moon Pies to sample, burgers to savor and gossip to share. You can’t plot this kind of customer base on a spreadsheet, and why would you want to? To Betsy and Tony, this is more than a quick stop for a bag of sugar. It is their life, their business, serving a community of friends and travelers in a vanishing frontier, the general store.
Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday, where life is quaint at the Jefferson Country Store. Betsy and Tony work hard making it that way.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.