Taylor Grocery – A Happy Ending

Part 2 of 2 – Final Installment

 

The porch at the Taylor Grocery was packed with people now, but unlike other waiting scenes where people quietly chat or stare at their smart phones, everyone was socializing and having fun.Tupelo, Memphis, and New Orleans Memorial Day 2010 116 Every few minutes the young hostess would step out and shout the name of the next party on the list. If she didn’t get a response, she would skip down to the gift shop and look inside. She was busting it to keep the flow of patrons moving along. Finally our name was called and we were seated at a table close to the musician. Yes, there was a solo guitarist playing to the crowd.  The guitarist was a peer and played some of my favorite songs. It was so pleasant. We were close enough to watch the picking yet the music was not so thunderous that we couldn’t manage an easy conversation.

Our waitress was working hard to keep up with the constant flow of customers, but she was extremely pleasant and seemed genuinely glad to welcome us as first time patrons. As we perused the menu we noted that it was rather concise; there were other choices besides catfish but not many. The owners obviously understood what it took to get a lot of food out of a small kitchen – the simple menu was proof positive of that. And the food was delicious. Perfectly fried or grilled catfish, good portions and yummy southern sides – okra, hush puppies, fries. They also had a very popular appetizer that neither Mr. Sensei or I had ever seen before – cubed cheddar cheese and sausage on a plate with mustard. We saw this same dish in other establishments in the Mississippi delta. If anyone knows the origin of this please clue me in.

Tupelo, Memphis, and New Orleans Memorial Day 2010 117

It was hard not to linger in the restaurant, even though we knew a crowd of other hungry people was waiting for our table. The waitress was so happy we were enjoying ourselves. There were all kinds of people coming and going. Young marrieds, couples with infants, and large family groups with a hosting patriarch. And constantly people greeting friends at other tables. Did I mention they had great homemade desserts? Including a take on Mississippi Mud Pie?

Finally we cleared our check and tipped the guitarist. But we were way too full and happy to hop back into the car. It was dusk and the light was fading. We walked down a street, a country lane really, and watched the setting sun shoot colors into huge fluffy clouds. As night fell, we walked by large rural yards with tall grass full up with fireflies lighting themselves up as if someone was cuing them. Never have I seen so many fireflies in one place. The lawns reminded me of those special ones at Christmas, you know where the families go crazy with Christmas lights galore. As we walked back to our car, I suddenly felt compelled to go back into the restaurant and talk to the hostess about the business. Now that the crowd had subsided some she looked like she might be able to spare a few minutes chatting.

Quote for Today:

Eat or We Both Starve. 

~ Taylor Grocery Motto

Turns out our hard working hostess is actually the heir apparent to the family business. Although there has been a business at this location for over 120 years, it has changed hands several times.  Sarah-Margaret Hewlett’s parents purchased the Grocery about 12 years ago and have been running it every since. Tonight, with school out of session the folks had left Sarah-Margaret in charge of the place. And it was in very good hands. Sarah-Margaret was happy to talk with us about her restaurant. When I asked if she planned to stay in the business, she said there was nowhere else she would rather be. Even though she had just completed a course of study in criminology at Ole Miss and had her degree, she didn’t believe she would ever use it. Her love of the business was palpable.

We asked her what she thought made it so successful, fully expecting her to say the great value (we had paid around $32 for our appetizer, two entrees and dessert) and great food. But Sarah-Margaret’s immediate response was ‘the atmosphere’. And I realized right then that this feeling Mr. Sensei and I had during the evening, of being happy to be in a particular place, was universally bringing all the other patrons together. And here was Sarah-Margaret, who loved the place with great pride, who saw community as the most important service her family business was providing. Not just nourishment of the body, but also of the soul.

This building of community has been touted as the critical factor in creating a well used website, the virtual uniting of likeminded people to the same place. Well this is not a new concept, as was evident in Taylor, MS this particular night. Sarah-Margaret went on to tell us more factual information, about serving over 500 meals on a game day in the fall. Or pointing out the large family toward the back of the dining room who come almost every Sunday, and call if they are not going to make it. Just to let the owners know everything is OK. Just like you would with family. In a tiny place like Taylor that is so dependent on the University for its commerce, it’s amazing that you could draw enough local customers during the summer “off season”. Probably these locals wait all year for school to let out so they can reclaim their rightful place in the center of their community. And it’s worth waiting for, in all senses of the word.

For Mr. Sensei and me, this evening would remain a highlight of our Southern Crescent tour, one that we continue to share when we talk about our trip. For a brief moment we were part of the community, one of the family. And should we ever find ourselves back that way, we would want to go back and pick up right where we left off, just like the place was an old, dear friend.

Independence Day

In many ways, starting one’s own business is a personal Declaration of Independence. For many business owners, the founding of their company is a tacit statement: ” I’ve done this work for years, helping others build their companies. Now it’s time to do it for myself”.

Yet to build a long lasting company, one that weathers the storms of the business lifecycle, you must weave your independence into a strong network of community.

In honor of this Fourth of July holiday, I am celebrating the Yin and Yang of Independence and Community by re-publishing a favorite post from my former blog, now lost in the blogosphere since I changed website hosts earlier this year.

Taylor Grocery (That Catfish Place)

Drving through the Mississippi Delta 

 

A few summers ago my husband, Mr. Sensei, and I embarked on a vacation road-trip that had been years in the making.  Although I have lived in the south now for 35 years, I had never toured the western part of the Deep South region.  For years I would listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland and yearn to turn the song into a real life experience:

Quote for Today

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War
I’m going to Graceland
Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland.

For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see
Graceland

~ Paul Simon

Our first stop was in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis. We had a two prong itinerary planned here, jammed into one afternoon (due to museum schedules).  First to visit the Elvis birth home and surrounding park (totally worth a visit, it includes the restored tiny church where Elvis and his family worshipped until they moved to Memphis).Church in Tupelo, MS where Elvis worshipped with his family and his preacher taught him to play guitar.It was in this church (pictured above) that Elvis’ preacher taught him to play guitar.   After we had soaked in everything we could about Elvis’ early life, we made the hour long drive to Oxford, MS home of William Faulkner and Ole Miss. By late afternoon we were quite the hungry tourists.  It was Sunday, and most of the restaurants on the picture perfect town square of Oxford were closed. But we had a backup plan. My friend and guitar teacher, Chris Bowman had told me about an eating establishment just south of Oxford, in a little spit of a town called Taylor.

Taylor consists of a short strip of storefronts built in the late 1800’s; it looked right out of an old movie set.  The buildings were all wood, raised up over the ground with a long porch in front connecting all the stores. I had been warned to be prepared to wait but I hadn’t thought that would apply to those arriving shortly after the place opened for dinner. But I was wrong. Already there were a few people sitting up on the porch, on benches and chairs. Sure enough, when we went in to see the hostess she put our name on a list and told us it would be about a 30 – 45 minutes wait.Tupelo, Memphis, and New Orleans Memorial Day 2010 113

The sign out front sets the tone of the restaurant. It says “Taylor Grocery” and the tag line below is “That Catfish Place”. The restaurant site had spent most of the last 120 years or so as a general store/grocery. The story goes that at some point in more recent history, the Grocery owners started selling fried catfish and developing a extra revenue stream from people coming in to shop for other items. Over the years, the grocery gave way to a restaurant, but no one bothered to change the décor. All that’s been done is to clear out the space and fill it with rough hewn dining tables and chairs.

I took a seat on a set of steps leading down from the porch to the road below.  After a while I noticed a increasingly loud hum surrounding me and became aware of more people seating themselves nearby. As I looked up I was amazed at how many more people had arrived to join us in our wait for a table.  Taylor Grocery does not serve alcohol but encourages its patrons to BYOB. They bring their own paper cups too, and start sipping while they wait on the porch.

At some point I got up to stretch my legs, and as I walked down the steps and turned back to toward the building, I was filled up with the sense of the scene before me. It looked and sounded like one big tailgating party. More people kept arriving, and every few minutes someone new would show up and give a happy shout as they greeted friends and neighbors who had also ventured out for the evening. Even though we knew no one, Mr. Sensei and I were swept up in the gaiety surrounding us.

Please come back next week for Part 2 of Taylor Grocery, Revisitied. ~gmr