Worth the drive: Jefferson Country Store
Country store, eatery keeps community’s character alive
By Jennifer Kornegay
On Saturdays, when the weather is fine, a pork-scented smoke signal rises from the gravel parking lot at Jefferson Country Store, hailing members of the surrounding Jefferson community. But the 300 or so residents of this unincorporated area in Marengo County don’t need any help finding their way to the spot (where they know they’ll find far more than barbecue); for many of them, the little white wooden building on Highway 28 is an important part of their lives and has been for more than 50 years.
“It opened in 1957, at the same time the highway right out front was finished, and some members of my extended family has operated it pretty much ever since. My aunt owns it now,” says Betsy Compton, who runs the store and eatery with business partner and boyfriend Tony Luker. Sitting at one of just a few tiny tables crammed between shelves stacked with candy, chips, glass-bottle Cokes and Moon Pies and under a low ceiling hidden behind Alabama and Auburn flags and soft-drink promotional posters, she explains how the country store fell into her hands.
When Betsy’s aunt announced she was retiring and closing the doors in 2012, Betsy instantly began looking for someone who would keep it open; she knew that folks depended on it. The closest other places to get staples like bread, milk and toilet paper are Linden, which is 10 miles away, and Demopolis, which is 12 miles in the other direction. “The community needs and wants us here,” she says.
After searching for a few months with no luck, Betsy decided to do it herself and got Tony on board; they reopened in 2013. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know about doing this, but we’ve done pretty good,” she says. “Tony’s background in beverage sales has helped a lot, and we do know our community. That’s the most important thing, I think.”
Many in the area are in their golden years, and Tony is always happy to load their cars. For those who don’t have cars, he makes front-door deliveries. “We do what is needed,” he says.
Now, in addition to offering the basics that folks nearby need, Jefferson Country Store has expanded to include Tony’s Munch Box, a tiny restaurant inside the store that offers some of the South’s favorite foods, made fresh, in house by Tony. His chicken salad, pimento cheese, hot ham ‘n cheese sandwiches, Brunswick stew, burgers and more keep the small space packed around noon every day. “There are plenty of days when we have 50 people come in here at lunch,” Betsy says. “It gets pretty crowded! Sometimes people end up eating standing up.”
Regulars and locals know to ask about daily specials and the secret menu. “They come in and say, ‘What you got?’ and I know they want something other than what’s on the board,” Tony says. Sometimes, “what he’s got” is the Firecracker Burger, a hefty beef patty topped with sliced “red hots” (sausages) and embellished with a thick slab of hoop cheese and jalapeno slices for an extra kick.
A chance to have real conversations
But the store is providing more than necessary items and a tasty, filling mid-day meal. It’s also become a specialty store, stocking things you can’t find other places, cherished oldies like souse and rag bologna from Alabama’s Zeigler meats (which reside in a small glass-front fridge by the register that Tony calls the “treasure chest”), plus hoop cheese and ribbon cane syrup. And it emphasizes selling local products like honey from down the road, melons and tomatoes from down the road the other way, Milo’s tea and more.
It’s a gathering place too, where people come to chat and share community news. “We don’t have much cell service here, and we haven’t put in wi-fi on purpose,” Betsy says. “Our customers don’t care and some tell us they don’t want it. They want a break from their phones, a chance to have real conversations.”
Despite their home’s small size and its rural location, Jefferson residents fiercely hold onto their community pride. The store and its loyal customers are both proof of this and a contributing factor. It may not be a “real” town, but it is a definable place, one whose identity Betsy mourns as she sees it slowly eroding. Jefferson used to have its own post office and its own zip code. Now, the country store houses what the Postal Service calls a “village post office,” and it offers the basics. “Worse than losing the bigger post office was getting lumped in with Demopolis and their zip code. That was kinda sad,” Betsy says.
But this latest version of the store with its focus on serving its surroundings is helping to keep the community’s character alive while also introducing it to some new people. As are Tony’s Saturday specials, when ‘cue is cooking low or catfish is frying up hot and crisp out in the parking lot. The events are highly anticipated in the area and beyond, easily drawing up to 100 people in the summers and during hunting season.
“People call ahead and pre-order to make sure they get a pig tail when I’m doing those,” Tony said. He slow-smokes the pork tailbones, which look like a large pork rib, and then wets them with his spicy vinegar sauce. “It’s not sweet,” Tony says. “It’s an eye-opener,” Betsy adds.
These sought-after eats, as well as Tony’s pimento cheese and chicken salad, have made Jefferson’s famous. Groups that travel to the area for a few days of storied Black Belt hunting (some of the country’s best) have come to expect some of Tony’s cooking as part of the experience. The country store has built up a pretty big business catering to the hunting lodges that dot the region.
But in the end, Jefferson will always be what its name says it is: a country store and a community store, serving its patrons what they need and going even further to give them the tasty things that they – and plenty of others – want.
Spot the Store Dog
When Betsy Compton and Tony Luker reopened the Jefferson Country Store in 2013, a stray dog was hanging around, so they fed him and he stayed. Everyone started calling him “store dog,” and the friendly black and white pooch has become the store mascot, appearing on the sign and now, also on Jefferson County Store T-shirts. Folks who’ve bought a shirt often post photos of themselves wearing it on social media (and tag the store), and so store dog has popped up all over the country, like in Times Square in New York City, and even beyond U.S. borders, in places like Costa Rica. The store gives a portion of the T-shirt proceeds to the area Humane Society.
Jefferson Country Store
26120 Alabama Highway 28
Jefferson, AL • 334-289-0040
Store Hours: 7 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., M-Sat
Tony’s Munch Box Hours: Serving biscuits and breakfast sandwiches (until they’re gone) as well as a full lunch menu from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily (except Sundays)
Check the store’s Facebook page for upcoming special events like fish fries and barbecues.