Country Corner has new owners
CHESTER -- Just north of Chester on Center Road, before the turnoff for the National Guard Armory and the county's industrial park, sits the rectangular heart of this tiny community.
For much of its 57-year history, the same family has owned the Country Corner, a convenience store, grocery store and deli wrapped into one place. Darlene Steen has been sitting behind the counter since 1995, when she bought the store from her husband's cousin.
But that history will soon change in the hands of new owners.
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The small building with its wood-paneled walls, locally famous for its chicken salad and hot dogs, should be sold next week. New owners Theresa and Vikrant Pathania will be at the store Friday for a meet-and-greet with free hot dogs.
But some of the characters the store is known for, such as cook Helen Green and greeter Jay Strickland, likely will be gone after the sale.
Steen said leaving is difficult.
"The hardest thing is going to be missing the people," she said.
Steen's children are grown, and her husband works out of town. She wants to spend more time with her 2-year-old granddaughter and take computer classes.
"It's too much work for one person," she said. "It just takes up all my time."
Since it was built in 1950, the store has had only five owners.
Fred Gaddy had the store built after the one he ran with his brother-in-law was destroyed in a fire.
He ran Gaddy and Courtney Grocery for about 15 years before selling it to work next door at his furniture store full-time. Gaddy, who will turn 95 Tuesday, said several traits have kept the small grocery in business for so many years.
"Don't overcharge," he said. "Try to help when you can help."
The store also sits in a predominantly black neighborhood. Dating back to Gaddy's ownership, many customers have been black. Steen is white. So is Gaddy. But no one cares.
"All people (are) the same to me," Gaddy said.
Steen bought the store after working for Duke Power for 15 years. She has plenty of stories to share, like the one about the lady who wanted to buy lottery tickets but waited until another man checked out. When he left, she told Steen the man was her preacher and she didn't want him to see her buying lottery tickets.
"He comes in here and buys them all the time," she told the pious patron.
The food is a big draw at this little store. Steen and company slice their own bacon and sell packages of sausage and fatback. They offer deli sandwiches and make their own coleslaw and chicken salad. Steen said she orders 400 hot dogs every week. And when it comes to toppings, "We don't skimp," she said.
Customers also come to the store for the characters.
"We love it," said longtime Country Corner patron Mary Colvin. "The people are friendly here."
They're people like Green, the cook who came to work 10 years ago after she retired from a nearly 30-year career as a Springs mill worker.
Strickland is another Country Corner personality. He dresses up as Santa Claus around Christmas and hands out candy on Halloween. He spends the rest of his time keeping the cooler stocked and peppering customers with questions.
"We've got a greeter like Wal-Mart," Steen said.
Steen hasn't told many customers that she's selling the store. The ones who know can't believe it's true.
"It's not going to be the same," said Dean Lindsey, who has been stopping by the store for about half of his 24 years.
"If you don't know them by name, you know them by face," is how he describes the store crowd. "It's a friendly community store. It always has been."
Lindsey said he's willing to give the new owners a chance.
"I'm going to give them a shot and see how they do," he said.
The Pathanias plan to keep the same feel of this mom-and-pop joint.
"It really is a landmark," Theresa Pathania said. "We're going to retain the family atmosphere."
The new owners will get the recipes. They hope to add some choices to the lunch and breakfast menus. Theresa Pathania said they plan to be a part of the community for years to come.
"We don't plan on going anywhere," she said.