A community pillar, a gathering place
Nearly two years ago, Mike Wallace traded in a career of driving across the country in an 18-wheeler for flipping burgers and pulling barbecue.
Wallace, 67, a Rutherfordton native who now lives in Cove Creek, is pursuing his passion of cooking as the current operator of Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery in Green Hill.
"I enjoy being creative with food and meeting people," Wallace said. "We have a lot of regulars that come back — some locals come here for all three of their daily meals."
Two of those regulars are Ree Williams and her nephew, Alvin. What has today become Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery, Ree's two brothers began more than 80 years ago.
"I live in Rutherfordton and still come here to eat," Ree said. "I eat whatever specials they put in front of me."
Alvin, whose father helped run the original store, recalled those first years when the business provided for the surrounding farming community.
"Dad was a full-time farmer and used the store as a farm outlet, offering eggs, molasses, corn meal, flour and ground horse and cow feed for customers," Alvin said. "It's like Daddy said, he saw a lot of Green Hill stores come and go, but this one has stood the test of time."
Yet, for a period of time, the Green Hill gas station and store became vacant. Wallace knew the service station would be a good business in the area and the grill would attract locals and visitors alike. He decided to become the building's new operator and re-opened the store on May 5, 2012.
Wallace arrives at Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery promptly at 5:15 a.m. every day, and does not leave until around 9 most evenings. He is joined by a handful of employees, including his own niece, who serve the community from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Sundays.
What is unique about Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery is the ability for patrons to enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner from the grill, fill up their vehicles with gasoline and pick up household items including milk, bread, fresh tomatoes and locally made molasses — all at one location.
"I didn't want just a convenience store," Wallace said. "I know more about some of these people who come in than they know about themselves."
The menu at Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery boasts of items including fresh baked biscuits and gravy for breakfast, hand-pulled Boston butt pork sandwiches and potato salad for lunch and hand-patted certified Black Angus beef burgers any time of day.
Wallace smokes the store's Boston butt for 15 hours, which is then pulled and prepared onsite. While campaigning, the now Governor Pat McCrory stopped in to taste the barbecue, which he quickly declared was the best he ever had.
While the barbecue is a popular staple at the store, Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery is now nationally recognized for its burgers. The patties were recently featured in Zagat's best burger edition, a compilation and rating of the best burger joints in the nation.
"I didn't even know what Zagat was, but I was ticked to death at the recognition," Wallace laughed. "I got a letter from Zagat saying I had one of the best burgers in America. I called my food rep and he said he wasn't surprised. I've been overwhelmed by the community's response and support."
Wallace said that his Black Angus beef burgers provide a distinct flavor, unparalleled taste and have beautiful marbling.
"All of our patties are hand-formed and never frozen," he said. "You don't have to put a lot of toppings on the burgers either to get them to taste good. If you give people top-quality products, they will continue to come back."
Wallace's perfect burger is topped with a dab of mustard, a few onions, a little chili and a touch of white slaw.
Other specialties patrons are treated to at Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery include Philly cheesesteaks, chicken cheesesteaks and Reuben sandwiches.
"I wasn't sure exactly what a Reuben was, so I looked it up and started testing it out," Wallace said. "Now I build the sandwich right on the grill before serving it."
The store also features a different lunch special each day, which Wallace does not reveal until the same morning in order to entice patrons to call in and stop by the grill to see what is cooking. One of those specials is the open-face brisket sandwich, served atop a thick slice of Texas toast with mashed potatoes and gravy. Wallace only seasons his brisket with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and then smokes it for 13 hours before slicing it.
As for the future, Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery will continue to provide its catering for parties and holiday events, and Wallace hopes to eventually double the size of the dining room to allow for more patrons. The store also intends to maintain its relationship with citizens as a community-minded business.
"When someone that we know has a death in their family, we will send a tray of barbecue to the family," Wallace said. "Even when one of our regulars is in the hospital, we will send them a barbecue sandwich to enjoy as soon as they are feeling better."
Additionally, Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery serves as a drop off location for Stainless Ministries based in Spindale, and assists in distributing food in the Green Hill community.
"You have to give back to the community because they give back to you," Wallace said. "This store has been a pillar of the community and a gathering place."
Cove Creek BBQ and Grocery
Location: 4305 U.S. 64/74A Highway, Green Hill
Hours: Monday-Saturday 6 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Sunday 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.