Monday, July 2, 2012

The Sweet Life in Saxahapaw

Featuring North Carolina’s Only Five Star Gourmet Gas Station

By Lynne Brandon

Featuring North Carolina’s Only Five Star Gourmet Gas Station
By Lynne Brandon

Entertainment, great food, music, and a laid-back life style all come together on the banks of the Haw River in Saxahapaw, North Carolina. Just minutes from Chapel Hill, the former cotton mill town is experiencing a revival. Once defined by the mill buildings, the quaint village has breathed new life into its repurposed structures which now are the scene of great concerts, businesses and residential living space.

The mill’s restoration was led by Mac Jordan, grandson of the late U.S. Sen. B. Everett Jordan, former owner of Saxahapaw Cotton Mill.  To move the changes along, Jordan recruited Tom and Heather LaGarde, a couple with ties to Chapel Hill (Tom was a former UNC basketball player and later NBA), and New York where they resided before moving back to the South.

The restoration took root and the Saxapahaw Rivermill was born complete with residential and commercial space. Others followed: Saxapahaw Artist Gallery, the life-size puppet theater at Paperhand Puppet Intervention, Haw River Canoe & Kayak Company, and the LaGarde’s Haw River Ballroom venue.

The Haw River Ballroom is a renovated textile dye house – perfect for concert crowds and other special events throughout the year. The popular venue brings in crowds from nearby urban cities to the rural retreat to hear live music shows from band members of the Old Crow Medicine Show, Kristian Matsson (who toured with Bon Iver), and other original artists. In a short time, the space has become a powerful entertainment venue and gathering place for the artistic community.

Work gets done in the off the beaten path community, but on Saturdays in the summer months, the community gathers for “Saturdays at Saxahapaw.”  Set on a rolling hill, crowds mingle first at the farmers market and sample local food products and then relax to a variety of live bluegrass, rock and other genres.

The local farm community has had its hand in the revitalization of Saxahapaw. The creative use of fresh, local foods has food lovers and critics turning culinary cartwheels over the gourmet cuisine choices in the unsuspecting setting. The restaurant/convenience store/gas station aptly named Saxahapaw General Store is the hub of the community where neighbors gather and new friends gather around the table to experience local food and beverages. It wasn’t always a hot spot.

The revival of the once failing operation started in 2008 when Jeff Barney, self-taught chef from Flint, Michigan, and partner, Cameron Ratliff worked with Mac Jordan to turn around the convenience store and gas station that had served the community for several years. The partners decided to become stewards of local foods, good wine and beer, nutritious snacks, and eco-conscious dry goods. You might say the business is where granola meets gourmand.  In an irreverent nod to the Texaco brand, the new owners renamed the gas station, “Saxaco.” 

“We slowly changed the menu and added product selection with a strong local, craft and whole food focus while maintaining the Beanie Weenies, Little Debbie’s, smokes, etc. to remain inclusive,” explained Barney. On the store shelves you can find motor oil, household supplies and other common convenience store items along with North Carolina wines, produce, local cheeses, farm fresh eggs, and more.

A special relationship with Cozi Farms, one of many local suppliers, demonstrates the restaurants philosophy with slow food and sustainable lifestyle. The farm uses Barney’s restaurant food waste to feed livestock, and add to the compost pile. Some of that compost goes back into the soil in the restaurant garden to grow foods like collards, the stems of which end up back in the bucket that feeds the animals. “This closed food loop is an exciting aspect of sustainability which is at the heart of our mission,” said Barney. 

Don’t look for the ordinary on the General Store menu. Goat burgers, grass fed beef on top of hand crafted breads, scallops and artisan style foods are the norm. A Moroccan goat stew in the winter is “crazy good,” according to Barney. Or, try the pub’s inventive twist on shepherd’s pie made with goat. To keep up with the progress and demand, the original staff of 4 has grown to 50. Future plans include a bakery, a garden, and a catering company. The later two are underway. 

To relax over drinks, have a snack or a meal, Saxahapaw General Store lovers stop by its sister business, The Eddy pub named for a family member and the eddy in the river. The pub is a joint effort managed by Claire Haslam and Doug Williams, Barney and Ratliff. It’s not just pub fare at The Eddy. Fish and chips and shepherds pie nod to the UK tradition, steak frites to the French, house-made pastas to the Italian, and house smoked and barbequed meats from local farmers suggest Americana and Pan ‘European. “The cornerstone of the whole food operation at both the store and the pub is our braised meats,” said Barney.

Beers at the pub are all local to North Carolina. Favorites are Sisters of the Moon IPA and beer from Foothill Brewery in Winston-Salem. Other local brews are from Carolina Brewery in Pittsboro, Duck Rabbit, Highland from Asheville and many more.

The little town with a big name is proof that reinvention still works. And, that the dot on the map in Alamance County has the coolest vibe around.

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