For more than half a century, Jefferson Country Store has offered grocery staples and a place to gather for the tiny community of Jefferson in Marengo County. Today, the store serves a much larger population – with people coming from miles away, and even other states, to enjoy a burger or some homemade pimento cheese or to pick up an occasional slab of ribs. And they still can buy a Milo’s tea or a jar of Wickles Pickles or some hoop cheese while they’re there.
This wider reach is a direct result of the hard work and genuine hospitality of the third generation of store owners, Tony Luker and Betsy Compton Luker – and their savvy use of social media.
Plenty of locals come in throughout the day – neighbors, friends and family; loggers and truckers; folks from nearby Demopolis and Livingston. A recent Tuesday was “a two-preacher day.” The store is a community center for these folks.
But other people travel for miles to visit. Some are taking the backroads to the beach, and the country store has become part of their tradition. “Just this summer,” Betsy says, “we had a family stop in from Arlington, Texas, on their way to Florida, and the moment they walked in the door, I thought, ‘I’ve seen them before.’ They came through last year on their way to vacation; they stopped back by on their way home. And then this year, they did the same thing.”
Some people come to the store on what Betsy calls a “meal trip.” It’s like a field trip but with food as the main attraction. “We see so many people from a couple of hours away. There are plenty of places to eat in every city in this state, but we like to think that what we have here is a little bit unique – something that’s worth driving for. And they prove it to us week after week when we see people who may come from Birmingham or south Alabama, some cross the line from Meridian (Mississippi) and that area. … We have people from all over – two or three states it seems.”
“I think it’s the coolest country store ever,” Tony says. “It just kind of brings everybody back to when they were younger or growing up … because country stores were so big back then. It just brings people back … and every time somebody comes back, they get a different experience.” They’ll also get a joke of the day; Tony is known for them.
“It’s definitely a step back in time,” Betsy adds. “And sometimes it’s a step back in time to this store for some people. Other times, it’s a step back in time for somebody who’s never been here, but it’s so familiar to them because it’s like something else they’ve experienced.”
The store, on Alabama Highway 28 at mile marker 34, opened in 1957.
“I grew up in this store,” Betsy says. “I lived next door until I was about 4. And then long after that, when my parents were in the store, this is where we came for the day. We didn’t have babysitters or day care; we just played at the store. … We grew up knowing everybody that came in the door, and, thankfully, a lot of those still come in. … It’s fun to see my generation coming in with their children now.”
Except for one year – 2012, which was a tough year for most businesses – Jefferson Country Store has remained open for decades. When Tony and Betsy hosted a grand reopening in 2013, they welcomed people back to a store that is eclectic and inviting with some really good food.
The place is hard to miss. The outside of the little store is decorated with hand-lettered signs for hoop cheese, souse, rag bologna and more. There are picnic tables, old gas pumps and other found objects scattered around the property, a chalkboard sign with some encouraging words.
Walking in, the first thing you’ll notice is the ceiling completely papered with colorful cardboard logos from soft drink, candy and beer cartons, some flags (Auburn and Alabama get equal billing here), vintage photos still in frames. Dozens of old 45 records sway from this ceiling, too, and lots of mini lights add a festive flair. There are a few taxidermic animals on display – a bobcat, some impressive deer, a mountain goat. The convenience store shelves have mostly been pushed to the side to make room for tables and chairs and a counter so customers can eat inside. There’s a bowl of dominos on one table inviting them to linger.
The walls display a few celebrity photos, some vintage posters and tin signs, shelves of old bottles (Tony is a picker) and news articles (ask about the time the Allman Brothers Band spent the night in a Jackson, Alabama, jail). There’s a decorative tub filled with MoonPies, and the cooler has RC Cola to go with them. Tony and Betsy sell their own Jefferson Country Store posters as well as shirts.
The regular menu is short, but long on flavor.
Fried bologna sandwiches, a Conecuh dog, hot ham and cheese, homemade pimento cheese, chicken salad and stadium nachos (tortilla chips covered with hot cheese sauce and jalapenos). There are sausage biscuits for breakfast. There are no fries, just chips; pick out what kind you want from the shelves and pay when you’re done eating.
The made-to-order hamburger here was voted “best burger in the county” in The Demopolis Times‘ Best of Marengo poll. Tony’s burgers feature a big patty of quality ground beef, and you can kick it up a notch with a slab of fried bologna; then it’s a Coach’s Burger (named for Will Atkinson, who coached softball at the University of West Alabama). The pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches are another bestseller. Tony smokes this pork outside and dresses it with their own Sa’rday Sauce (which is available for purchase). The result is a deep, rich, smoky-sweet flavor. Facebook posts tell customers when he’s fired up the smoker and they can get these sandwiches or ribs or chicken quarters. There also are seasonal dishes like Brunswick stew and hickory-smoked hams for the holidays.
Betsy makes caramel cakes (when the weather is right), mini lemon pound cakes and banana pudding. Frying fish got them through the worst of the pandemic, allowing them to cook outside and serve contactless to-go orders under a tent.
Whether the food is from the regular menu or part of the weekend smoked specials, when it’s gone, it’s gone. There are no leftovers here; Tony says he cooks just enough for each day and then starts over the next morning.
The food is certainly a draw, but the store also serves as a social center for the community – this is where you can come in and find out who’s having a baby, who’s hiring, whose dog is lost, whose dog is found, who bagged an 11-point buck last weekend. Santa stopped in right before Christmas, and dozens of dressed-up families came for photos with him.
The people they serve are more than just customers, Tony says. “They’re like family.” If he hasn’t seen the regulars in a few days, he’ll call and check on them. “People like to come in and talk,” he says, “and if they’re going through a bad day, maybe we can be the positive light and they leave with a smile. Maybe that’ll help their day. That’s what we’re here for.”
These days a good many of Jefferson Country Store’s interactions and conversations happen online, and they also bring smiles.
Instagram and Facebook posts have gotten the store a lot of attention, Betsy says. “Social media has brought so many people here that would have never heard of Jefferson, heard of this little country store, knew that we had food – any of those kinds of things. I told somebody the other day, ‘It’s really interesting that something as new as social media, something as trendy as that, brings people back to something like this.’
“I think it’s probably a little bit of a novelty that a little hole-in-the-wall country store is on social media, but that’s where we tell our story. It just connects so many pieces for us. It definitely has opened us up to a much bigger audience than we could have ever, ever reached any other way. We certainly couldn’t pay for that kind of advertising.
“There are people who have never been in here, but we know them through our social media. They still support us, but they are several states away and can’t get here. It’s a much bigger community of 5,000 people who support a tiny, little store that they’ve never been to, but they love it because they follow it every day. It’s been huge for us.”
The fans are following friendly posts about food, people (famous and not) and the everyday things that happen in this place.
On Oct. 18, 2021, the Lukers posted a photo of Taylor Hunnicutt and Josh McKenzie in the store.
These posts are great for business, but Tony and Betsy ultimately see all this as more than clever, fun marketing: It’s a way to keep their small community relevant.
In the 1970s, Jefferson’s post office was in the store. The post office closed in spring 2013, a few months before the Lukers reopened, and Jefferson lost its ZIP code (it now has a Demopolis ZIP code).
When that happened, Jefferson lost part of its identity, too, Betsy says.
“We feel a great responsibility to make sure that this little dot on the map doesn’t go away. Whatever we have to do, we’ve got to make sure that people know that Jefferson is still here, and it’s a community that is steeped in tradition and volunteerism, service and fellowship. And whatever we can do to keep that alive we’re committed to, because so many communities have lost that.
“And if a store that sells hamburgers and cold beer and chips and pralines, whatever, if that’s what it takes, then we’ll give it a shot. We’ve got to keep our community alive, and whatever our little part of that is, we’re here to do it. And with the support of our community – and so many more from other communities who value what we have – I think we’re, at least, holding our place on the map. And that means everything.”
Jefferson Country Store
26120 Alabama Highway 28
Demopolis, AL 36732
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (kitchen closes at 2)
8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Closed on Sunday
Daily specials posted on www.facebook.com/JeffersonStore
Follow the store on Instagram @jeffersoncountrystore
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)