SUSAN ELZEY Special in Register & Bee
Chicken salad was flying off the shelves as Midtown Market owners spoke about celebrating 100 years in business.
Irene Grant, the 92-year-old matriarch of the family, said she didn’t think the Chambers Street store would exist that long when she and her husband, the late Bernard Grant Jr., bought it in 1952. C is his recipe for chicken salad that has made it a staple at family tables and social events in the region for 50 years.
Her daughter, Jan Grant Harris, is now the store owner / manager, and her son, Gary Grant, keeps track of the store’s history and helps out when needed.
âWhen they’re really desperate, they ask me to go get something,â he said, accepting a box Jan had given him to move around the busy store.
The narrow aisles of the little store were filled with people making their way to the pastries, then the fresh fruit and veg and returning to the meat counter. Usually there is a line of people stopping in front of the chicken salad and chili cheese offerings.
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Reasons for success
At first, the three couldn’t think of the reasons for their success.
âI don’t know,â Irene said.
âNo idea,â Gary said.
But then Jan said, âI think it’s the personal service and the breakfasts. One day we served 500 packed lunches. And we have great meat.
Or maybe it’s because some friends meet old friends in the store and take a break to visit them.
âSometimes we imagine that one of the calls is that it’s a date,â Gary said. âIt’s a place of close community, which has been a bit tricky in the present. [pandemic] conditions. “
He also stated that there was a “consistency of quality in the meat department” which is widely known throughout the Danville area, Halifax County, Caswell County, Rockingham County and even further away.
According to Matthew Hackworth, deputy manager, the reputation of the store’s chicken salad goes even further west.
âA lady called me once about my St. Louis insurance and asked about my trade. I told her where I worked and she said, ‘Oh, you work at the place that has the right chicken salad!’ He remembers.
Gary said he looked at the city directory when the family bought the store and discovered that there were 191 such independent retail food stores in the area at that time. They alone survived.
He attributes the âquality, dedication and reliability of core staffâ as another reason for success.
Debbie Harville is one of those staff members. She has worked in the store for 34 years and intervened when Jan had what she called a “major, major stroke” in 2005.
âI was gone for a year, then came back to work, but there wasn’t much I could do,â she said. “If it hadn’t been for Debbie, we would have closed for sure.”
Jan is still suffering from the effects of the stroke but works hard in the store.
âJan has done a terrific job here, even if it almost drives her crazy at times,â said Irene.
Gary said having a team that âplays well togetherâ is crucial to a store’s success.
âWhatever the potential pitfalls of retailing, the staff can be the one to help you succeed or cause so much hardship and tribulation,â he said. âOur staff here are diverse in terms of age, gender and background. We believe this has the greatest effect on customers.
The store currently employs more than a dozen full and part-time staff, supported by Jan’s husband, their mother and himself, according to Gary.
Harville used to work in a factory but prefers his job in Midtown.
âI like to see different people here. We get on a first name basis, âshe said.
Then there’s the chicken salad, a staple that’s “cooked, chopped, mixed and cut, by hand, fresh with no preservatives,” according to Gary.
The store was even recognized in the magazine of Southern Cooking Queen Paula Deen in 2015 when it was featured in a âCooking with Paulaâ on Southern Southern Chicken Salads.
âWhen I asked how they found us, a scout from Paula Deen told me that they had done a basic internet search for ‘the best chicken salad’ and Midtown Market has appeared,â said Gary.
The magazine is proudly displayed on the wall next to the Chicken Salad Cooler.
The store also received an unexpected nod in the pages of a 2014 book by Beth Macy, which chronicles the Bassett family’s legacy of furniture making in Henry County.
In describing the famous Midtown Chicken Salad, Macy describes the key to its appeal “being fresh chicken, minimal mayo, not eggs,” according to Gary.
Some customers have longstanding ties to the store and its products.
Sylvester Jacobs, who lived in the neighborhood around Midtown, comes twice a week from his home now in Pittsylvania County to have chicken salad and meat.
âMy grandfather delivered bike races here over 50 years ago,â he said.
Lillie Adams has been coming to Midtown for 25 years.
âI love the country ham and chicken salad,â she said. âI was a nurse in the hospital for 35 years, and there was always a party. This is how I discovered the chicken salad.
Perhaps another reason the chicken salad is so good and the store so successful is that one of the chicken salad makers has over 50 years of impressive experience.
âOh my God,â said Deli Manager Yeverne Morton. “I cooked for the Prince of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Walters and Senator John Warner.”
She didn’t reveal the secret to the recipe, however, but said she made it from 40-pound cans of chicken.
For now, Gary has said the store will run as long as they can keep it going. It cannot extend to the current location as it has been zoned protected and there is no younger generation to pass it on.
History of the store
James Church began operating Church Grocery in December 1921 in the same building that Midtown Market still occupies. He rented the building from Frank Cox, who built the store on land separate from the backyard of his family residence at 138 Holbrook St, according to the store story Gary keeps.
The next manager who operated it was Harden Shumate, who operated Church Grocery from the end of World War II until 1952, when Bernard Grant Jr. took over the reins.
In 1938, Church expanded and renovated the business, expanding and improving the bespoke meat department with a meat locker and walk-in partition near a decorative metal panel ceiling sheathed in white porcelain.
Church, who was one of two men who administered the Danville Selective Service Board, died in 1942. Various people ran the store until Grant and Ernest Jones bought it as partners in December 1952. Grant bought Jones out within a few years.
In 1956, the immediate neighborhood changed with the completion of the Medical Arts Building across from the Midtown parking lot. The institutional building replaced two mansions on Main Street, the Pritchett and Dibrell Houses and their gardens.
Ten years later, Church Grocery changed its name to “Midtown Market” to reflect its “downtown location” and new status as a take-out food store instead of the old-fashioned charge account type.
The Grant family acquired the store building and the former Cox family home on Holbrook from the Cox heirs.
In the late 1980s Jan Grant Harris, who grew up helping out in the store, joined his father in day-to-day operations. His father passed away in 2000 after a long illness and his widow, Irene, handed over ownership of the business and store to Jan.
On December 2, 2021, the small store that could, and did, completed 100 years of operation, and the official kickoff of the one-year centenary began.
The grants promise the celebration will last through 2022 and the chicken salad will keep coming.
Elzey is a freelance writer for the Register & Bee. She can be reached by [email protected] or 434-791-7991.