Merritt’s Store and Grill, located just south of UNC’s campus off U.S. Highway 15-501, originally opened in 1929 as a gas station and local convenient store. The tiny white store has evolved into an iconicrestaurant where community and mouth-watering food intersect. Bob and Robin Britt took over the store in 1991 where it continued to serve as a convenient store and gas station with the addition of food from the grill. During the recession of 2008, business was unstable and the Britts knew a change needed to be made. While going through hardships, the local pastime fired up the grill and refurbished the interior to showcase its Southern-style menu.
When Robin passed away in April her two sons, Robert and Charles, worked together to carry on her legacy. Co-manager, Chris Elkins (middle) began helping out in the kitchen in the spring and now coordinates community events, catering and the marketing aspect of the business. Nina Fargis (left), the decorator and landscaper of the store and property, talks to Elkins and co-manager Matt Bair (right) about the newly added Christmas decorations and plans for the future. “We are hoping to add a building out back to use as a stage and to sell drinks and ice cream in the evening,” says Bair. “We would also like to expand the kitchen,” says Bair as he discusses plans for the future.Rustic furniture, wooden floors, and glass bottle drinks fill the store with charm and character. The antique decorations and plastered Carolina blue walls make it quant no matter the crowd or time of day. “The biggest change in the last ten years was Robin Britt switching the focus away from a convenience store to focus more on the grill,” says Bair. While the store continues to grow and change, it never strays from the timeless traditions and flavors adored by all.
The menu has expanded since then but staple items consist of chicken salad, burgers, pimento cheese, and of course the famous BLT – a perfect combination of juicy bacon, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, all stacked between fresh sourdough bread and smothered in mayo. “Biting into a Merritt’s BLT is an experience like none other because the quality of ingredients – it’s warm, freshly made, and the amalgamation of savory flavors and toppings you can add make it even better,” says Mary Frances Buoyer, a senior at UNC and supporter of all things local in Chapel Hill.
“Everything is made with love,” Robin Britt would say when asked what makes the BLT recipe special. Not only has it been perfected over the years, the ingredients without preservatives are fresh and come from a number of local sources. Fried bacon, tomatoes from the Raleigh farmers’ market, and fresh-baked bread delivered daily are a few of the reasons customers keep coming back for more.
While its food is satisfying to the soul, Merritt’s means far more to customers than a meal. “Merritt’s is community, Elkins said. The relationships between the staff and customers seem more like a friendship, no matter how long the line is. Open seven days a week, the store and grill welcomes diversity in its customers and staff. Claudia Palacios and Landy Chance are two employees dedicated to serving the community and sharing the flavor of the South to its people.
Kitchen manager, Levi Munoz (right), has been on staff for two years and continues to serve customers with a warm welcome and skillfully made sandwich. The kitchen stays busy from sun up to sun down with all hands on deck to prepare sandwiches in an impressive turnaround rate. Alejandro Milanes (left) and Elena (middle) define hospitality all while juggling orders and preparing works of art. “We cook 900 pounds of bacon each week,” co-manager Matt Bair said. “That’s equivalent to 34 pigs.” Bacon is cooked after hours and prepared for the next day’s sandwiches. Fresh bread is delivered every morning from the Bread Shoppe in Pittsboro.“Working at Merritt’s is unlike any other place I have worked, it feels more like a family,” says Bair. From Sierra Leone to Peru, all 20 employees have a different place to call home but inside the store and grill they become a team that serves the community.
This a story about the people who come inside. “It’s an everyman store,” Robin Britt would say. Robert Payne, an enthusiast for good food, enjoys a signature sandwich during his first visit to the store and grill. “I work at the Raleigh airport and a bunch of my friends have been here before,” he said. “So now I have proof that I’ve been and I’m going to get another sandwich.” He and many other new visitors quickly learn to appreciate the art of a well-made BLT.
Lisa Amani, a yoga instructor in Greensboro, drops in for a celebratory lunch. After being diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago she began frequenting Chapel Hill for chemotherapy treatment and a BLT at Merritt’s. This visit to her favorite lunch spot is different, as she celebrates a cancer free check-up. Inside the little white building are people and stories to be shared. It is through their stories and the community support that Merritt’s is able to keep a tradition alive. It’s a celebration of history, good food and memorable people.