With its whimsical décor, local crafts, hard-to-find groceries, Black Angus meats and “gianormous” homemade cookies, Betty’s Country Store is a shopper’s nirvana.
By Richard Turcsik
Darlene Broadway is a little bit country. And that is why her tiny supermarket is on a roll, holding its own against heavyweight competitors Ingles and Walmart.
She stocks her Betty’s IGA Country Store with an eclectic assortment of products you’d be hard-pressed to find in the gigantic Walmart Supercenter over in neighboring Cleveland: Stewart’s root beer and Nehi soda, swizzle stick rock candy, Creekstone Farms Black Angus beef, Schaller & Weber German luncheon meats, live bait, Fels-Naptha soap, made-from-scratch salads and baked goods, marbles by the pound, and the biggest assortment of paper dolls books in the region, including the hard-to-find President Obama edition.
The store appeals to locals of Helen, Ga. (population 425)—an Alpine Village-themed resort town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Chattahoochee River about an hour and a half north of Atlanta—as well as the thousands of tourists who swarm into the surrounding cabins and campgrounds and who hike the nearby Appalachian Trail every summer.
“Like Daddy said, you want to have one of everything, and, especially, you try and accommodate the campers,” Broadway tells Grocery Headquarters. She, along with her husband Davis, is the owner of Betty’s. “We have a little section back there where we have all sorts of gadgets for campers, and in our candy section we try to carry all of the old-time candies. Then we have a lot of weird drinks, like Stewart’s root beer, Cheerwine—you can’t hardly get that anywhere anymore—Nesbitt Orange and the RC that is still in the glass bottle. People come in and buy cases of drinks because they can’t get them anywhere else.”
Broadway’s parents opened the store in 1973 when they moved back to Helen from Ohio and named it after her mother, Betty. “Daddy did all the work and Momma got all the glory,” she says. It was initially located on the opposite corner of Main Street and Yonah in Helen. The store moved from its old site, which now houses a tattoo parlor, in 1994 moved to its current location, occupying what originally was a house. The original front of the house is now the wine and beer department. The second floor bedrooms are leased to an attorney who accesses his offices through the store.
For years business thrived. Then supermarket giant Ingles opened a store about seven miles up the road in the larger town of Cleveland.
“We were doing really, really well,” Broadway says. “In fact, we had a lot of Cleveland and Habersham residents who shopped at our store because you couldn’t get meat there and we would have fresh produce, too. You couldn’t get that anywhere in this area. Then Ingles came in and pretty much zapped that, so I tried to come up with something else that would bring people in, and that is when I added beer and wine in the front room.”
Then a package store opened directly behind Betty’s, cutting into that business. In response, Broadway added a small walk-in beer cooler and began stocking more imported German and local wines, including a line from Habersham Winery up the road that has proven to be very popular.
Betty’s also tries to stock local produce when possible, especially apples, which are strong sellers. Broadway is contemplating adding a multi-tiered refrigerated case to the department, located in a nook in the rear of the store. Square footage-wise, her department is a fraction of Walmart’s, yet the store stocks a broader variety; Walmart doesn’t carry honeydews, for example.
Busy as a bee hive
Walmart doesn’t have store-made honey either.
“We have a beehive. You don’t see that a lot,” Broadway says. It’s located in the back of the store in a little wood paneled alcove behind a glass wall so shoppers can watch the bees, which have outside access, and are cared for by a professional beekeeper. The bees made sourwood honey, which Broadway sells along a wall filled with Betty’s private label pickles, preserves, sauces and salad dressings.
Packaged in a handsome glass drinking jar with a handle with a retail of $5.99 each, the jams and jellies are available in a mind-boggling 40-plus varieties. Never had Georgia Moonshine Jelly? Betty’s stocks it, along with FROG (Fig, Raspberry, Orange, Ginger) Jam, Muscadine Preserves, Scuppernong (a local wild grape) Preserves, and Sweet Potato Butter.
Betty’s also offers 30 types of private label pickles, relishes and salsa, including five types of chow chow and more than 40 varieties of syrups, dressings and marinades.
But perishables are where Betty’s really shines.
“Produce is a big thing and I think they (shoppers) look for the quality and the freshness,” Broadway says. “That is what we try to do with our meat department. We do nothing but Black Angus beef, and we cut every day. None of it is packaged or pre-packed like in other grocery stores. All of our salads are made here, as is most of our bakery, except for the breads which are mostly frozen. But our muffins are made here and we are known for our cookies.”
The cookies are deserving of the description “gianormous.” They’re the size of pancakes, as Broadway likes to say. “When we were over in the little store my sister, who loves to bake, started making them. They just seem to be getting bigger and bigger.” Now they weigh in just under a half-pound and are merchandised in gallon glass jars.
They are delicious, and at only $1.69 they are a steal. Literally. Broadway recounts how one day a dastardly thief walked into the store, grabbed a full jar of just-baked chocolate chip cookies and ran out the door down Main Street. A more enterprising villain would have grabbed the 5-gallon water jug stuffed with dollar bills from the adjacent self-serve coffee station. Coffee’s only 50-cents a cup, but Broadway says most shoppers buy two, accounting for the bills.
Broadway markets her merchandise surrounded by enough antiques to fill a complete season of Antiques Roadshow. In the aisles, on the walls and above the shelves are ice boxes, toy trucks, dolls, coffee roasters, stills, kegs, milk jugs, Coca-Cola signs, crates, a hornet’s nest, a War Bonds ad, and a contraption for testing light bulbs; in the fabric care aisle detergents are merchandised in the drum of a washing machine with a ringer.
“My dad’s brother owned the Nora Mill [a 123-year-old operating grist mill in the hamlet of Nacoochee] and that is where we got all of the antiques that are in here because my uncle was in the antique business, too,” Broadway says.
Today the mill is operated by Broadway’s cousins and she sells their Nora Mill Granary stone-ground flour, porridge and pancake mixes from a large wooden table near the deli counter.
Broadway tries to carry locally made products whenever possible. She says it is a way to support other local small businesses, fill the tourist niche and further set herself apart from her two large competitors. “We probably have 10 wineries around here, and I try to have all of the local wines,” she says.
Near the wine section Broadway also sells handmade soaps, including one from a woman in town who handcrafts them in her house. “She does a phenomenal job and the pictures on the boxes are all of her family, she even designed an apple walnut soap that’s called Betty’s Country Store and features a picture of our old store on the box,” Broadway says.
The soaps are near the alcove housing the candy department. Many, like spearmint leaves, orange slices and Nik-L-Nips (Wax Bottles), are merchandised from gallon glass jars, while other are merchandised from their shipper boxes. “Our candy department is like every kids’ dream come true. I have to really stay on this because it can be gone like that on a good weekend,” Broadway says, snapping her fingers. “Especially these old-fashioned candies that I get from different places. We have Zotz. I’ve never had a Zotz, but the kids are like ‘Zotz! You have Zotz!”
The general-store theme is carried over in Betty’s non-foods selection. There are plenty of extension cords, masking tape, pliers, Krazy Glue, fly swatters and other gadgets that one might need on a camping trip. Two washtubs merchandise loose glass marbles at $5.99 a pound, and there’s an extensive collection of local books.
“We try to have books about the Appalachian Trail and all of the waterfalls in this area, and we try to have some cookbooks too,” Broadway says.
There’s also a whole rack of books devoted to paper dolls, including ones on Mae West, TV moms, cigar labels, Sesame Street, vampires and dogs playing poker. “Paper dolls sell really well for us. We have a lot of books on paper dolls,” Broadway says.
The one thing Betty’s doesn’t have is paparazzi. And that’s surprising, given that Hollywood A-lister Jennifer Aniston is known to shop there. She was staying in town while filming Wanderlust over in Habersham County, and came into Betty’s several times shopping with her co-star Malin Akerman.
“Malin Akerman was nice, but we didn’t recognize Jennifer Aniston until after she left,” Broadway says. “She had on this red, real floppy hat, but she’s eaten at two restaurants in town that are really, really nice, and they said she was very nice.”
After she left Broadway pulled the surveillance tape to see what she bought—Betty’s doesn’t have scanners and to save on the cost of hiring an IT person it uses paper price tags—and she spotted Aniston buying almond milk and a box of gluten-free quinoa.
“They buy quinoa all the time,” Broadway says. “You can tell when they come in, there are two or three of them gone. And the almond milk is really big. I showed one of the girls and she said, ‘I’m going to eat and drink whatever she buys.’”