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Every dot on the map needs a hometown grocer — a personable place where you can load up your buggy with beef, where you’re called “darlin’” by the cashier at checkout and where you know your butcher by name. They’re the jewels of small towns, the businesses that give a city personality. In this week’s Local Spotlight, I visit a place that’s served Bulloch County for more than 40 years in that very capacity.
“The Biggest Little Meat Market in Statesboro” began as a meat plant in 1968 in the Ellis family backyard in Hopeulikit (a small community between Statesboro and Portal). Local farmers visited the family from miles around, bringing livestock to be slaughtered and packaged for the freezer.
“My dad wanted to start his own business so he and Mother could stay close at home with my brother and sisters,” said Kimball Ellis, co-owner of Ellis Farm Fresh Meats.
Twenty years later, the little store with a red tin roof sits on West Main Street in downtown Statesboro, in the former location of Maryland Fried Chicken. Ellis Farm Fresh Meats opened to the public in the early 1980s to meet the needs of a growing, changing community. Today, the family-owned-and-operated business offers custom cut meats, seafood and a premium line of frozen vegetables, but it isn’t necessarily the prime cuts of beef or the low country boil pots that have roped me in.
I’ve never visited the store before when I haven’t seen shopping carts filled to the brim with those pink packages of center-cut pork chops and fresh ground chuck hamburger meat wrapped in cellophane, or when there hasn’t been a line surrounding the squared-off cash registers at the entrance of the store. The atmosphere is nothing fancy, and that’s what it makes it one of a kind. The vintage red-and-gray checkerboard flooring hints at days gone by, and the customers’ casual chatter with one another makes an everyday shopping trip feel like homecoming. It’s the kind of place you walk in and think, “Why have I not been here before?” and when you look around at all the folks shopping, you wonder how they could keep such a treasure to themselves.
Of the 26 employees, 10 are family members. The other longtime workers, like butchers Jerry and Eric, have been with the owners for many years and are considered part of the Ellis family, too. Jerry has worked at the market for 12 years, and Eric has been with the company for 22 years.
“You will see Eric and Jerry at the meat market every day. They are just two of our dedicated employees,” Ellis said.
Though the business is known for its meat selection, homemade sausages and gator tail aren’t the only items flying off the shelves. Something you’ll notice right off the bat when you visit the market is the support for other local farmers and vendors. You’ll find products like Freeman’s Mill grits and B&G Honey Farm honey for sale, along with Braswell Food Company’s salad dressings and specialty sauces. Perhaps the most exciting item available, for the baker in me, is the old-fashioned 14-layer homemade cakes, sold by the halves, in uncommon flavors like key lime and strawberry. They even have peanut butter extract, and that’s not something you see every day.
With Valentine’s Day just around the bend, I asked Ellis to share a romantic recipe for two to prepare at home using ingredients found at Ellis Farm Fresh Meats. He suggests picking up two choice rib eye steaks and two twice-baked potatoes and making a tossed salad to serve with your favorite dressing. When it comes to having dinner with your sweetheart, Ellis says, “The best eatin’ is at home.”
Rebekah Faulk is a Georgia food writer and Statesboro-based TV personality. A Season 2 contestant on ABC's “The Taste,” she blogs at SomeKindaGood.org, a Southern, coastal food blog highlighting East coast restaurant reviews and Lowcountry-inspired recipes. Follow her on Twitter at @SKGFoodBlog or find her on Facebook.