by Addie Ladner | photography by S.P. Murray
Two ladies have just driven over an hour from Oxford to an unassuming shopping center outside of Rocky Mount in Dortches, North Carolina, to fill their car with sausage, jelly and chicken salad. As they pass collards, ham chips, peanuts and preserves, a large nativity scene sits above them. While scanning the nearly 100 different varieties of old-fashioned, USA-made candy, a C-scale engine train whistles by. Behind them, a little girl counts a row of nutcrackers. They bid farewell to eight large storefront windows painted with retro holiday scenes.
Above one of the windows, large red letters read: PORK CENTER.
Merry Christmas from Smith’s Red & White, a good ole’ country grocery that’s an actual hog heaven for people across North Carolina. Smith’s has attracted customers with its house-made sausage, made the same way since its inception in the early 50s. They also come for the coleslaw, Brunswick stew, chicken and pastry, and all those other classics that second-generation owner Bruce Smith starts cooking when he arrives to work each morning at 3:30 a.m. “I can get things here that remind me of food my mama and grandmother used to make,” says one shopper, pointing to the fig preserves and cubed beef in her cart. A woman from Smithfield says she’s headed to a family reunion in Virginia—she was told not to show up without Smith’s links. And some pimiento cheese for her cousin, too.
This time of year, though, Smith’s Red & White offers more that just groceries: They’ve got ambience. Stroll past the lengthy meat aisle and a Santa village greets customers as they choose from every cut of pork and chicken one might need. Christmas trees are tucked into various corners of the store, where customers congregate to talk holiday menus and football. No need for the usual fluorescent grocery store lights—thousands of white string lights do the trick. Live out classic stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as you scan the frozen food section. Even the windows have been transformed into cozy murals of country homes in the snow and jolly Santa Claus with his bag of gifts by North Carolina painter Jim Womble.
“It started as just a tree,” store manager Terry Coggin says of Smith’s becoming a holiday shopping destination. As Coggin noticed how much joy a simple Christmas tree brought customers, he decided to add to it. It fits right in to the Smith’s company ethos, which Coggin says was built on tradition, quality and customer service.
Leading up to Christmas, Smith’s elves spend roughly eight weeks bagging about 2,500 cases of haystacks, bonbons, chocolate-covered peanuts, jellies and other classic confections. It’s a Smith’s holiday specialty which began in 1975 with only about 18 cases of sweets. Coggin says by December 25, it will all be gone. The store produces about 25,000 pounds of sausage each week come Christmastime; that’s more than double what they make during the rest of the year. “It’s whole hog, which means they didn’t pull all the good pieces out and grind up the rest,” says Mike Higgins of Raleigh, holding a parcel of sausage the size of a small bundle of firewood. Whenever he’s in the area for work, friends and family ask him to stop by Smith’s to get them sausage. Especially this time of year at the store, he’s glad to do so. The decorations are both an attraction and a treat, for patrons who drive for miles for Smith’s specialty groceries. “You always gotta look up,” Coggin says. “Our hope is during these months people can forget about their daily routines and troubles when they come to the store and just enjoy the atmosphere.”