Behind the counter of an old-timey general store just 20 minutes from downtown Memphis is a magic grill. It's magic because, along with a small deep fryer, it generates $200,000 a year in revenue, according to the store's owners. Legend has it (and legends float about this place like two-day-old Mylar balloons) that it's been cooking steaks and burgers since World War II. "Sixty years of flavor," the owner says to describe the grill's magical powers. Or maybe not quite 60. There's no telling.
I had come to the Shelby Forest General Store on Steak Night and left stuffed with steak, chocolate silk pie, and a dozen or so country-fried stories.
The Shelby Forest General Store is either Memphis' best- or its worst-kept secret. There's no Web site and no advertising, aside from a few billboards in the Millington area, and yet everyone seems to know about it.
In the mere five years that Doug Ammons and wife Kristin have owned the store, business has doubled, with 40 percent of the revenue straight off the grill. The rest comes from the myriad goods and services one can find in the crannies of the country cabin shop that Doug calls "Walton's Mountain with a lot of Mayberry rolled in." There's bait (worms, minnows, crickets), soft drinks, a deli, hunting and fishing licenses, and even used books and movies for sale (with titles ranging from Dan Quayle's memoir Standing Firm to the film The Making of "Left Behind").
Doug is quick to note that his store is meant to embody and celebrate the past while offering modern amenities. There's a mock-historical marker in front of the store describing the 2003 renovation: "gentle restoration (NOT modernization) ... a dignified genuine piece of Americana from a day long gone by." The décor is decidedly rustic, featuring the store's original hardwood flooring, various wood panelings and pegboard, and an eclectic mix of pop and kitsch. There's even a rooster named Jeter Jiffy on the porch to greet guests. It feels like a hoedown could break out at any moment. And every Friday night from 6 to 9 p.m., one does.
Tony Butler is the house banjoist, and there's no telling who else is on tap on a given night. The evening I stopped by, Butler was joined by a guitarist and later by a fiddler, and the repertoire alternated between hymns and mountain ditties.
I sat at the counter next to a reserved-looking middle-aged gentleman. He introduced himself as a worker at the Wonder Bread company (his specialty: buns), and in between bites of his steak dinner, he played "air banjo" along with the trio and tapped his feet mightily, unwittingly adding percussion to the mix.
"Do you play yourself?" I asked. "Oh no," he replied, bashfully. "I just love it."
Looking about, the sentiment seemed unanimous. Couples with young children smiled, while a pair of older ladies sang along quietly at the counter: "I'll fly away, oh Lord — I'll fly away!"
Dinner, a modest $9.95 with Texas toast and coleslaw, is tasty. The steak is a 10-ounce rib-eye, with a mildly sweet marinade whose secret ingredient only Kristin knows. And each and every steak the store has served in the last five years (7,000 and counting) has been cooked by Little Bit, the 18-year-old feisty redhead behind the counter. "You don't want to piss her off," Doug warns of the smiling cook.
Dinner is a family affair, with Kristin behind the counter preparing plates and young daughters Katelyn and Ellery serving cheerfully.
Leaving the Shelby Forest General Store, I'm reminded of the old Teddy Bears song, "To Know Him Is To Love Him," but in reverse. To love the Shelby County General Store is to know it.
I left humming familiar tunes, got to know the Ammons family a good deal on my brief visit, and had the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that comes with a home-cooked meal. The Shelby Forest General Store, 7729 Benjestown, Millington (876-5770)