A Graham couple revives an old concept in a new way at this Southern food destination.
by Addie Ladner / photography by Bert Vanderveen
Drive west out of Raleigh on I-40 for just under an hour, and you’ll find Steve’s Garden Market. It’s a charming, old-fashioned grocer tucked into Alamance County’s small but lively town of Graham. “Graham has an old soul with some new blood,” says Steve’s owner Justin Long.
At first glance, not much appears to have changed at Steve’s Garden Market since Steve and Patty Wall opened it in 1988. About 20 farmers deliver fresh produce directly each morning; North Carolina-grown turnips and sweet potatoes are piled high in wooden bushel baskets. Three ears of yellow corn cost just under $2; German Johnson tomatoes are $3 per pound. The pimento cheese — which flies off the shelves — has been made by the same person for more than 20 years. Fourteen butchers, some of whom have been there for more than 15 years, cut and grind fresh meat every day. A small plant selection greets customers as they approach the shop from the sizeable asphalt parking lot it sits on.
“There’s nothing obscure, just dry goods, meats, the basics. We don’t have 12 boxes of cereal. But we have what you need,” says Long. “The idea is simple: if you want to make dinner tonight, we have the ingredients to make it from scratch.” Long and his wife, Meagan, took over Steve’s in 2017, but their relationship with the market started decades ago. Justin and Meagan each grew up in Graham, about five minutes apart, and shopped there as kids. “My Uncle Shakey lived across the street. Any time we’d visit him, we’d walk over to the store and grab a snack and drink,” says Justin.
When he was a student at North Carolina State University, Justin worked as a waiter at Vin Rouge in Durham. He loved the energy of being in a restaurant, and the rich French fare reminded him of the comfort food he grew up with. Soon, he dropped out of college, working his way up to manager over the course of eight years. “I loved it, it’s what felt like home,” he says. “My mom cooked a lot. My grandmother cooked a lot, every Sunday we were at her house.”
He and Meagan married in 2006 and eventually returned to their hometown, with Meagan working as a speech therapist and Justin running a restaurant in Mebane. But once they had kids, he found the restaurant hours difficult, so he switched tracks, working at commercial food supply company Sysco. “I was super happy there. It gave me my outlet working with restaurants and food but not getting home at three in the morning,” he says.
By 2018, the Walls were ready to sell Steve’s Garden Market, but wanted it to remain the mom-and-pop store it had always been. Their banker, Reed LaPlante, a friend of the Longs, knew who’d be the perfect buyer.
“I turned the opportunity down at first,” says Justin. “I knew it was a great business, but I liked where my career was going, and we had two small children. We weren’t in a place to tackle such a huge undertaking.” But what the Longs couldn’t help but notice was Steve and Patty’s relationship as both a husband-and-wife team and business partners.
“I could see us in them a little bit. What they were doing was tried and true. Maybe we could come in and mirror what they’d been doing,” says Justin. After a series of conversations, Justin and Meagan decided to go ahead and do it. The Walls stayed on as consultants for a few months afterwards to make for a smooth transition. At first, the goal was to keep things the same: low prices, local food purveyors, and most importantly, devoted customers.
“We were able to keep our margins low. We wanted to keep the foot traffic and keep the loyal customers who had been shopping here for years,” says Justin. He made some small changes: opened up the space, widened the aisles, added some inventory.
But soon he learned that owning a grocery store came with a startling amount of food waste. “We had farmers come get our waste for their livestock, but we still had so much,” Justin says. He saw it as an opportunity: “I had an idea to use our extra space as a commissary kitchen to take it and make jams, jellies, and sauces.”
They had the infrastructure to do it: when the Longs bought Steve’s Garden Market, they purchased the entire building it occupied. It had at one point been a larger grocery store, and also a church, but as it was, the market only took up half the space, if that. He started building out a kitchen — and was soon thinking bigger.
“One day we were in the office and he was like, I am building a kitchen; we might as well do a restaurant,” says Meagan. “It was so new to me, this was a completely new world… all of a sudden we’re building an entire restaurant.” For Justin, there was a clear niche to fill: “There weren’t a lot of scratch restaurants in town and we had this great space. I wanted something where we could use all the produce and fresh meats we have. It’s a full-circle place.”
They tore down walls and ceilings and traveled around to see how other barbecue joints ran their businesses. In 2019, Smokehouse at Steve’s opened its doors as a place for classic soul food served in a slightly modern yet comfortable environment. It’s drawn steady crowds since, turning out galvanized trays full of candied yams, brisket (the best-seller), banana pudding with a toasted marshmallow top, tangy cucumber salad, and, of course, barbecue. All the North Carolina classics, but elevated and decently portioned; beautifully plated, yet unpretentious.
“Soulful Southern food is what I started with,” says Justin. “We focus on what we do well and stick with who we are.” The food comes out fast. The staff operates assembly-line style, inspired by a barbecue place the Longs ate at in an airport, of all places. Waiting to be seated, waiting for the menu, the drinks, the food to be prepared — that traditional restaurant framework didn’t appeal to Justin. “I want our customers to be able to be seated and eating amazing food within five, 10 minutes of walking into our restaurant,” he says.
A giant live-edge wood table near the entrance serves as a centerpiece of the restaurant. Pre-pandemic (and hopefully again, soon), it’s where strangers would find themselves sharing stories as they devoured their quartered chicken and slaw. The menu is centered around a wood-only J&R Manufacturing Oyler Pit smoker, a simple and rustic approach to barbecue. “There’s no gas, no electric, it’s a unique vessel that fits with this area,” says Justin. Beyond barbecue, there’s brisket, chicken, and vegetables used for sides and purees that all come out of the smoker. Relying on a single wood-burning vessel is no small task. “If we get wet wood, it ruins a day. If the delivery guys don’t show up, we’re scrapping up wood. Every couple hours, you have to check it,” says Justin.
The community of Graham and beyond provides a steady stream of diners and shoppers. “I haven’t heard a bad thing about Steve’s; what this guy is doing is smart and good,” says customer Elizabeth Kerr of Mebane. “The meat cuts are fresh. The smoked chicken salad is delicious. The barbecue is the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s a nostalgic feeling in the grocery store and then great energy in the restaurant part.” You could head there for a date night or could lug in a car full of sweaty kids after a soccer match. “I didn’t want anyone to feel out of place. Whatever kind of day you’re having, I want them to be comfortable and I want the atmosphere to be authentic,” Justin says.
And they did end up making those to-go items that sparked the expansion, including antipasto and a creamy, spreadable smoked chicken salad (“People either love it, or they leave it,” laughs Justin). The pandemic brought its challenges — while the market never closed during the pandemic, the smokehouse shut down for two weeks before pivoting to takeout, then moving to limited capacity — and these days, they’re having trouble staffing back up. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Justin says. Luckily there is a core group of staff to pull from — and it’s a family-run business, after all, with the Longs there every day, and Justin’s Uncle Shakey stoking the fire in the smoker each night.
Aside from the satisfaction in returning to their hometown, Justin and Meagan are glad to have given this community pillar new energy without detaching from its roots. “Food is something precious, a connector,” says Justin, “and the people here have embraced our family. It gives us great pride.”