Warmed by the sun and hungry for lunch, the beachgoers come in right off the sand, dripping salt water on the sea-blue floor. They head straight to the back of Roberts Grocery, to the cooler packed with snacks specially made for a day at the beach — fried chicken; loaded baked potatoes; tubs of coleslaw, potato salad, and pimento cheese. And shrink-wrapped sandwiches packed plump with the market’s best-known offering: chicken salad.
Roberts chicken salad is legendary, with a near-mythical origin story to match. Nearly a century ago, on the advice of his doctor, a Lebanese immigrant named Charles S. Robier moved to Wrightsville Beach from New York City. With years of experience working in delicatessens and a collection of family recipes in hand, Robier decided to open a grocery store in his new hometown. Because locals couldn’t pronounce his last name, he called it Roberts.
Over the years, the market changed hands. After sustaining damage from Hurricane Hazel in 1954, it moved to a smaller location across the street. Businesses around it came and went. But the little grocery’s presence in downtown Wrightsville Beach has remained as constant as the tides.
By the time Allan Middleton and his business partner Jerry Allen bought the store in 2006, Roberts had, for many families, become deeply woven into golden memories of beach vacations past. Middleton and Allen would meet second- and third-generation customers from across the country, people who looked forward to their week at Wrightsville Beach — and their visit to Roberts — all year long. The store would sell several hundred sandwiches over the course of a busy weekend. Out-of-towners loaded up coolers with pints of chicken salad so that they could take the singular flavor of summertime home to Raleigh, Charlotte, and Winston-Salem.
Allan Middleton, co-owner of Roberts Grocery, has spread the Wrightsville Beach tradition across the state. photograph by Matt Ray Photography
That gave Middleton and Allen an idea. After a chance meeting with a Harris Teeter executive — he was at Roberts, buying chicken salad to take home — the pair began exploring the idea of selling their star item across the state. On the day Harris Teeter invited them to pitch their product at the grocery’s headquarters, Middleton answered the call: “I hear you have the best chicken salad in the world,” the voice said. Soon, Middleton and Allen found themselves in Matthews, surrounded by representatives from national food companies. They hadn’t prepared a fancy presentation, but as they took a seat in the lobby beneath portraits of William Thomas Harris and Willis L. Teeter — supermarket royalty in North Carolina — they didn’t feel nervous. They knew that their cooler packed with chicken salad was everything they needed.
And they were right: Roberts chicken salad has been a staple of Harris Teeter deli coolers for a decade now. Middleton and Allen have never promoted it — word of mouth has kept their chicken salad on shelves, in shopping carts, and tucked in refrigerators from Corolla to Asheville and beyond.
Back in Wrightsville Beach, Roberts Grocery is smaller, simpler, than it was in Charles Robier’s day. A renovation in 2015 — the first in decades — streamlined the store and its merchandise. The shelves contain mostly vacation essentials: coffee and cream cheese for your breakfast spread; toothbrushes and sunglasses for the forgetful packer in your family. “If you’re on the beach and you need something, you come here,” Middleton says. “The last thing you want to do on a July weekend is get in your car and go over the bridge.”
Whatever else the store may stock, everyone knows you can’t leave Roberts without a chicken salad sandwich. Vacations end, friends part ways, the coastline recedes in the rearview mirror. Wherever you’re headed, it’s a comfort to know that no place is too far from a familiar taste of the beach.