He will never know why the B.L.T. at Merritt’s Store and Grill in Chapel Hill is the best he has ever eaten. That’s because Robin Britt, owner of Merritt’s and maker of the B.L.T., won’t tell him.
“We have to keep some trade secrets to ourselves,” Robin says.
The silence between them grows thick. Fiddle music plays from inside the grill, above the sound of cooks making lunch.
Then Robin says, “Did I tell you I made the very first sandwich?”
“No,” he says.
“It was for my husband. Way before all this,” she says, waving toward the parking lot, packed with cars and trucks. “I made them for his lunch — these very fresh, very full B.L.T.s. They were love sandwiches.”
“Made with love, you mean?” he says.
“No,” she says, “love sandwiches.”
Then she holds his eyes a few seconds too long, and finally he begins to listen.
Since 1929, Merritt’s has squatted just south of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, around the invisible boundary where campus becomes country. The store is tiny and white, perched above U.S. Highway 15-501, enclosed by a grove of bamboo.
Merritt’s began as an Esso station, operated by Eben and Ruby Merritt. For almost 50 years, they sold gas and sundries and performed car repair. In the afternoons, I’m told, men would gather to stand around a stove, drink beer, and catch up on news and jokes. “It was very much a male environment,” Robin says.
My wife’s grandparents, who lived on a small farm nearby around that time, would trek to and from Durham for work and stop by Merritt’s to pick up supplies. My father-in-law told me about taking the family car in to get fixed, how you drove the car into a garage with a pit in the ground. “They didn’t have a lift for repairs,” he said. “Instead, you’d go under the car, where it was dug out, and look up.”
The repair bays are long shuttered, and the store has passed through several pairs of hands. Robin and her husband, Bob, bought the business in 1991. Initially, like the previous owners, they ran it as a convenience store, with the grill in the back. Business went up and down. Robin remembers how, when the Grateful Dead played Chapel Hill in 1993, the Britts allowed a large flock of visiting Deadheads to camp across the street, and kept the store open around the clock for several days, selling food and providing a restroom.
But by the time the recession took hold in 2008, the Britts were struggling. Business was not good. “We had to figure out how to stay alive,” Robin says. At that point, Merritt’s was essentially a gas station that didn’t sell gas, an everything-mart that also had a grill, but one that not many people knew about. The Britts’ motto for Merritt’s had always been, “A great lunch at a great value, with a kind word.” But how could they get the word out if people weren’t listening?
Robin and Bob decided to emphasize the food — a select menu of homemade Southern staples: chicken salad, pimento cheese, burgers, fried bologna, sweet tea, orangeade and, of course, those B.L.T.s. Next, they ripped out the convenience-store fixtures, put in tables and chairs. Things began to change. “By focusing on the food,” Robin said, “and giving folks a respite, a whole new group of people started coming in.”
The B.L.T. has become Merritt’s calling card — a destination sandwich featured in magazines like National Geographic Traveler and Every Day with Rachael Ray. The News & Observer named it to a list of the 25 tastes that define North Carolina. On a busy Saturday in the summer, Merritt’s sells up to 700 of them, with a 45-minute wait out the door.
A standard B.L.T. has a recipe only three letters long, but the Merritt’s version complicates things by coming in three sizes: single, double, and triple. The numbers correspond to how many layers of bacon, lettuce, and tomato the sandwich contains. Davidson Scott, part of the store’s management team, tells me I’ve been doing it right by always ordering a double. “I say to people, double is for men, single is for women. People who buy the triple should be young men,” he adds, “who still have time to get bigger.”
Today, Merritt’s is decidedly homespun — country store but something more. On Saturdays, Merritt’s often plays host to “Banjos & B.L.T.s,” where a trio of musicians plays old-time string music in the corner. They’ve even had bands perform concerts in the parking lot outside. One of the Britts’ sons, Bobby, is an accomplished fiddler, and his band, Town Mountain, packed the lot full for the inaugural show.
My wife and I live six miles down the road from Merritt’s. I’ll be honest: I hardly ever order the B.L.T. anymore. Don’t tell anyone, but Merritt’s sells what’s possibly the best cheeseburger in the county. But I also go for the way time slows down inside, even when the grill is busy.
I spoke with the Chapel Hill writer Bland Simpson, also of the bluegrass stalwarts the Red Clay Ramblers, who has been visiting Merritt’s since he was a boy. He prefers the burgers, too, but likes his with Cheerwine. Then I ran into Woody Durham, longtime voice of the Tar Heels, and he said I really needed to try the chicken salad.
So perhaps it’s not what goes into something that makes it special — the B.L.T., for example — but what people get out of it.
Merritt’s Store and Grill
1009 South Columbia Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514