In 1973, Betty Fain, with her husband George, broadened her sphere of influence from that of wife and mother, to include that of entrepreneur. With her children nearly grown she decided to rent a local establishment known as Bennett's Grocery and make a success of the business. And successful she was. For over forty years people have been enjoying the labors of Betty and her family at the corner of Main and Yonah streets in Helen, Georgia. What started as a small, genuine mom and pop grocery now houses thousands of homemade and specialty items to delight even the most discriminating shopper.
Entering the store from the street brings wonderful reminders of days gone by. A courtyard filled with comfortable benches and rocking chairs sprawls beneath shade trees enticing one to sit and dine, read, chat or just enjoy the soft breezes. A checkerboard, ready for play, sits atop a barrel on the sidewalk leading to the front door which is flanked on one side by a vintage Coca Cola machine. Up the concrete stairs and through a large green wooden door, visitors are welcomed by a metal pushcart stocked with bottled cokes and a variety of Stewart's flavored sodas on ice.
The displays of standard grocery items and delicacies sit side by side, some in modern commercial cases and others in authentic oak refrigerators. Barrels of help-yourself snacks like yogurt covered pretzels, fresh nuts, trailmix and dried fruits lead you down an aisle to the deli section. Here shoppers find not only a treat for the nostrils, as the essence of fresh brewed coffee wafts through the air, but also a smorgasbord for the eyes as one surveys cases of fresh cheeses, baked goods and assorted meat delicacies, a display which would rival any New York deli. According to Darlene Broadway, Betty's daughter, owner and manager of the store, Betty's is known for its mid-western corn-fed Black Angus beef. "We have a reputation for our inch to inch and a half steaks and fresh pork chops," she says.
Darlene tells me, people also come from miles around to purchase Betty's famous carrot cake. Other fresh baked temptations include the Mississippi Mud brownie made with marshmallows and nuts and a large assortment of homemade cookies. Darlene adds that the cookies are so good one would-be customer even risked arrest by absconding with a large glass jar full of the just baked chocolate chip treasures.
From floor to ceiling, the store is stocked with appealing displays of not only culinary treats, but vintage antiques supplied by Darlene's Uncle Ron. who was the owner of the local Nora Mill Granary, in operation since 1876 and whose freshly ground grains can easily be found in a special display near the deli section. Above the food cases reminisces of yesteryear are prominently displayed. Old soda bottles with names like Red Rock, Nehi and Double Cola fight for space next to vintage packing crates, biscuit tins, ice tongs, old kegs, time worn scales and hand held farm implements.
Metal advertising signs abound hawking everything from Chesterfield cigarettes, to poultry worming powder. But one sign in particular seems to ground the establishment. It simply states: Business operated by Veteran of WWII. Even though Darlene bought the business from her parents in 1987, she still likes having her dad's old sign on display as a reminder of a bygone era. Another antique sign harkening back to a time before checkbooks and credit cards reads: "Terms - Cash." However, Darlene remembers when that wasn't always the case. "People still talk about how mom and dad carried them through some tough times," she says. "There were months when people couldn't afford to buy groceries and momma would give them credit. She would just carry them on the books. One time she even took polished rocks as payment." It didn't matter how our family fussed at her, Betty determined that there were times when people were more important than profit.
But the store has survived over three decades. When Betty's moved from the original rented site, which is now a floral shop, into a small house directly across the street, the business began to expand. Today the building accommodates 8,000 square feet of culinary treats. The latest addition to the store is a section featuring imported beer and wine. Darlene says they added the new section at the request of customers who wanted to purchase a good bottle of wine to go along with Betty's premium steaks.
A favorite attraction for children is a "built-in beehive" in the wall opposite the front door. There, on display is an actual hive with working bees housed in a glass case for all to see and appreciate. Another specialty for children and adults alike is the old-fashloned homemade ice cream made on site and served on the weekends.
Darlene notes that even though there are obstacles to overcome in operating a grocery business, like price competition from the major grocery chains and the slowdown of tourist traffic in the cooler months, (Helen has a relatively small winter population) it's still all worth the effort. "When I get up in the morning I can't wait to get down here, because everyday is different from the next," she says. "I can't imagine ever leaving. As long as I can walk and put the key in the
door, I'll be here!"
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