The B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley got off to a slow and very careful start four years ago, as Alexe Van Beuren poured her heart and soul into the small business and lived mostly off hope those first 18 months. When Dixie Grimes serendipitously showed up hoping to land the job of cook for the grocery’s fledgling cafe, the business began to take on a transformative energy that has gained it national attention.
“The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories From a Southern Revival,” honors the town, its people, and the B.T.C. (“Be the Change”) attitude the business embodies.
Tell me about your background.
Alexe: I am originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia. My mother raises grassfed sheep, and we grew up eating out of the garden and thinking that how things were raised and grown was important. I graduated from Vanderbilt in 2005, moved to Water Valley late in 2006, had two kids, worked as a freelance writer and ran the local farmers’ market, and opened the store in 2010. I had no retail experience but a deep appreciation for good and real food and ingredients.
Dixie: I am 43, and was born and raised in Oxford. I attended Oxford High School and The University of Mississippi. I was the executive chef of The Downtown Bar and Grill and the executive sous chef of Two Zero Eight, both on the Square in Oxford.
I’ve worked in the food industry since I was 16.
I was raised by my grandparents, James and Vetra Stephens. My grandmother taught me how to cook and instilled a love for food with me at a young age. Many of the classic Southern recipes I use are hers and I make them how she taught me to make them. I have not tried to modernize the recipe. One thing I wanted to do with this cookbook is honor her memory.
Alexe, What brought you to Water Valley?
My husband took a job at a technology company based in Oxford. We lived in Oxford for three months, but the slower pace of life and smalltown feel — plus the beautiful and affordable old homes — drew us 18 miles south to Water Valley.
Alexe, what prepared you to open a grocery like the B.T.C., and why was this a dream of yours?
I’ve always been drawn to small, mom-and-pop businesses, especially those who sell food. I love the curated selection and regional specialties you find in small groceries and markets. That being said, I was definitely not prepared for running a small business. I made many, many, many mistakes and it is only by the grace of God and the good people of Water Valley that we managed to weather the very steep learning curve.
Alexe, please tell me about the building and your husband’s renovation work.
My husband, Kagan Coughlin, bought the building to renovate because he is a doer and the office life was making him a bit restless. We closed the day we learned I was expecting our first child, in 2007. He spent nights and weekends doing about 95 percent of the work himself, for the next five years. The first picture we have of it is in 1871. It was Mr. Parker’s Ben Franklin store for over 50 years, but there are Masonic symbols on the second floor, and we’ve heard of a chiropractor, dentists, funeral homes and more that were in the building at one time or another.
You have an eclectic clientele, for a town of fewer than 4,000 residents. Tell me about that. Also, what are some of your most popular items?
I love our customers. We have all kinds here at the B.T.C and that’s what makes us a good place to be. Farmers, kids, earth mothers, gluten-free everything, vegans, Republicans, food-stamp customers, European transplants, fishermen, young, old, just about everybody, and we love them all. As for most popular item, well, that’d be a tomato, Mississippi’s household icon and our logo.
Dixie’s timing when she appeared at the restaurant asking about a job seemed serendipitous. Tell me about your initial meeting.
Alexe: Honestly, I was so frazzled that it is blurry in my mind. But the timing absolutely was amazing. Someone upstairs was looking out for us.
Dixie: Our meeting was fated to be. I had just returned to Mississippi from living in Texas. Water Valley was supposed to be a temporary stop on my way back to Oxford. I wanted to take a short break from living in the huge city of Houston. I was staying with friends in the Valley who knew Alexe and said she was looking for a cook, so I decided to inquire about the job.
I walked into the store and Alexe was getting slammed. I walked up to her and said, “I heard you were looking for a cook.” That was all I got out of mouth. Alexe asked me if I knew how to use a meat slicer; I said yes. Could I start now — yes. So I sliced all the meat and cheese for the cooler. She asked me if I could come back on Monday — I could. Alexe didn’t even know my name until Monday. It didn’t take long for Water Valley, Alexe, and the B.T.C. to work its magic on me — or for us to realize we were fated to run the B.T.C. together.
Dixie, you’ve worked for high-end restaurants, and your culinary skills are obviously diverse. Why did you want to work at the B.T.C. in Water Valley?
I thought the B.T.C. was a funky, cool place that was unique. The Old-Fashioned Grocery reminded me of my childhood and the small grocery stores on the Oxford Square. But again, it was only supposed to be temporary.
How did you develop your menu offerings at The Red Apron Café?
Alexe gives me 100 percent control of the kitchen. One of the things that makes this partnership work is that we respect each other and our areas. I design my menus by seasons. You can have a $2 bologna and hoop cheese sandwich, a burger or a spinach salad with fresh fennel and golden beets. Everything that comes out of my kitchen is made from scratch and with love.
The recipes in the book range from decidedly Southern favorites to upscale sophistication. How do you pull this off so easily at the B.T.C?
The recipes are a direct representation of who I am. The classic Southern recipes I cook in memory of my grandmother, who showed me that food is a way to bring happiness and joy to people.
Fine dining is the other part of that self. My grandmother taught me to appreciate and respect the ingredients. My fine dining background taught me how to execute that in some really cool ways. I do that smoothly at the B.T.C. because I cook with my heart.
Why do you believe your grocery and café are attracting national attention? Did that surprise you?
Alexe: Oh, absolutely. We never anticipated anything like it. As for why … well, I think people love an underdog story, and we certainly are that.
People seem intrigued by the combination of an old brick building, a small town and our store. Plus, I’m learning that folks in general are curious as to what life is like in a small Southern town.
I am happy to report the living is good, just like the song says.
Dixie: I think the B.T.C. has attracted national attention because it is real. The people are real, the community is real, our message is real. Our story and our experience we offer reminds people of their childhoods and towns they grew up in. BTC is Be The Change — from the Ghandi quote — “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” We try to do this on a daily basis.
What are your plans?
Alexe: We are always refining what we offer, but I don’t think we have plans to expand in any significant way. In general, we will just keep on serving good food and selling groceries to our friends and neighbors. That’s the plan.
Dixie: To always give back more than we take to the community of Water Valley. Keep doing what we are doing and going forward.
“The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories From a Southern Revival”By Alexe Van Beuren and Dixie Grimes
Publisher: Random House