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Sam Houston EC News

Honey Island General Store

The second in a series of stories about small businesses that call rural East Texas communities home

The Honey Island General Store was established more than 80 years ago at the junction of FM 1293 and FM 1003 in the unincorporated community of Honey Island. If it sounds familiar, you may have read about it in past issues of Texas Co-op Power.

The small community of Honey Island is just 7 miles from Kountze and less than 45 minutes from Beaumont, but on a rare crisp morning during another oppressively hot and humid East Texas summer, the covered front deck of the general store can take a visitor back decades.

Chuck Turner, the store’s owner and a Sam Houston Electric Cooperative board member, sits on a wooden A-frame swing more commonly seen in yards and on porches, drinking coffee from a red mug. Turner is flanked by a couple other Honey Island community members as a surprising number of customers visit and are greeted by name.

Texas Department of Transportation trucks pass the store, and empty logging trucks head west down the highway only to return with full loads of East Texas timber on their way to mills.

Turner and his friends talk as the sun continues to rise. A visitor could learn a lot from their conversation, such as where law enforcement waits for speeders and what phase two of road construction will consist of for FM 1293, among other topics.

As a delivery of feed arrives, the conversation pauses, and Turner disappears inside to tell Laura Taylor, cashier and cook, that he will be outside unloading the truck.

Turner climbs into a forklift and unloads the pallets of feed before returning to the store, greeting more repeat customers and getting a hug as another employee, his granddaughter, arrives. More customers come to get gas, grab a quart of oil or buy some local honey as the grill in the deli is fired up to cook breakfast and then lunch.

Like most small business owners, Turner works well over 40 hours a week, but it’s labor he enjoys. Before buying the store in 1990, he worked as a superintendent at an oil refinery, and he thought then if he didn’t change careers, he would end up in a hospital bed or worse—an early trip to the cemetery.

“I work about 60 hours a week now, but I am not in a refinery with 300 people working for me,” Turner said. “I was looking at safety and productivity, and there was a lot of stress. We had four superintendents that had heart attacks in one year, and they were all under the age of 40. It was just pure stress. I could see what I was doing was not the best health plan.”

Not only is the store a better health plan for Turner, customers enjoy the friendly country atmosphere of the place.

“People come out from Houston, and they say how neat the store is,” Turner said. “It is a dying era for general stores where a customer can get hardware, feed, fertilizer, groceries, fuel and deli products. There just aren’t a lot around anymore.”

Customers from Beaumont and Houston enjoy the throwback nature of the store and the variety of products as much as local customers do.

From his business records, Turner knows that 80% of his customers are repeat customers, and the store is dependent on them to stay in business. He also knows they actually choose to come back because the town of Kountze is less than a 20-minute drive for most, if not all, of his customers.

“They certainly can buy things cheaper there than here,” he said. “Some stores there have numerous locations. I have one.”

But Turner has a secret weapon, and it’s known for miles around: the Honey Island hamburger. He advertises the famous burger on the store’s main sign, visible from the road.

“Every year for the last 30 years, the sales in the deli department go up. They don’t go up drastically, but they do go up every year,” Turner said. “I have tried different things. During the winter I don’t know why I still do it because I never sell much, but I will fix chili, red beans and rice, but 9 of out every 10 deer hunters want a hamburger. They come in and say they have been thinking about getting a Honey Island General Store hamburger all morning.”

Summertime motorcycle riders crave the burgers, too.

“We were out on a ride today and figured it would be a good place to have a cool drink and enjoy ourselves,” said Donald Nugent from Liberty. Nugent knows of the store from his time as a truck driver. “There aren’t many of these places left anymore. This is where you get the good food.”

His riding partner, Danny Cupit from Crosby, added, “These burgers are well known. I can’t eat a whole one, and I don’t miss many meals. They just have the old-style taste, mom and pop places that aren’t around anymore. That is what makes it so special.”

Hamburgers are the biggest draw among the items on the menu, but if you ask, Turner and his employees will make food off the menu if they know you want something unusual for East Texas taste buds. The Southern Tier Bicycle Tour runs right

past the Honey Island General Store, and a cyclist organizer prompted Turner to make an unofficial additional to the menu.

“One guy brings in large groups; the last one was 58 bicyclists,” Turner said. “He asked if he could order a fried bologna sandwich, and I said sure. I told him we don’t get many calls for it. We fixed him two of them, then the other cyclists wanted some.

“I didn’t know they were that popular; they aren’t popular here in Southeast Texas, but they are a big deal in other parts of the country, so I started fixing them for the cyclists. It is amazing how many people ride a bicycle from Florida to California or California to Florida.”

Turner’s philosophy is for the store to be a convenience to people of the surrounding community. That means more than just carrying feed and making good burgers. Turner wants residents to think of his store first, for example, if their water line breaks in the afternoon. They don’t have to drive 15–20 miles but instead to the Honey Island General Store for a fitting. Turner carries a wide variety of products but not many of any one item.

Turner also shows his concern for the community in what he doesn’t sell at the store. For instance, Turner doesn’t sell alcohol or lottery tickets. He doesn’t think they are necessarily bad, but when so much of his business is from repeat customers, he would like for those families to keep the extra money in their pocket and accounts.

“I think they probably need groceries rather than lottery tickets, and I won’t have to worry about the kids being hungry because Mom and Dad are buying lottery tickets and a 12-pack of beer,” Turner said. “We are all in this together, whether we like it or not. I have gone 30 years without doing it. I don’t see why I need to start now.”

The store is a place to gather during good days, but it has been a natural gathering point for some customers after storms and for Sam Houston EC equipment and lineworkers following hurricanes and floods.

“When Harvey hit, we were basically an island,” Turner said. “We didn’t lose power, so people would come here to sit and visit, eat, get ice, whatever. It is a really unique experience when you have a natural disaster in an area, seeing how people really come together.”

Long before Hurricane Harvey flooded Southeast Texas, Hurricane Rita caused severe flood and wind damage to the region.

“Hurricane Rita was so bad some of the [contracted line technicians] asked if they could spend the night here in their trucks,” Turner recounted. “They would pull up right here and use a water hose to take a shower at night. They would eat and visit and then go to bed in their trucks to get up the next morning and start all over again.

“We need them worse than they need us. If they aren’t down here, we don’t have power. If you don’t have power, it is hard to exist. Rita showed me that.”

Turner’s care for the Honey Island community and utility workers extends to his employees, too. In turn, the employees treat their customers like friends.

“Locals come to eat, and a lot of hunters come to eat, but it is the atmosphere that really keeps everyone coming back,” said employee Laura Taylor. “Everyone interacts with everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you have shoes on your feet or not, everybody is the same. That is why I like working here. Chuck and Ms. Deb are just great people to work for. I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”

Next month we take our readers across the Sam Houston EC service territory to the small community of Punkin, where the Punkin General Store, which shares some traits with the Honey Island General Store, meets the distinct needs of the Punkin community.