Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series of stories about small businesses that are vital to the East Texas communities they call home.
The Punkin General Store lies more than an hour west of the Honey Island General Store, which was featured in these pages last month. And just like the other general stores in this series, the Punkin General Store also is family owned and caters to the unique needs of its customers.
Ron Young and his daughter, Renee Sides, viewed the store as a new opportunity when they bought the old convenience store halfway between Coldspring and New Waverly on Highway 150.
Young had seen the vacant building on his drives from Houston to see Sides and her family on weekends, and Sides and her husband were looking for a storefront for their gun business.
“Within a week of [me] being laid off, our offer was accepted,” Young said. “The oil industry wasn’t very good at the time, and I was near retirement age, so who was going to hire me at that point? We said let’s go all in and do this.”
Young still lives in Houston but comes up to run the store several days a week. Sides and her family moved to the area from Houston a few years before the store opened, and they don’t miss the hustle and bustle of Houston one bit.
“I would say my favorite thing is how quiet it is,” Sides said. “There was always some noise in Houston, but living up here is utter peace and quiet. I enjoy that and privacy. I also enjoy how much more relaxing it is up here. We also feel part of a community. We all have the same or similar goals for the community, and we all work toward those goals.”
Sides works for the Coldspring-Oakhurst Independent School District, but she helps at the store as much as possible during the school year and in the summer months.
When the father-daughter team bought the vacant building, they decided to make it a general store because they felt that was what the community needed.
“With it being a general store, it allows us to stock more than what you would find at a convenience store,” Young said. “For instance, we have ammo. How many places are you going to find that sell ammunition? And our vendors aren’t concerned where they might be if it was a convenience store, so it opens up a lot of possibilities.”
The Punkin General Store also has a deli—one important reason customers return and new customers come in for the first time.
“The other stuff is a necessity,” Sides said. “People may want a fountain drink or need an ingredient as they cook, but people go out of their way to come eat the burgers. We have a lot of people that come in for the deli sandwiches or the chicken strips. We also do pizzas, but the burgers by far are the biggest draw. We have people come from all over for the burgers.”
The Punkin General Store staff is particular about what items are on the menu in the deli, which likely explains why people stop in to try a burger or other items on the menu they have heard about.
“We are very particular about our food,” Young said. “My wife and I and Renee and her husband taste test any food product we serve. If any of us four don’t like it, then we don’t make it. Whether you get a burger, chicken tenders or a Philly cheese-steak, it is good food and reasonably priced.”
Sides said the employees also add to the menu and now help in the testing process. The chicken tender sandwich and the sliders were employee ideas.
Another need the store hopes to fulfill one day is supplies for scouts at Camp Strake, a Boy Scouts of America camp that’s just a few miles from the store. The camp was planned to open several years ago, but delays and the current pandemic have pushed the opening to 2021.
“The idea was that we would take advantage with the hunting and camping portion of the building,” Young said. “We thought it would take care of the scouts, leaders and parents.”
Punkin General Store has proven very useful to community members during storms. During Hurricane Harvey, for example, the store and surrounding areas were flooded in, according to Sides. The area became an island as Winters Bayou and the San Jacinto River overflowed, and residents could not travel to Huntsville, Conroe or other areas.
“We were all this community had for a while,” Sides said. “We were the only store anyone could come to and shop at during that time. It was wild. We had a line that went around the store and out the door.”
The store lost power for just a few hours during the historic storm and flooding that followed. Even while it was dark, the store remained opened for customers.
“We let people come in with flashlights to shop,” Sides said. “We were just exhausted, but we met the needs of our community, and that was such a rewarding experience to be here for the people of our community when they really needed it. We supported the volunteer fire department during that time, too. We had food and drinks for them as they rescued people.”
Again, earlier this year, the Punkin General Store was open for business when community members were in need during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many restaurants were forced to close their doors and turn off their grills, the Punkin General Store deli stayed open, serving fresh, homemade meals to anyone who came in.
“We offer more of a carryout operation to begin with, so we had a number of people come in from Coldspring to order,” Young said. “Now that those restaurants have reopened, we are still seeing those repeat customers because they enjoy the food and know what they are getting.”
As the pandemic continued, the items in the store changed to better suit the needs of customers. The store started to carry hand sanitizer, face masks and face shields.
“That is one thing about being a general store. When there were shortages on toilet paper or hand sanitizer, we were able to keep a small inventory of those items,” Young said. “The face shields are hard to find in a store in Houston. I found some, and that is why we have them here.”
The heart and soul of a typical small community store like the Punkin General Store aren’t always evident in the orders placed in the deli, the shirts bought or the baby bottles grabbed at the last minute. The true heart and soul are the customers who continue to return and become like family. They congregate on the porch of the store or talk about their lives as they make a purchase. Sometimes they stay and talk after eating, say Young and Sides.
While the pandemic may have brought new customers, it has also taken away some of the extended conversations and gatherings on the porch. Young and Sides are certain the community bond will return as life returns to normal, but they want it to happen soon for the community they serve.