Shepherdtown: A Robinson Grocery Burger & The Country Market
When I was a boy I remember stopping at little roadside grocery stores where we would get a lunch of bologna—hand sliced from a roll so one side was thick, the other thinning into nothingness—on white bread, a bag of chips, and a soft drink. I was fond of peach Nehi.
The country grocery store was a vital part of a rural community. It had basic groceries, often a couple of gas pumps, a lunch time restaurant for working hands, and served as a meeting place for the locals. My Uncle Danny had his own such little store (no gas pumps) when I was very small. Even after it closed its porch was the local gathering place on summer nights. Sometimes we would pitch horseshoes as long as light would hold.
Those sorts of places are few and far between now. Dollar General stores, chain gas marts, and the habit of going to town to shop have long put them out of business.
I was intrigued when Lora Smith of Big Switch Farm in Jackson County recommended a good place to get a cheeseburger near the Clay-Jackson county line. I went to elementary school not far from there, and as it’s not too far from my parents’ house I packed up my daughters to go exploring.
We found Robinson Grocery on the side of US HWY 421 in an area known as Shepherdtown, north of Burning Springs and Sexton’s Creek in Clay County (Google Maps struggles to pinpoint it, but it’s about 18 miles north of Manchester. If you get to the Jackson County line, you went too far.). The building is modern, neat, and well kept. Opposite the front door back in the corner we found the food counter with a menu board above.
You could order just about anything relatively easy to fix you might imagine. There is the ubiquitous Hunt Brothers Pizza (I admit I’ve never had one), but also a “piece of fish,” the good ol’ bologna sandwich as well as burgers and eastern Kentucky favorite chili buns and dogs.
A pleasant lady took our order—we were the only customers at the past-lunch hour—and told us it would be about 15 minutes. She went to work fixing burgers and a chili dog while we surveyed the drink case, and although they did have Nehi, I couldn’t resist an Ale-8-One.
The seating consisted of chairs around two long folding tables against the back wall. The latest newspapers and a selection of magazines sat stacked beside ashtrays. Although we were the only ones there at the time, Lora told me that it’s usually the local gathering place for the local old men.
Our food was brought to us hot and on an actual dinner plate, the kind you would find at your mother’s house, along with an actual metal fork.
The food itself—excellent. The burger was hot and juicy, a better burger than you will find at many specialty burger restaurants. Since it’s Clay County, I will say it’s perhaps not on a level with the legendary Pat’s burger, but it’s so good you won’t even be thinking about that.
One daughter ordered the chili dog, and gave it high marks. Eastern Kentucky hot dog chili (also served on a bun sans-dog as a chili bun) uses finely ground meat and no beans, which gives it a relatively smooth texture. I tasted the chili, and it was “right”. They told me they don’t make their own chili, but they’ve done an admirable job sourcing it.
As we were eating an older gentleman sauntered by and began to settle in at the other table in the back. I suspect he was settling in to greet the friends who would soon arrive to complain about current events and laugh together at re-told stories.
Mr. Robinson, I presumed, rang up our bill at the counter on the way out. I complimented his burgers, which pleased him. He asked if I was from out of town. I explained we were visiting my parents in nearby Fogertown. “Who’s your father?” he asked. I told him, and he smiled and nodded. “I know who you are, then.”
That made the already eaten burger taste even better.
14354 N Hwy 421
(~18 miles north of Manchester, ~5 miles south of Tyner
on the Clay side of the Clay-Jackson line)