Lexington Grocery Celebrates a Century of Reliable Service
Conrad & Hinkle Food Market has been a family business since 1919By Craig Distl | Photos courtesy of Lexington Tourism Authority
Video by Brent Kennedy
It’s a typical Tuesday and Lee Hinkle is where he’s been most every Tuesday of his adult life — working his family’s grocery market, Conrad & Hinkle, on the square in downtown Lexington. Memories flow as he talks about an upcoming Tuesday (Feb. 12, 2019) that will be anything but typical. It’s the day this beloved hometown institution celebrates 100 years in business.
Lee shares a story about a customer who came in during the 1990s and realized her family’s account, which hadn’t been used in years, carried an unpaid balance. The account, she said, was important because it helped her parents get through the Great Depression. The ledgers revealed a $300 balance, so she wrote a check for twice that amount and said, “I hope this will cover the interest.”
As Lee finishes the story, Judy Black enters with a sack of pecans collected by her family and shelled by hand. Lee is glad to see her and buys the entire sack (“We’ve been doing ‘local’ for 100 years, he says.”) Check in hand, Judy leaves with a friendly reminder to bring in more pecans soon.
Simple and reliable
There’s a genuineness at Conrad & Hinkle that started back in February of 1919 when Lee Hinkle’s great-grandfather, Walter Conrad, and grandfather, Odell Hinkle, set up shop. And it continues today under a fourth generation of leadership.
“As soon as you walk in, they are welcoming you and more than likely calling you by name. That is personalized service you don’t get in larger operations,” says Lexington mayor Newell Clark. “It’s just part of the DNA at Conrad & Hinkle.”
While Lee is proud to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his family’s business, in many ways he sees it as a natural extension of what he and his brother, Jim, learned as kids working for their grandfather, Odell, and later for their father, Dwight.
There’s no magic formula, Lee says, nor does he feel he’s done anything special. “I like to keep it simple,” he says.
Perhaps therein lies the secret. In a world of electronic scanners, self-checkout counters and 12 different flavors of the same sports drink, there’s comfort in the simplicity of places like Conrad & Hinkle.
“We don’t have all the selection the Walmarts, Food Lions and big box stores have, but we have a personal touch. Like our meat department, everything is cut to order,” Lee explains. “It’s service, it’s quality, and you can walk in here and talk to one of us and we can tell you how something is because we’ve tried it.”
Generations of service
Lee believes credit for the store’s success goes to his grandfather, father and staff. Odell Hinkle took over in 1927 when Walter Conrad’s health declined. He ran it for decades and when people asked why he didn’t shorten the name to Hinkle’s, he said it was too costly to change the signs. Although frugal, Odell made wise investments. In 1941, he installed what was believed to be the second walk-in freezer in North Carolina. Home freezers were an uncommon luxury at that time, so customers rented space in the freezer, still in use today.
Dwight Hinkle started full time in the 1950s and ran the store for decades until handing it over to Lee and Jim in 1990. Dwight, who was Lexington’s mayor from 1978–1985, kept the store afloat during the economic downturn of the early 1970s and set the stage for a fourth generation of the Hinkle family to carry on the tradition.
Lee eventually bought out his brother’s share and says that someday his teenage son, John, might take the helm.
In the meantime, there are canned goods to stock, pimento cheese to deliver and groceries to bag. Yes, at 56, the owner still does those things on a regular basis.
“Recently I was carrying groceries to the car for a man who was 93 years old and he told me he could remember coming in here when he was a boy,” Lee says. “Generations of people have shopped here their whole lives, so we must be doing something right.”
Legendary pimento cheese
Conrad & Hinkle produces more than 1,500 pounds of pimento cheese per week, which started with Grandma Hinkle’s recipe in the 1940s. Customers loved it then, and they love it now. It is available in house, as well as at a number of stores throughout the Piedmont — Lee Hinkle runs a weekly delivery route to keep the stores stocked. Find their pimento cheese closer to home.