When Alexe Van Beuren and her husband moved to Water Valley, Mississippi, from Washington, D.C., they had no intention of buying a run-down brick building on Main Street. But the former department store, a vestige of the town's glory days, had a charm the couple felt driven to preserve. "We just didn't know what to do with it," says Van Beuren, 31, "which was lucky because it took three years, and seven Dumpsters, to restore the thing."

In May 2010, restoration complete, van Beuren opened the B.T.C. (Be the Change) Old-Fashioned Grocery, selling meats and produce, as well as Southern specialties, including hoop cheese and sugarcane cola. Drawing customers was tough, but she did have a group of regulars who encouraged her to make sandwiches, so she decided to set up a café. The only problem, says van Beuren: "I was woefully unprepared. You can't fake your way through running a restaurant. I hired a cook who made a habit of smuggling in beer in her purse."

After running through five cooks in six months, the business was on its last legs, when in walked Dixie Grimes. A native Mississippian, Grimes had been a chef for more than two decades and had recently returned to the state. Van Beuren hired her on the spot. Within a few months, crowds were coming to try Grimes's biscuits with sausage gravy and chicken sandwiches slathered with pimento cheese. The B.T.C. had become the place to be.

The grocery's influence has expanded beyond its walls, with more small businesses opening on Main Street, including a barbecue joint and two art galleries. "In a small town, you can really see the difference you're making," van Beuren says. And now out-of-towners are taking day trips to Water Valley—just to see what's cooking.


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