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THE COUNTRY GOURMET

IT WASN'T the butter bean sheller, or the huge, old-fashioned butcher's block in the meat department. And it wasn't the reputation of the small, community market that had become a landmark on U.S. Route 17 in northern Suffolk that concerned J.C. Matthews, owner for more than 30 years. No - when Matthews negotiated with Jim Shirley to sell Bennett's Creek Market, the men agreed on every issue but one. "You can't have the cow," Matthews said. After all, the elderly gentleman, who had done so much for the community, and the cow had been through a lot together. The black-and-white Holstein moved from a restaurant just down the road that the family operated years ago to stand on the market's roof. She'd been stolen, hit by a police car, battered, repaired and finally returned. But beyond its sentimental value, the cow was a sign of the country-good freshness the market represented.  Now, nearly nine months after the sale, Betsy, as she's been dubbed by the market's new owners, is still on the roof, and - if she could - she'd probably be mooing with pride over the expanded goodness she represents.  "We're carrying gourmet coffee, wine, Bergey Dairy products, Sweet Temptations baked goods, Boar's Head meats," said Linda Ciola, chef for the new deli and prepared foods section. "And now we have central heat and central air. Before, there were space heaters." Shirley, semi-retired from Royster-Clark Industries and still on the company's board of directors, purchased the market last fall.  Shirley's idea was to retain most of the market's reputation for fresh - locally grown - vegetables, and fresh meats. But he wanted more. Martha Shirley said she and her husband realized at the time of the purchase that Suffolk was changing, especially the land-rich city's northern end, where more and more folks were rushing to escape the urban sprawl and traffic in other Hampton Roads cities.  Shirley wanted to add items that those folks had been accustomed to getting in areas like Norfolk's Ghent, Portsmouth's Olde Towne and Virginia Beach. His idea from the start was for wines and gourmet food items, his wife said. "He's a visionary," Martha Shirley said. As the changes evolved, Matthews nodded his head in agreement, said one of his two daughters who still works at the market. "I think Daddy is real happy with it," Wendy Gillie said. "Things could have gone so many different ways. But the market has stayed the same - and it's gotten so much better." And, finally, Matthews told Shirley: "I want you to keep the cow."  His employees agree that Shirley has done a fine job. He has taken the small, country market in hand, and - while retaining the flavor - he's expanded its product line and added a much-welcomed gourmet touch. "Mr. Shirley has let me do whatever I want to do, and he's provided the best ingredients," Ciola said.  The new, prepared foods line started with a North Carolina-style barbecue recipe provided by Jimmy Harrell, a market employee. Next came "Creek Slaw," a spicy version of traditional cole slaw that's been a hit with customers. The prepared foods expanded from there.  "At first, Mr. Shirley said he wanted country cooking," Ciola said. "I found out that a lot of people like that, but a lot of people also are looking for low-fat, low-cholesterol foods. So I'm doing a little of both. And, mainly, I try to keep the prices affordable for people who work and don't want to cook." Today, Ciola prepares for the deli section two soups a day, four or five entrees and eight to ten side dishes. A typical daily menu might include stuffed chicken breasts, stuffed pork chops, meatloaf with cheese and marinara sauce, baby back ribs or fried chicken, marinated with a special blend of herbs and spices. The selection of side dishes goes from black bean salad to asparagus salad to pasta salads.  In addition to the fresh vegetables and its own prepared foods, the market now also offers a number of regional brands.  The market will continue offering fresh, locally grown vegetables throughout the summer, many of them still being supplied by Matthews' farm, others grown in a field just outside the back door.  Best of all, Betsy the cow has won a real place of honor. Why, even the hand towels, pot holders, and aprons worn by the deli staff are in the black-and-white Holstein design.

Published: Sunday, June 7, 1998 Section: FLAVOR , page F1 
Source:BY LINDA McNATT, STAFF WRITER   © 1998 Landmark Communications Inc.

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