Food & Drink

How Grits & Groceries put a tiny Upstate community on the culinary map

Diners enjoy the day’s offerings at Grits & Groceries in Saylors Crossroads.
Diners enjoy the day’s offerings at Grits & Groceries in Saylors Crossroads. COURTESY OF PERRY BAKER/SC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS, RECREATION & TOURISM

Saylors Crossroads could be described as being in the middle of nowhere.

Or it could be called the center of the universe.

It depends on your point of view.

On a map, it is equidistant between Anderson and Due West and slightly south and west of the towns of Honea Path and Belton.

“It’s a good location for day-trippers going to concerts or shows in Abbeville and Newberry and, within a couple of hours, we can be in Asheville, Atlanta or Columbia,” according to resident Heidi Trull.

And for those who love food, Saylors Crossroads is a destination in itself.

Trull and her husband, Joe, are chefs/owners/operators of Grits & Groceries, a restaurant along the southwest corner of Saylors Crossroads, at S.C. 185 and S.C. 284.

The couple moved to South Carolina when Heidi, a Pinewood native, was expecting their first child. They first looked to purchase land around Manning, with the idea of starting their own restaurant, but that deal fell through. While traveling the state to look at other property, the Trulls kept passing through Saylors Crossroads.

They ended up purchasing two acres of land containing two buildings – a store that was “four walls with a single light fixture,” said Heidi, along with a house where they now live. The store was perfect for Heidi’s plan to open a restaurant and soon, with a few modifications, Grits & Groceries came into being.

“We’re happy here,” said Heidi. “I can walk across the yard to work, take my son to school, pick him up in the afternoon and we can have dinner together at night.”

The Trulls brought a rich history of work experience in opening Grits & Groceries. Heidi graduated from Johnson & Wales, then went on to work with Chef Elizabeth Terry at Elizabeth’s in Savannah, the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis and then with Chef Emeril Lagasse at NOLA in New Orleans. After a few years with Lagasse, she opened Elizabeth’s Restaurant in New Orleans.

Joe began his career in his grandfather’s bakery in Winston-Salem, N.C. He then did stints as the pastry chef at La Chaudiere in Winston-Salem, the Glendale Springs Inn & Restaurant (where he met Heidi in 1990 during her apprenticeship there), The Market Place in Asheville and Blue Moon Bakery and NOLA in New Orleans.

With Grits & Groceries, the Trulls wanted to create a fun and casual atmosphere, something just a little removed from their fine dining background.

The restaurant serves “eclectic soul food,” according to Heidi. “It’s using the best ingredients, cooked the way your grandmother would cook.

“We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel. ... I just want to ride the hell out of it.”

She likes to “keep the tax dollars in the ZIP code,” and so her first choice is produce sourced from within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant.

In the beginning it was difficult to get across to growers and producers the amount of fresh, local produce that is needed to sustain the Grits and Groceries menu.

Now, Heidi works with small local farmers as well as growers like Penny Parisi in Abbeville and Hurricane Creek Farms in Pelzer to grow larger amounts of vegetables specifically for the restaurant.

Heidi tells of a local forager who brings in fresh chanterelle mushrooms when in season, and the rancher just up the road who raises cattle, from whom the Trulls purchase one cow a month for fresh beef.

Typically, Heidi will get an email from her suppliers on Sunday letting her know what will be available in the coming week. From that list, she and Joe will create the week’s menu for Grits & Groceries. A recent weekly menu included grilled chicken with fresh peas and beans, a tomato sandwich salad and Greek meatloaf with roasted potatoes and marinated cucumbers and onions.

Trull’s customers include locals, day trippers from the Midlands and other parts of the Upstate, and folks who purposely seek out Grits & Groceries based on profiles that have appeared in national media, including The New York Times, Garden&Gun magazine and CNN.

One of those who seeks out the restaurant is Teresa Hutchinson, who has been making the drive from Spartanburg to tiny Saylors Crossroads “since the place opened.”

“My favorite is the Palmetto burger,” she said on a recent visit. (That hamburger is made from local beef and topped with a big scoop of homemade pimento cheese; $9.50, with fries.)

That’s not to say that everything has been rosy for the Trulls or the restaurant.

During the most recent economic downturn, breakfast service was temporarily discontinued. Being the sole source of income for seven area families – the cooks, waitresses and other restaurant staff – the couple tried everything they could to stay afloat.

They started marketing homemade jams, jellies and relishes on the restaurant’s website, selling pre-made meals at the Greenwood and Anderson farmers markets, and putting together Heidi’s second cookbook (due out in time for the holidays). Their son has gotten into the act by maintaining a feed station for the neighbor’s goats. Customers (adults and children) can buy feed at Grits and Groceries and hand feed the small herd across the street.

“We made a conscious decision to be a part of this community and to make a difference,” Heidi said.

Things eventually turned around, and Grits & Groceries is back serving breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday and dinner on Thursday. The restaurant is reasonably priced – sandwiches range from $6.50 for homemade chicken salad or pimento cheese to $10.50 for a New Orleans shrimp po’ boy. Thursday’s dinner service gives the Trulls a chance to show off their culinary skills (prices range from $8 burgers to $18 pork or beef steaks with seasonal vegetables).

Most customers save room for dessert. Joe’s signatures include peanut butter banana cream pie, vanilla root beer malted pound cake and seasonal ice creams (buttermilk-lemon, cinnamon, and fig were some of the flavors listed on a recent Grits & Groceries menu board).

Heidi recently was named one of four Chef Ambassadors for the state by the S.C. Department of Agriculture. The selection recognizes her commitment to sourcing foods locally through the Certified SC Grown program and for striving to make Grits & Grocery a destination. As a Chef Ambassador, Heidi has done cooking demonstrations at area farmers markets and participated in the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival and the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston.

“I’ve seen what happiness is,” Heidi said of her restaurant and life in Saylors Crossroads, “and I’d like to keep on cooking.”

Savory Catfish Cakes

Makes 6 cakes

1 pound catfish fillets

salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

2 teaspoons creole seasoning (recipe below)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons flour

1 egg

2 cups breadcrumbs

1/4 cup vegetable oil for frying

Remoulade sauce (recipe below)

Season catfish with salt and pepper, to taste.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add catfish and cook until just opaque in the center, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer catfish to a plate to cool.

Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil in skillet and saute the onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and creole seasoning and cook another 30 seconds. Remove from heat and let cool.

Flake catfish fillets into a large bowl. Add onion-garlic mixture, parsley, thyme and flour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix in egg. Shape mixture into six 3-inch diameter cakes. Coat the cakes with breadcrumbs. Heat vegetable oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish cakes and cook until brown and crisp, about 6 minutes per side. Serve with remoulade sauce.

Heidi Trull, Grits and Groceries: Real Food Done Real Good

Creole Seasoning

Makes about 3/4 cup

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 1/2 tablespoons black pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon cayenne

1 teaspoon celery salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon thyme

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and mix thoroughly. Store in an airtight container.

Heidi Trull, Grits & Groceries: Real Food Done Real Good

Remoulade Sauce

About 6 cups

4 cups mayonnaise

1/2 cup dill pickle relish

1/2 cup diced green bell pepper

1/2 cup diced onion

1/4 cup finely chopped tarragon

2 tablespoons creole mustard

1 hard boiled egg

1/4 teaspoon creole seasoning (recipe above)

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Process on high until relatively smooth.

Heidi Trull, Grits & Groceries: Real Food Done Real Good

If you go

Grits & Groceries

Location: 2440 Due West Highway, Saylors Crossroads, Belton (about a two-hour drive from Columbia); (864) 296-3316, www.gritsand

Hours: Open Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; Thursday dinner, 5-9 p.m.