When customers walk through the doors of Carolina Sundries, co-owner Emily Lewis said she hopes they feel a sense of calm. She hopes they take the time to peruse the local brands on each shelf and ask questions. She wants people to walk in as customers and leave as part of the downtown Burlington community — just like she hopes Carolina Sundries will be part of the community.
Carolina Sundries, owned by husband and wife team Casey and Emily Lewis, is a small, local grocery store that focuses on locally-produced brands, sustainability and community building. The store held a soft opening in late January and will have a grand opening on Feb. 5.
“We always thought, ‘what are some things that are missing in downtown Burlington?’” Emily said. “A good, thriving downtown needs a grocery store.”
Starting out in a pandemic
Like many ideas, Carolina Sundries was born out of the pandemic. Emily and Casey own Beechwoods Metalworks, a custom fabrication shop in downtown Burlington. The Lewis’ make a variety of sculptures, such as the “Heart of Downtown” metal gate shaped heart in downtown Burlington.
After purchasing buildings in downtown Burlington to expand their business, but after the pandemic hit, the pair found themselves the owners of an art gallery and two vacant buildings.
“We really started to think about what we could put in here that wouldn't compete with other businesses and would be an added value for the people that live and work downtown,” Emily said. “That's kind of how Carolina Sundries came to be.”
Building the team
While Emily and Casey have a background in business, Emily said building a team that had a background in grocery has been crucial to the opening of Carolina Sundries.
Terry Miller, assistant manager of grocery and produce, said he shares Emily’s goal of making Carolina Sundries a community spot, and loves being part of the team that makes that goal a reality. Miller also roasts coffee beans at The Gilded Bean, a coffee shop in downtown Gibsonville, just 15 minutes away from Carolina Sundries and said he has already seen customers from the Gilded Bean make their way to Burlington.
“It reiterates how close knit communities are, and how much communities want to support local businesses,” Miller said. “Seeing that the community is willing to travel outside of possibly their own town to bordering towns, is just incredible. Because that's still the way that small businesses like this is going to make it — is with the community support.”
While Emily said she and Casey have relied on their great team, expanding has proven difficult. Carolina Sundries offers wages starting at $12 an hour — which is $4.75 more an hour than the state minimum wage of $7.25 — and markets on Indeed and Facebook, but Emily said candidates for positions are few and far between.
“We are still looking for five more positions. We are definitely feeling the effects of the labor shortage,” Emily said. “We're having a hard time but I've heard it across the board from a lot of my other friends who are business owners. It's just difficult.”
Local businesses and sustainability
As customers look at local products and see many Carolina made goods, Emily said she hopes they begin to recognize brands and farmers making the food they love. Carolina Sundries features over 20 locally-owned brands on the shelves, which is what allowed the store to offer sustainable options, Emily said.
“When you’ve got local products, it tends to kind of come along with the territory a little bit, because the packaging is often handmade or it's very minimal because it doesn't have to be in this bulk format,” Emily said.
For products that do not already have minimal or handmade packaging, there are biodegradable produce bags and paper bags for shoppers. In addition to minimal waste packaging and organic options, Carolina Sundries offers sustainable alternatives for everyday cleaning and hygiene products, as well.
While the goal of the store is to be as environmentally friendly as possible, one area that Emily has struggled to make “green” is the deli counter. With supply chain shortages, packaging for the prepared food is hard to come by.
As Emily and the staff at Carolina Sundries prepare for the grand opening on Feb. 5, Emily said she is looking forward to becoming a downtown meeting spot and making Carolina Sundries part of the community.
“We really just want to listen to what Burlington needs,” Emily said. “We want to make sure that we are the destination that people really need.”