Aaron Pratt and John B. Roberts

Aaron Pratt, left, and John B. Roberts stand in front of what will be the C&B Community Store.

It’s one of the most recognized buildings in Orange County. With its white, cinderblock facade featuring a painted farm face-off between a rooster and a bull, the structure draws attention and curiosity from locals, passersby and Instagrammers.

If all goes as planned, the building will soon again come to life as a the C&B Community Store. John B. Roberts and Aaron Pratt have hammered out a business plan that will include a convenience store; a kitchen that will serve breakfast and lunch; three fuel pumps and one kerosene pump; and a wood-fired pizza offering in the evenings on weekends.

Roberts will be the owner and Pratt will be the operations manager. The building is at the corner of Highway 86 and West Sawmill Road.

“The building will have a lot of aesthetic uplifts and changes, but the historic core will remain the same,” said Pratt, who is an experienced chef and will oversee the kitchen staff. “John and I are planning a forward-thinking business in what is a kind of commercial desert. There are farms in the area, which will be great for us. There will be a lot of local produce that I will use as chef. Our plan is to incorporate local agricultural products, whether they be pickles or Haw River Mushrooms and other items. We’re planning to start small, make some headway, build some business and then keep expanding.”

A 15-acre plot of land behind the building will grow produce that will be used at the C&B Community Store.

What will not be changed is the mural that quickly became a landmark after Roberts painted it on the front of the building in 2015. The picture is a representation of the old expression “a cock and bull story,” which means “a fanciful tale.”

Roberts said the bull is actually Ferdinand the Bull, a character from his favorite childhood book. The rooster is “Cocky,” the mascot for the University of South Carolina. Roberts is a graduate of USC.

When he purchased the building 2014, Roberts was unaware of the challenges he would face turning his ‘fanciful tale’ into a story with a happy ending.

The 1926 building was originally owned by the White Family, who also lived in the space above the store. Decades later, the Villines Family operated the store and gas station. In the 1970’s, the Snipes Family took over the building. 

They added the grill space and later a game room at the rear. 

The Snipes’ ran the business until the mid-1990’s until it was determined that the underground fuel tanks on the property could leak and contaminate the ground. A state program made it possible for the old underground tanks to be removed and replaced. The condition for this, though, was that no well could be dug within 1,000 feet of the building.

Without a well, a business couldn’t have drinking water. As a result, the Snipes closed their business and the building sat vacant for years.

“A few businesses tried shortly after the Snipes closed the store but, without water, were unable to continue and from there it just sat,” Roberts said. “It was locked up and left. They kept the power on, but that’s about it.”

For several years, Roberts was unable to make any progress on his desire to reopen the space. But then he figured out a way to make it happen. 

Roberts purchased 15 acres of undeveloped land to the rear of the property. His plan is to put the well on his farm land — more than 1,000 feet away — and run water to his business. In spite of his plan, Roberts still wound up having to sue the county to get a permit for his well. 

The county finally relented. “We received an email from the county saying it’s OK to dig the well and run the water from the well to supply the C&B,” Roberts said. “Now, I can get on with spending all the money on getting the architecture and structural work done. Hopefully, by the end of this month, we’ll have all the information to satisfy the county and get the permit. We’re tying in the well permit with the construction permit.”

Roberts hired Anna Wirth of Flock Design and Architecture to handle the project. Wirth specializes in renovation architecture.

And, if all goes well, the C&B will open Nov. 15, which is Roberts’ 52nd birthday. 

“My goal is to get that thing open for my birthday,” he said. “I bought the place when I turned 46.”

“We’re hoping ultimately to employ 10 to 15 people there within a year,” said Pratt, who had been seeking an opportunity to expand on his mobile wood-fired pizza business when he met Roberts.

“My mobile pizza business, Rotelle Mobile Pizza Oven, started as an offshoot of the Eddy Pub in Saxaphahaw,” Pratt said. “I was a sous chef there for years and they wanted to do pizza, so they invested in a mobile pizza oven. I felt like the business was outgrowing its space at the Eddy Pub, so I bought out their portion.” 

Pratt met Roberts in February 2020 after a friend told him he was looking for someone to do wood-fired pizza. 

“So, I drove my mobile pizza to the corner where the C&B is and I cooked him a pizza,” Pratt said. “We’ve been working together since, I think since April, putting together ideas for the business.” 

Pratt admitted it’s a tricky time to be starting a business. Still, he and Roberts believe there is some advantage in being able to plan the C&B Community Store with the pandemic in mind.

“There will be no indoor seating,” Pratt said. “We will have picnic tables and possibly an outdoor area, but it’s not going to be a full-service restaurant. We’re going to try to keep everything outdoors. Certainly for the start of things. We’re trying to simplify the whole set up and keep the current environment in mind with regard to the pandemic. It’s just not a practical time to build an indoor dining area or a bar.”

Pratt said he and Roberts were considering opening a bar and pizza joint, but the two decided it would be unwise.

The coronavirus situation has also been considered with regard to the plan for the fuel pumps. Pratt said the C&B may offer full service for fueling so customers will not have to leave their vehicles.

“People are really excited about it,” Pratt said. “There are a lot of people who drive that road who would like a spot to grab a bite to eat. There are people who remember the old-style stores where you could go in and get your chicken salad or pimento cheese served up by someone behind a counter. We want to bring that back. We’re planning a deli case inside with all the different classic southern spreads. We’ll be making a lot of our own bread. The General Store in Saxaphahaw is something of a model for what we want to do. I want to provide a unique and quality product to people.”

For Roberts, finally getting the C&B Community Store open stays true to something he learned from his parents and grandparents: waste not, want not.

“Finding existing commercial structures that are in really bad shape and then restoring them,” Roberts said. “That’s what my passion is. And then finding people who can operate them.”