Joe Brais opens Rockwell Grocery Mart on Crescent Road
OCKWELL — Joe Brais likes his new corner of the world.
He knows most everybody who walks in the door at Rockwell Grocery Mart and he can predict what they’ll buy.
Gene Overcash stops in frequently for the grape juice that comes in a glass bottle.
“Is it summer?” Brais asks.
It’s an obvious comment on Overcash’s gym shorts, given it’s a cold winter day.
“I just came from the Y,” Overcash says on his way back to the cooler.
For some of his customers, Brais brings out a notebook and writes down their snacks, drinks or groceries on credit. They’ll pay him later, he explains, after they get paid themselves.
“When he came, he reached out to this community,” says Wayne Morton, a regular customer. “He was willing to help a lot of folks in this area. He has a big heart … knowing he wouldn’t get paid for some of the things he did.
“I think he’s original and sincere.”
Of Lebanese descent, Brais relocated to North Carolina from California five years ago.
Always a high-stress entrepreneur, investor and salesman, Brais bought this corner at 605 Crescent Road, which operated as Ray’s Auto & Trading Center.
About the same time, he and his wife, Kelly, purchased a home in Charlotte. Their children, Sayde and Ayed, attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Brais eventually took over operation of the Rockwell property as a car lot, changing the name to Sayde’s Auto Sales NC. (His brother Simon, also a Charlotte resident, was a partner.)
When that venture sputtered after a year or so, Brais decided to convert half of the 5,000 square feet of building into a small grocery — probably the business he knows best.
The hair-pulling transformation took from the summer of 2009 until the spring of 2010, and he has grown the store’s business since then, one customer at a time. To save money, he flipped the sign that said Sayde’s Auto Sales and on the reverse side named the new store Rockwell Grocery Mart.
“It’s like God wants me here,” Brais says. “I enjoy it. It’s like the first real business that I enjoy.”
He has resisted the suggestions to sell gas, opting instead for the feel of a general store. The place has a wide front porch with swings to sit on. Inside, he hopes to create a comfortable gathering spot in a semi-circle around the front fireplace.
It’s not ready yet.
“You have to crawl before you walk,” Brais says.
Morton says he buys his dog food at Rockwell Grocery Mart because it’s convenient and, besides, he likes to talk with Brais and hear his stories.
“He tries to be competitive, and he’s gracious enough to make special orders,” Morton says. “He’s a character. It’s good to have a conversation with Joe.”
While the rest of his family has continued to live in Charlotte, where Kelly sells real estate, Brais has made the store virtually a one-man operation. He spends his nights in a little studio apartment on the side of the store and is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and from noon to 7 p.m. Sundays.
Kelly often helps at the store on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, and his children pitch in at times. If a customer needs something delivered, he’ll often ask a friend at the store to drop it by, or he’ll deliver it himself after closing.
As his father did in the old country, Brais often trades for things he or someone else needs.
At the store, customers like to pet the neighbor’s cat, which walks in and out regularly. They also enjoy the two goats, rooster, four hens and four ducks Brais has in the side yard.
Brais’ father was a sheep herder in Lebanon who had five boys and a girl. In 1967, when Joe was 9, the family moved to Stockton, Calif., initially to help an uncle with his pocket bread bakery.
The children found other jobs, such as picking tomatoes and cherries, cutting grass, washing windows, painting and clerking in stores.
Brais quit school in the 10th grade and owned his own little grocery store — the Bi-Lo Market — by age 18. His father, who worked at a box factory by then, had to sign the papers that allowed him to sell alcohol.
By 21, Brais owned three stores. He can still recite the telephone numbers and addresses of those locations. Over the years, Brais also repossessed cars, invested in property, ran a Modesto supermarket, owned car lots and a juice company and worked as a bounty hunter.
He flips open his wallet to show his bounty hunter badge.
“I kept myself busy, let me put it that way,” Brais says.
Brais has a 30-year-old son from his first marriage who operates a Sayde’s Auto Sales in California.
Brais married Kelly in 1986, six months after first laying eyes on her behind a store counter and telling his friend that he would marry that girl some day.
A trip to see his brothers in North Carolina and meet officials with Tri-State Carports in Cana, Va. (for whom he sold buildings), persuaded Brais that he wanted to live here, even though it meant his family would be leaving everything they knew in California.
But all those years of traveling and working non-stop in his various endeavors left Brais feeling old and stressed out — to the max. His doctor gave him two years to live at the rate he was going.
“I’ll be 52 in March,” he says. “I feel like I’m 80.”
The new store has been his refuge. And it has plenty of room to grow, when needed.
The friends he’s making in Rockwell — “I joke, we have fun,” he says of his banter with customers — are helping with the stress level, even when business is slow.
“It’s like I’m on vacation here,” he says. “I love this place. This is it for me.”