The Coolest Place to Be in West Texas? This Remote Grocery Store

The French Co. Grocer in Marathon, Texas, is a grocery store of sorts, but giving it that name wouldn't quite do it justice.

The French Co. Grocer in Marathon, TX

Scott Del Vecchio

The town of Marathon in West Texas is, more or less, meant for passing through. There's the famous Gage Hotel, the most haunted hotel in the state (with a story of its own worth telling), and a population of roughly 400 people. It's about 75 miles from Big Bend National Park, which cruising at Texas Highway speeds, is shorter than you might expect. And that's about it. Well, there's one more thing in this small desert town. Among the desert sagebrush and the ocotillo crawling toward the cloudless sky sits a new store. Not new in construction, but new in ownership, management, and ethos. 

The French Co. Grocer is a grocery store of sorts, but giving it that name wouldn't quite do it justice. General store, in the broadest sense, is as close as you can get to defining it. And even though it has just four aisles, if you find yourself out in Marathon, you can easily spend an entire day meandering through them, or sprawled out in the backyard, sipping espresso, natural wine, or maybe both. If you come on the right day, you might even be able to grab a hamburger fresh off the grill, made with local Texas grass-fed cattle, served alongside potato chips fried in-house.  

One of the best ways of describing the store's evolution from a convenience store to whatever it is now exactly is by tracing the story of its soda fountain. It was a six-slot machine filled with the usual options: Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Brisk Iced Tea. Now, in its place, sits a small and unimposing espresso machine. 

The French Co. Grocer in Marathon, TX

Scott Del Vecchio

It may not seem like a big deal, but in this town, it's news. Beyond being difficult to maintain — the water is as hard as it gets out in Marathon —there was only one other machine before this in the town. 

"That espresso machine just wasn't doing it for me, so I decided I wanted one in the store," Sam Stavinhoa, the owner of the French Co. Grocer, part-time software developer, and self-described masochist, tells me. 

Espresso isn't the only change Stavinhoa has made. The stock inside the store has shifted dramatically since Stavinhoa took ownership, with the addition of natural wine, craft ciders, fresh produce, hiking equipment, rubber bands (for free-thinkers, the package reads), tinned fish, and plenty more. 

"I carry what I like and what I think people like," Stovinhoa says. He adds that he frequently makes the 600-mile drive to Austin with a trailer to pick up ciders or wines for the store.

Beyond carrying these rare delicacies out in the desert, Stavinhoa has also worked to ensure the store carries another important and difficult-to-find item: Fresh produce.

The French Co. Grocer in Marathon, TX

Scott Del Vecchio

Most of West Texas is a designated food desert. While getting fresh produce in the store wasn't a big issue, since Marathon is on a popular truck route, keeping it fresh was a big problem. The refrigerator systems in the store were out of date, so Stavinhoa had them replaced and can now carry leafy greens and other fresh produce. This means locals don't have to drive 30 minutes to the nearest grocery store or 50 minutes to the nearest Walmart. 

But the store's ethos goes beyond what sits on the shelves and in the cold fridges. Community impact is a driving force here, which is why it holds concerts and other events throughout the year. And, every Friday, the store hosts a burger night and encourages the locals to come out. 

For a hamburger and a side, it's $15, which many locals find expensive, but Stavinhoa insists it's real beef, a real burger, and potato chips made in-house make it worth it. He puts on his website and proudly announces to anyone that if they can find any establishment in America that sells a local beef ⅓ of a pound patty for less, they can have dinner for free. No one has taken him up on the offer.

Of course, pricing for Stavinhoa is a big issue. In fact, he describes the store's buying power as "smaller than one person walking into a Walmart." But Stavinhoa prices items fairly and doesn't pay himself a salary from the store. 

"If I wanted to run a business, I would've become a businessman," Stavinhoa says. "If I wanted to make more money, I'd write more code," he adds, "but that isn't what this store is about." 

For Stavinhoa, the whole project is built around "people from different walks of life having moments together in this space, who would otherwise never go to the same place," he says, adding that "otherwise, it basically has no meaning."

"I let shitheads be shitheads," Stavinhoa says. "Not a lot of places do that anymore." 

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