LEXINGTON, Ky. — Foxborough, Mass., native Debbie Morris relocated to Kentucky’s horse country with her husband and son several years ago. After getting the lay of the land, she acquired Silver Streak Market in Lexington.
Sold to the couple by a former owner whose store hours topped out at eight per day, Morris and her husband Joe went all in to revitalize a store Morris calls “a diamond in the rough.” They whipped the 1,200-square-foot unit into shape by painting inside and out, deep cleaning and scouring, and hanging barn board on walls to provide a rustic touch.
They also hired a local artist to paint a horse mural on the side of the building and expanded hours of operation.
Another immediate investment—inspired by Morris’ son John who is paralyzed—was to install handicap ramps to make sure the store was handicap-accessible for all inside and out.
“I believe in the idea of a having a retail store where folks can come in and buy butter, milk, eggs, and have a nice lunch. We offer grocery-store prices, the same as the local Kroger—I’m not here to gouge my neighbors,” Morris said.
Why a C-Store?
Friends and family were frankly bowled over when Morris announced the intent to acquire Silver Streak Market in 2020: “They said, ‘What are you crazy, what made you do that?’,” Morris recounted.
There’s a method to that madness. For starter, there’s fiscal responsibility. Morris is good at balancing budgets, and was confident the store could operate in the black. Her primary wholesale distributor is Sam’s Club, where Morris buys the lion’s share of inventory at the club store—and at optimal prices. She also does work through national suppliers such as McKee Foods/Little Debbie, Frito-Lay and others.
Then there’s logistics and succession: “We live about 1 mile from the store, where we own a horse farm near Keeneland Racetrack. For my son John, I want him to carry on the business someday. And buying Silver Steak was personal: I grew up with a neighborhood store nearby, where people would gather. I felt a tug to get into the business,” said Morris, who has not hired anyone outside the family because she doesn’t want “to train people while she’s training herself.”
During COVID, when she took the reins of Silver Streak Market, the first 60 days were hard to assess, having no benchmarks to compare success or failure. One thing was certain: “The former owner didn’t do what he should have—his store hours were maybe 11 a.m. to 4 p.m,” Morris said. “And the store needed a lot of work: It wasn’t in the best condition. When we opened, we found that people were appreciative about what we brought to the table.”
The biggest stressor was mask-mandate enforcement. “We nicely asked people to put on masks. It’s a very political environment, and I had to keep my mouth shut. But the great thing was that my core clientele are local horse breeding farms, and they all have strict safety protocols. We knew all our customers were safe,” Morris said.
Building a Menu
Morris boasts several years of restaurant industry experience, which helped her imagine and execute the foodservice offer. The menu is elaborate, including beef enchiladas, seasoned ground beef served on crunchy tortillas, pollo camper and spicy fried chicken topped with fry sauce and a side of french fries—quality food available in the $12 to $14 range.
On its Facebook page, the store touts “Chef Selvin’s Weekly Specials.” A native of Honduras who migrated to New York where he worked developing Italian cuisine recipes, Selvin “is very talented—it’s an asset to have that reputation tied to the store,” Morris said. “I have a farmstand out back, and in the warmer months we grow the fresh herbs, tomatoes, jalapenos, watermelons and cucumbers all used for the recipes.”
What’s Up With Fuel?
An unbranded fuel retailer, Morris buys her fuel supply from Clark Oil. Regarding competition, there’s a Speedway, Shell and Marathon in close proximity.
She and her husband are getting a rude awakening into the volatile gasoline market. “I bought 3,000 gallons in early May and the load was $12,000, or $4,000 more than just a few weeks earlier,” she said. “As a ‘little guy’ it’s hard for me to play that game, so I match gas price with competitors.”
Morris feels the same as most retailers regarding customers and their sentiments about price gouging. “People think we’re gouging on price, but I’m quick to tell them that we don’t make much on fuel. And it’s also hard to keep up with local prices. One customer told me recently that my gas was 10 cents lower than the local Speedway. When the day began, we matched Speedway’s price—a few hours later they were 10 cents higher,” Morris said.
Morris said that she’ll make do with her single multipump dispenser, because acquiring a new one is cost-prohibitive, running $20,000. And because it’s a legacy multipump dispenser, Morris doesn’t offer card swipe at the forecourt, so customers have to enter to pay. The upside: “That gets them into the store to buy food, lottery, staples and more,” she said.
What’s Hot Besides Food?
“I make honey on-site, and people come from a distance to buy it. I also have a lot of unique craft items that are part of our general merchandise department, including Mexican boots and horse racing paraphernalia. It’s a lot of rare and unique items. You can come in and there’s always something different in stock,” Morris said.
All told, Morris has come a long way from the days growing up in the Northeast. She is using several skills to make a big difference.One of them is that people recognize her from both local TV and newspapers. For a decade, Morris wrote a column for the Lexington Herald-Leader called the “Fru-Gal,” which counseled people on how to shop wisely.
“I also had a regular TV appearance on WKYT’s (Lexington) morning program that offered advice on prudent spending. I’ve always worked hard to stretch a budget. Since taking over Silver Streak, inventory management is a key part of the operation,” she said.
In the true spirit of handicapping horse races at nearby Keeneland, the odds are with Morris—such that the betting windows are now closed.
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