By Liz Thomas and Kristen Pope
Cliff’s Meat Market has been a Carrboro staple for 34 years, but Cliff Collins’ meat marketing journey started way before his store opened.
Located at 100 West Main St., Cliff’s is in the heart of town, just walking distance from the Carrboro Century Center and Weaver Street Market. If Carrboro were a boneless steak, Cliff’s would be the juicy pink center.
Cliff greets everyone who walks into his store, remembering familiar names and faces. And new customers are likely to find a connection with Cliff because he is so involved in the town of Carrboro.
To Cliff, hospitality is the central part of his business. As a one of nine children, he is all about personal relationships. He opens the door for customers, shaking their hands and asking about their days.
Cliff calls the chance to meet new people a “blessing from God” and the reason he stays in the meat business.
“I could do other things and make more money,” he said.
But he knows his calling is in the meat market.
Cliff first came to Carrboro after flunking English at Pittsboro High School. Since he had to take summer school in the morning, his only option for a night job was pumping gas in Carrboro.
“This one guy who I pumped gas for said, ‘I want you to come work for me,’” Cliff said. “I had hair like Elvis Presley’s. I guess I looked sort of like a redneck, but he hired me anyway.”
That man was the owner of Andrews-Riggsbee grocery store, located on Main Street near where The Speakeasy is today.
When school started in the fall, Cliff, a senior in high school then, had to beg his guidance counselor for permission to do work-study. Five years later, Cliff was meat manager and people knew him by name, Cliff said.
“It was a decent salary, I got to meet new people and was able to eat good,” he said.
He attended college for one year at Central Carolina Community College to study industrial maintenance, but he was doing so well bringing home the bacon in the store that he realized his future was working with people, not studying textbooks.
Cliff wanted to open his own meat market, and bought Hardee’s Grocery, which was at the same location as his store today, by selling his tractor, his pick-up truck and his motorcycle to make the first payment.
When deciding what to name his store, he realized his greatest asset was the fact that his customers trusted his name. At the risk of sounding conceited, he settled on simply naming the store Cliff’s Meat Market, he said.
Cliff said he grew up in a time when he saw meat vendors cheat their customers by aiming at profit instead of providing quality goods. He says he emphasizes honesty in his dealings with people, because his repeat customers are the basis of his business.
He remembers the first customer he called his “own”, a woman who he met while managing the meat market at Andrews-Riggsbee. She had a reputation for being a particular and difficult customer, Cliff said, but due to Cliff’s sociable personality, he looked forward to waiting on her.
“Now I’m waiting on her grandchildren,” Cliff said.
Cliff’s niece, Jerri Roberson, works full-time behind the cash register, and Cliff makes a point to hire bilingual staff to accommodate Carrboro’s growing Hispanic population, he said.
Working in the meat business since his teenage years, Cliff continues to watch the town grow and develop. He said his customers vary from “people walking the street to Roy Williams to William Friday.” He even remembers when John Edwards used to come into the store, Cliff said.
Cliff has deep connections with the community. He lets friends borrow his truck to transport meat for their church cookout, shares staff with fellow local business-owners and has a fiery opinion about the preacher who sold the church that is now the Carrboro Century Center.
Dabbling in real estate on the side, Cliff rents out apartments next to the store. He puts his maintenance schooling to work by remodeling and making improvements to his store.
With changes in the meat industry and in the culture of the town, Cliff offers what the customers want. He sells more organic meat now and even fills requests for organic dog cutlets, he said. Like the strong bamboo skewer holding together the medley of meat and vegetables, Cliff’s offer a community connection that even vegetarians can appreciate.
Even with Carrboro’s changing flavor, the friendly faces and down-home atmosphere make Cliff’s a Grade A staple of the town. Having marinated for 34 years, Cliff’s Meat Market adds a spice to the delicious environment of Carrboro.
For more information, check out http://www.cliffsmeat.qpg.com/.