5 Star Stories: Shelby Forest General Store’s magic grill and cozy ways draw locals, celebs

Updated: Jan. 12, 2021 at 9:54 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - On the outskirts of Memphis, on the west side of Millington, lies a haven for neighbors on the edge of Shelby Forest. It is a destination for celebrities and international tourists looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

The Shelby Forest General Store is as American as fried apple pie. It’s where you kick up your feet and time stops.

“Drove 500 miles to get a cheeseburger,” one customer could be heard telling his friend before taking a big bite of a juicy general store burger.

Store owners Kristin and Doug Ammons reveled at progress photos of the new hatchlings from the family of Marlin birds nested on their front porch, as Doug told WMC Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony about the store and its lore.

“There is something about coming in here and your stress just peels off and you feel like you’re hugging your granddad, you know, and feeling safe in his arms and here’s your grandmother with her cookies,” Doug explained as tears welled up in his eyes.

He said the emotion came from his passion for the place.

Describing the Shelby Forest General Store is complicated because Doug says it means so many things to so many people, but he knows why people come to his little enclave at the end of Benjestown Road.

“Comfort, tradition, history, love, community, inspiration, dependability, consistency and an awful lot of frivolity,” Doug smiled. “We have a lot of fun in here.”

In 1934, at the tail end of the Great Depression, Emmett Jeter and his wife, Dixie, built and ran the dry goods store dedicated to serving neighbors essentials in the isolated, rural community.

“And then they started cutting meat and cheese, and then they got a drink box, and then it just evolved,” said Doug.

In 2002, Doug was an East Memphis life insurance, finance and estate planner. A client who lived near the store invited him for a burger and a year later, the property was up for sale. Doug looked at the books and threw caution to the wind with no experience.

“This was like loading up a backboard and going cross-country to California, because there’s gold in them there hills, kind of thing,” he chuckled.

There’s bait and tackle, taxidermy and snake skins draped above grocery shelves. Soda pops, BC powder, and chewing gum.

“Probably the fastest growing area right now are jams and jellies and these fresh fried pies,” said Doug.

Legend has it, the store has a magic grill.

“The lore was, you know, there’s flavor from World War II baked into these burgers,” Doug recalled.

“We have world-famous cheeseburgers. They’re $3.99,” Doug nodded.

The burgers sell like hotcakes.

Doug says they sell more burgers than you would ever imagine. There are other comfort foods like chilly cheesesteak, fries and pies. Ammons says the grill is central to the overall General Store experience.

“You’re just sitting there and all of a sudden, the innocence of your youth,” said Doug. “When everything is more right and less jaded, and there’s not any pain or disappointment, or betrayal. That’s what makes the cheeseburger taste that way it does because of where you’re eating it.”

Fans from around the world flock there to the same porch where Millington’s Justin Timberlake and Memphis’ Al Green first met.

Timberlake mentioned the store during the 2009 Grammys.

“Bait, tackle, burgers. That’s where I saw Al Green for the first time,” he told the audience.

Early on, Timberlake would call in his own orders, he has filmed TV specials at the General Store, and once tweeted scavenger hunt clues that sent fans scrambling to find a copy of his album hidden inside.

“The table back there in the dining room,” Doug pointed. “Sure enough, here comes masses of people with their scavenger hunt clues, and they found the album.”

Doug is intensely protective of Timberlake’s privacy. His answer to most questions about the Grammy-winner is that “Justin is the guy to ask about that.” He said he’ll take any crumb the superstar throws their way.

“We’re so appreciative and so respectful,” he said.

He’s also appreciative of customers sticking with them through the store’s current changes because of COVID-19.

“I feel like I owe you all an apology,” he said. “We want you to come see the store. We are here to share the store with you. The magic of the store is the experience and the store is carryout only and that’s a conundrum.”

With his musicians furloughed and the dining room closed, one of the store’s biggest draws, the wildly popular $15.99 Steak Night, is suspended and those cuts of meat are now Ziplocked in secret marinade for customers to cook at home. Families continue to enjoy the temporary takeaway, until the Shelby Forest General Store returns to its splendor, post-pandemic.

“The music is gone. The camaraderie is gone, but the smart Alec is still here,” said Doug as he raised his hand in admission he is that smart Alec. “We’re still at it every day to make sure that this massive experiential heirloom is available for all to enjoy.”

At the start of this winter, the neighborhood cornerstone was faced with new safety restrictions to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

Heading into the winter months with no options other than outdoor seating, the general store launched a GoFundMe to enhance social distancing.

The store is about 15 miles from downtown Memphis. Click the link for the store’s current hours:

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