After closing his BP store to relocate to New Orleans, Mikeâs Handy Foods âNâ Gas owner was convinced by customers to stay and open a new store
Mikeâs Handy Foods âNâ Gas is a convenience store truly born out of customer demand. For five years, âMikeâ (born Muhammad) Aqraa and his wife, Mimi, ran a BP station in Walls, Miss. They had a stable operation with regular customers, but when business took a dip after the BP oil spill, the Aqraas decided to accept an offer to sell their business, and put a deposit on another one in New Orleans.
But all that changed when one by one, customers came to the door of the Aqraasâ home - some staying to talk and others leaving notes - pleading with them not to go and to open another business in town.
âHe knew he had a lot of followers, but he didnât know how many until he sold the BP,â said Mimi Aqraa. âAlmost every customer we had from the old store came to our house. It was overwhelming. One family, in particular, came in tears, saying they didnât know how they were going to manage [without the store]. That was really the turning point for us to buy this [new] store.â
And so after backing out of the New Orleans business âat the last minute,â according to Mimi Aqraa, Mikeâs Handy Foods âNâ Gas was opened for business July 1, in a store location that previously had many owners, but sat vacant for two years prior.
On the day of the grand opening, the store fed more than 540 people for free - with homemade ribs, chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad and other menu items now available at Mikeâs. This is just one indication of the storeâs âfamilyâ mentality.
What is tantamount to the livelihood of so many of Mikeâs small-town customers is the unique way in which they can pay for gas, meals and much-needed groceries - through an informal credit plan based solely on Aqraaâs trust.
âIâve been a customer of Mikeâs for 20 years and followed him through three stores,â said Charles Lucas, a regular customer who happened to be âhanging outâ at Mikeâs on the day CSNews interviewed the Aqraas. âI come to the store every day for hot food and he gives me credit every month until I get my check. I come in and pay him when I get paid, and he does that for anyone who needs it. Mikeâs a very giving, understanding person and heâs an expert at being a store owner. Heâs got all of his old customers and a bunch of new ones, too.â
Aqraa explained he gives âtwo, four, six, 12, and up to 30 days graceâ for customers to pay him. âMany get their checks and pay me on the first or third of the month,â he said. âSome customers come from 15 or 20 miles to buy from here because I take care of them. I make some money, but I keep them happy and I keep them [as customers].â
When Aqraa came to the United States in â91, he learned of this credit method of doing business from an âold-timerâ who explained that was how his father ran a successful grocery business in the 1920s. Despite the fact that it was an out-of-date and perhaps naÃ¯ve way to run a business, Aqraa was intrigued, and it fit how he wanted to treat people in his store.
âI know my husband, and itâs not just about money,â said Mimi Aqraa. âHe has to treat people like he wants to be treated. He needs to feel good inside.â
And it seems customers feel good inside Mikeâs Handy Foods âNâ Gas. The new store has already become something of a âgathering place,â for townsfolk, especially local workers, which includes the fire department and a multitude of retired customers who come in the morning during a late coffee hour - from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. - and again for a late lunch - between 2 and 3 p.m.
The former mayor of Walls, Bobby Smith, is one such retiree. âIâm one of the ones who begged him to stay,â Smith told CSNews. âEverybody likes Mike, and this is where we get the scoop - where we find out whatâs going on in our town.â
It is also where Mimi arrives every day at 4 a.m. to churn out homemade meals. In addition to a static menu, Mikeâs also offers daily plate lunches that change, such as pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and corn bread on Tuesdays; fresh catfish, spaghetti and coleslaw on Fridays, and barbecued ribs on the weekends, according Mimi.
âI make all this personally with another lady who helps me,â she said. âI want to make sure the food is what I would eat. In Europe, itâs a given that you get great food you wouldnât be able to cook yourself in restaurants. Over here, chain restaurants donât seem to care if customers come back or not. We care that our customers come back.â
In order to prepare these homemade meals, the Aqraas put in a brand new kitchen before opening the store. Even more recently, Mimi ordered an extra oven because the first one âgets too hot and dries out the food. I donât like it,â she stated.
Mikeâs Handy Foods âNâ Gas also offers Hunt Brothers pizzas, âbut we go that extra mile and put fresh ham on it or fresh turkey from our deli,â Aqraa explained.
The 2,500-square-foot store was also reconfigured with booths to accommodate more customers. âWe had pub-style tables, but we changed over to booths so we have more space and more seating,â she said.
For comments, please contact RenÃ©e M. Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].