Begged Into Business

After closing his BP store to relocate to New Orleans, Mike’s Handy Foods “N” Gas owner was convinced by customers to stay and open a new store

Mike’s Handy Foods “N” Gas is a convenience store truly born out of customer demand. For five years, “Mike” (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 Aqraas’ home - some staying to talk and others leaving notes - pleading with them not to go and to open another business in town.

“He knew he had a lot of followers, but he didn’t know how many until he sold the BP,” said Mimi Aqraa. “Almost every customer we had from the old store came to our house. It was overwhelming. One family, in particular, came in tears, saying they didn’t know how they were going to manage [without the store]. That was really the turning point for us to buy this [new] store.”

And so after backing out of the New Orleans business “at the last minute,” according to Mimi Aqraa, Mike’s Handy Foods “N” 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 Mike’s. This is just one indication of the store’s “family” mentality.

What is tantamount to the livelihood of so many of Mike’s 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 Aqraa’s trust.

“I’ve been a customer of Mike’s for 20 years and followed him through three stores,” said Charles Lucas, a regular customer who happened to be “hanging out” at Mike’s on the day CSNews interviewed the Aqraas. “I 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. Mike’s a very giving, understanding person and he’s an expert at being a store owner. He’s got all of his old customers and a bunch of new ones, too.”

Aqraa explained he gives “two, four, six, 12, and up to 30 days grace” for customers to pay him. “Many get their checks and pay me on the first or third of the month,” he said. “Some 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].”

When Aqraa came to the United States in ‘91, he learned of this credit method of doing business from an “old-timer” 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 naïve way to run a business, Aqraa was intrigued, and it fit how he wanted to treat people in his store.

“I know my husband, and it’s not just about money,” said Mimi Aqraa. “He has to treat people like he wants to be treated. He needs to feel good inside.”

And it seems customers feel good inside Mike’s Handy Foods “N” Gas. The new store has already become something of a “gathering place,” 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. “I’m one of the ones who begged him to stay,” Smith told CSNews. “Everybody likes Mike, and this is where we get the scoop - where we find out what’s going on in our town.”

It is also where Mimi arrives every day at 4 a.m. to churn out homemade meals. In addition to a static menu, Mike’s 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.

“I make all this personally with another lady who helps me,” she said. “I want to make sure the food is what I would eat. In Europe, it’s a given that you get great food you wouldn’t be able to cook yourself in restaurants. Over here, chain restaurants don’t seem to care if customers come back or not. We care that our customers come back.”

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 “gets too hot and dries out the food. I don’t like it,” she stated.

Mike’s Handy Foods “N” Gas also offers Hunt Brothers pizzas, “but we go that extra mile and put fresh ham on it or fresh turkey from our deli,” Aqraa explained.

The 2,500-square-foot store was also reconfigured with booths to accommodate more customers. “We had pub-style tables, but we changed over to booths so we have more space and more seating,” she said.

For comments, please contact Renée M. Covino, Contributing Editor, at [email protected].

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