February 2023

Gas Station Gourmet

Nostalgia and Home Cooking

The Old Koke Plant has a “gas station meets Cracker Barrel” feeling.
Al Hebert

Above: The Old Koke Plant in Brookhaven, Mississippi, opened its doors in September 2022.

Sherry Jean Powell whips up her famous bread pudding, a customer favorite.

You know the feeling. You walk into a store and it hits you, “It feels nice to be here.” There’s nothing like the anticipation of good food. That’s what it feels like to walk into The Old Koke Plant in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

Ken Powell, president of R B Wall Oil Company, wanted to have a big convenience store. The company operated three small c-stores, but he wanted to build his dream store.

Construction began in January 2022. Powell asked his son, Jamison, to come on board to help make the building process smooth and to launch the operation.

Jamison Powell said, “I was living in San Diego when Dad broke ground. It was a big project. My grandmother said, ‘I think it’s time to come home.’” Who can say no to a grandmother’s request? The store opened on September 24, 2022.

Brookhaven has a population of about 12,000. The goal was to build a store that was unique. “People like nostalgia and home cooking, not the corporate operations like McDonald’s and Starbucks,” said Jamison, adding, “We’re kind of a gas station that meets Cracker Barrel. It’s very homey,” he said.

“I hired the managers, and they hired everyone else. I get compliment after compliment about how friendly they are and how they go out of their way to make sure people get what they want,” said Ken Powell, adding, “This is by far our biggest operation. We learned a lot going through the construction. God did send Jamison home at the right time, and he blessed us with Cathy. I thank God for these two.”

Cathy Pigott, retail operations manager, had been working with RB Wall and wore a lot of hats with the existing c-stores. As construction progressed, Pigott began to look for staff.

“When I began the interviews, we had 80 candidates come in. As the station was being built it didn’t look like an ordinary gas station. The look of the construction motivated people to apply for the jobs. I was on it with the social media posting photos of the progress. We were coming strong,” Pigott recalled.

Jamison said, “We do feel we hired a really good staff. We thought there’d be attrition, but most people have stayed. We provided a unique atmosphere to work in. We ensure it’s a clean place. We make sure everything is organized. We’ve done our best with the physical location.”

Laura Edney introduced the c-store’s customers to her blueberry cobbler baked in a cast iron skillet.


If you’re going to serve great food, you need to hire great cooks. Finding the right people was critical. Pigott wanted people with passion. Lots of passion, so the interview process was tough.

“I had them tell me about cooking. Do you like to cook? We hired no one who liked to cook. We hired the ones who loved to cook. The interviews were personal. We wanted to know where they learned to cook. How did they learn to cook? What made them love to cook? The ones who love it have a history,” she explained.

This is a challenging environment to retain workers, especially cooks. The Old Koke Plant has experienced almost no turnover. Once you hire staff, how do you keep them?

Pigott says it’s a lot about hugs.

“There can be too many cooks in the kitchen. Our job was to find out what they’re good at, brag on them and love on them. We give lots of hugs. We’ve got to keep them happy,” she said, adding, “Anything they want we get them. If they tell me the spoons are too small, they get a bigger one.”

Cooks are creative, and they all have different styles. Pigott gives them the freedom to do what they love. “We let our cooks go with their own recipes. If it sells, we serve it.” New ideas for menu items are encouraged here.


L to R: Jamison Powell, director of operations; Cathy Arnold Pigott, retail manager; and Ken Powell, owner, The Old Koke Plant.

Sherry Jean’s Kitchen is the place where the culinary magic happens. Sherry Jean is Ken’s wife. Customers flock in for her bread pudding.

If you’re in a southern c-store it’s no surprise that fried chicken is a customer favorite. “Chicken on a stick is the most popular menu item. Our chicken tastes like grandma’s chicken on Sunday. We tasted a lot of chicken. Ours is the best, but you have to cook it a certain way,” Pigott said.

The chicken and dumplings are unique. Customers taste something special. Pigott said, “The lady who makes them has the love to make them. I think it’s the love she puts in them that makes them so good.”

The cobblers are made in black iron skillets. That’s different. “Miss Laura walked up to me and said, ‘I can make a good cobbler.’ She needed a black iron skillet. I got her one,” Pigott said.

A simple marketing plan was used to introduce the cobbler to customers. “We carried the skillet (with the cobbler) up and down the line to introduce the cobbler. Everybody wants it now,” shared Pigott.

Folks in town come in for the daily plate lunches. The Friday fare draws so many people that lines form. “Customers love the fried fish. Joyce, the kitchen manager, does something with the batter to make it crispy,” said Jamison. No one knows what that “something different” is, but it doesn’t matter.


The c-store has plenty of space for indoor dining in the cozy, retro-looking booths, and there’s outdoor seating, too.

Presentation is important when it comes to food, and that’s still true when the food is in a gas station. Pigott has a background in interior design and uses these skills to make everything look good.

“I love beauty. I like everything to be pretty. I want customers to touch it and buy,” she said. “We have a lady that makes pralines. I could throw those pralines out there and say they’re good. But when you wrap them up real pretty, people buy them. We dress that praline up. It might be a $5 praline, but you take it to the next notch with the wrapping. We can never ever get lazy. People will pass us,” she said.

Everything about the store comes down to the people who make things happen each day. Employees feel valued, and customers experience a feeling of home. When you walk in, you feel like family.

What’s in the future for The Old Koke Plant? The early success of the store has the Powells thinking about adding more stores. “We wanted the store to be a destination and to be unique. I do think people who come in have that unique experience,” Jamison said.

Al Hebert

Al Hebert is the Gas Station Gourmet, showcasing America’s hidden culinary treasures. Find him at www.GasStationGourmet.com