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The Daily Tar Heel

Chamber of Commerce recognizes Michael Barefoot

Michael Barefoot who opened and formally owned A Southern Season is now be inducted into their HOF
Michael Barefoot who opened and formally owned A Southern Season is now be inducted into their HOF

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce honored 12 local business leaders at its inaugural Hall of Fame Nov. 13. The Daily Tar Heel will feature each of its inductees. Michael Barefoot was inducted.

Michael Barefoot, the founder of gourmet food store A Southern Season, said he did it all for Chapel Hill.

Barefoot came to town in 1969 and hasn’t had any interest in leaving since. He opened A Southern Season in 1975, and the store’s floor space has expanded 7,500 percent in the last four decades.

“The whole purpose was to create something Chapel Hillians would love,” Barefoot said.

He grew up in eastern North Carolina working on his family’s farm.

When it came time for college, Barefoot was showered with scholarship offers from Northwestern University, 800 miles away in Chicago.

“It was too good to be true,” he said. “A lot better than farming tobacco.”

Heading home in search of food

He accepted the offer from Northwestern, but in his freshman year, he decided to leave for UNC to study the sociology of food.

Captivated by people’s interest in discovering new foods, Barefoot decided to open his own store after he graduated. He said Chapel Hill was an ideal place, with an educated and traveled population and a heightened awareness of the joy of dining.

“You’d be real surprised at how small of a world it was back then,” Barefoot said. “Wine vinegar wasn’t on any shelves, you couldn’t buy a head of garlic and the definition of cheese was cheddar.”

And he could afford the advertising budget, because the town was small enough for word of mouth to suffice.

Barefoot said his brother, Stephen Barefoot, had him list words he associated with the store to come up with the name. “Southern” and “season” emerged as themes.

“Then he told me to stick an ‘A’ in front of it so it’s first in the phone book,” he said.

Stephen Barefoot said he and his brother were working in a tobacco field when they came up with the name.

In 1975, Barefoot opened the first A Southern Season in an 800-square foot space where he was the only employee. He stocked hard-to-find foods and was one of the first small-batch coffee roasters in the country.

He calculated that he needed to make $316 a day to survive — so he stayed in the store each night until that happened. He said his early customers — mostly starving graduate students — were excited to help him meet his goal.

One of these early customers was business owner Susan Gravely, who used to come in for coffee. She credits Barefoot with keeping her coming back.

“What he did was make everybody feel at home,” she said.

Growing, and growing …

Barefoot began adding other employees, and soon the store was bursting at the seams.

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Around 1978, Barefoot moved to a 10,000-square foot space in Eastgate shopping center.

“We had proven there was a market and we could make it,” Barefoot said. “I didn’t think about anything but success. You already know how to handle failure, but you’re less equipped for success.”

Barefoot said there were two things he communicated to the people he hired as the business grew. The first was that all year was spent either getting ready for or recovering from Christmas. The second was that their job was to send customers out of the store happier than they came in.

Gravely said his ability to relate to his customers made him successful.

“He had a wonderful warmth and created an environment with special things that made people feel good,” she said.

It was all about the customers for Barefoot, who would do anything for them. He ordered and located special items, and when customers asked for new additions, he made it happen — building a bakery, a kitchen and a restaurant.

“The store always wanted to grow faster than we were equipped to,” he laughed.

After a while he realized that he could continue to grow in a new way: mail order cataloguing. It was an immediate success and grew even faster when the online marketplace was established.

A second act in Chapel Hill

In 2003, A Southern Season moved to the 59,000-square foot location in University Mall that most people are familiar with today. And in 2011, Barefoot sold the store to a group of local investors who have made many changes, from dropping the “A” from the title to planning expansion in several southern states.

Barefoot plans to move to 140 West Franklin with his husband of 25 years Tim Manale, who used to work for him in the early 1980s.

He said Chapel Hill has changed a lot since he arrived in 1969. Back then, all the businesses revolved around the academic calendar. But Barefoot doesn’t think that’s the case now.

“Chapel Hill is a vibrant community still filled with interesting people who like interesting things, but it is not too dependent on the University anymore,” he said.

Barefoot said he is excited about the local businesses providing delicious food.

“It’s all my old dreams come true,” he smiled.

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