Greenwood County Councilwoman Edith Childs, left, presented a proclamation to Willie Thomas on Saturday, March 26, 2022 at the Promised Land Volunteer Fire Department in Greenwood, SC The Promised Land Community Association organized a parade and party for Willie, who has retired from running the grocery store in the community.  At right is Willie's wife, Cinderella.  Willie, who owned Promised Land Grocery for more than 50 years, recently sold the store, which has been a staple in the community — and is widely known for its fried chicken.  Willie is the only person who knows the recipe.  (Greg K. Deal/The Index-Journal via AP)

Greenwood County Councilwoman Edith Childs, left, presented a proclamation to Willie Thomas on Saturday, March 26, 2022 at the Promised Land Volunteer Fire Department in Greenwood, SC The Promised Land Community Association organized a parade and party for Willie, who has retired from running the grocery store in the community. At right is Willie’s wife, Cinderella. Willie, who owned Promised Land Grocery for more than 50 years, recently sold the store, which has been a staple in the community — and is widely known for its fried chicken. Willie is the only person who knows the recipe. (Greg K. Deal/The Index-Journal via AP)

AP

If you drive through this tiny community in western Greenwood County, you won’t find a single stoplight. In fact, about the only thing you might have noticed along this stretch of highway is an old country store. And maybe the warm smell of fried chicken rising up through the air.

Promised Land Grocery, along McCormick Highway, has been a staple here for more than 50 years. Willie Jake Thomas Jr. bought the land in 1971.

“It was a small, wooden store,” Willie said. “It had gas tanks there. At the time, they weren’t selling gas or anything. There was just an old gentleman sitting there trying to sell something. He didn’t do much with it. After I bought the place, he just disappeared.”

Willie had just $400 after he bought the store. He took that money and bought groceries to put on the shelves. One important item he sold was candy. He quickly found out how to attract customers. It was through kids’ sweet teeth.

“That’s what built the store, having kids come in for different kinds of candy,” said Willie, who served as Greenwood County EMS director for 25 years until retiring in 2006. “They would come every time they would get a nickel or a dime . I kept a lot of different candy. And then they started bringing their parents. That’s how it just kept developing. I’d take a little money I’d make and put it back into the store, and we just kept going.”

Promised Land, founded in 1870 as part of a land resettlement program for freed slaves, is a mostly African American community; However, Willie’s wife, Cinderella, said it is becoming more diverse. The community is bucking the trend of “white flight,” as people from different cultures are making their homes here. The grocery store has meant a lot to people through the years, Cinderella said.

“It’s been a staple in the community,” said Cinderella, who is a history teacher at Greenwood High School. “The first thing everybody talks about is that chicken.”

Willie has the only recipe for his famous fried chicken — Cinderella doesn’t even know it — and he keeps that secret in the safest place: his head. He said he might one day write down the recipe, and he’s still considering his options for how he might continue to offer his chicken to people now that he has sold the store.

“I’ve got a product with the chicken that they tell me is almost nationwide,” Willie said. “People come from different places. When they go back, they take a load of chicken with them.”

As for the chicken recipe, Willie laughed when asked where he got it. He said people tell him his chicken tastes better than anything they’ve had from restaurants. He visited Allendale many years ago and enjoyed some fried chicken he picked up there. He came home and began tinkering with different recipes until he found just the right one.

“I kept mixing and mixing until I got it right,” Willie said of his chicken breading.

Willie finally plans to retire for good after working many hours each day, seven days a week at the store. He plans to take the vacation he promised himself to take after retiring from his EMS job — and he hopes to do a lot of fishing.

Hari Om II recently purchased the store and is remodeling it. Willie doesn’t plan to give Om his chicken recipe, but he said he wants to help Om be successful.

“I’m going to help this guy get started as much as I can,” Willie said. “I don’t want him to fail. I don’t want to see anybody fail. I’m going to help him get started doing whatever he wants to do. I’m not giving up the recipe right now. I’ve had a lot of people come and say, ‘Hey, you are fixing to close. Can you give me your recipe?”

Cinderella said, “We’re hoping he (Willie) will transition into something else with the chicken. We’re trying to get him to package his breading. I don’t know if he’s going to do that or not. This retirement thing is still new to him.”

Willie and Cinderella have done much more in the community than just serve chicken, though. Every weekend, they cooked about a dozen food items for purchase, and whenever someone from the community died, Willie would provide a meal to family members.

“Some people couldn’t wait until it was time to serve,” Willie said of his weekend meal offerings. “They would be in line before time to serve. They would stand there looking at the food because we’d put it out there so they could see it.”

Willie and Cinderella have been married for 27 years, having met at the Greenwood County Courthouse, where she was employed with the county at the time, and his EMS office operated out of the building. The couple have lived in a home beside the store for many years.

Willie said the store has been “an answer” for the community — “just to be able to come there and shop and not have to go to Greenwood. I tried to keep a good variety of stuff.”

Cinderella said Promised Land is “a small town inside a bigger city.”

“We’ve seen a lot of the children born grow up, go off places, then come back,” Cinderella said. “The first thing they look for is the chicken.”

Willie said many people have yet to hear he sold the store.

“They are looking for that meal that we put out there,” Willie said. “On Saturday and Sunday, we had so many people coming in. We had just beaucoups of people come off the road. I didn’t have to advertise. Word of mouth got it all.”

On March 26, the Promised Land Community Association put on a surprise drive-by parade for Willie, to celebrate his contributions and thank him for his service to residents and others. After the parade, friends and family members filed into the Promised Land Volunteer Fire Department to share a meal and stories.

Greenwood County Council member Edith Childs presented a proclamation to Willie.

“I know what you mean to me as a friend,” Childs said. “You don’t know what you mean to me — and to this community.”

Jan Williams, president of the Promised Land Community Association, said he’s been vital to the community because he’s provided jobs. Oh, and that chicken.

“It was awesome,” Williams said. “It was something that, when you bit into it, it was like, ‘Wow!”

Promised Land Grocery has more than 80 Google reviews with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. People from across the country have opened about Willie’s chicken, many of them stumbling upon the store during road trips.

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