This story is published as part of our partnership with The Food Section.
On a Friday night in late July, Axe to Grind got a visit from the local police.
Zaidoon Al-Zubaidy, co-owner of the Hamlet café, was presenting a local band in the back room. When he learned there were officers out front, he joked with his staff that a night out isn’t successful until the cops are called, but still, he was concerned. He had a packed house, and he didn’t want a scene.
The size of the crowd was actually what got the police’s attention. But the officers weren’t there to arrest anyone: They just wanted to know what could possibly be happening in Hamlet that would attract so many people.
“They hadn’t seen anything like this, with no parking spots anywhere,” Al-Zubaidy said. “They were so surprised, they had to inquire.”
Plenty of people are surprised by what Al-Zubaidy and his wife, Stephanie Al-Zubaidy, have accomplished since Axe to Grind opened its doors in April 2022. The food-and-entertainment venue has become a magnet, drawing people from all over south central North Carolina to a town long associated with lost jobs and shuttered storefronts.
Some of the surprise might come from the owners themselves: Stephanie is a Jewish woman from Charlotte, and Zaidoon is a British-educated Iraqi. They’ve both heard skeptical questions about finding a foothold in a rural Southern town with a population of 6,000.
Zaidoon said what the doubters really want to say is, “Have you been lynched yet?” The question may be hyperbolic, but the answer is easy: “It has actually blown my mind how open the people here are to trying new things.”
With the energy of outsiders who see promise that many residents had ceased to notice, the Al-Zubaidys are part of a hopeful story about new businesses looking to harness Hamlet’s potential.
It seems to be working.
“Stephanie and Zaidoon are changing this town, pretty much by themselves,” said lifelong area resident Richard Robinson.
Robinson is used to thinking of Hamlet as a railroad town that the trains no longer come through. That’s why he was planning to open a brewery in nearby Rockingham, which felt more alive. Now he’s partnering with the Al-Zubaidys to create an outpost for the brewery in Hamlet as well.
I talked to Robinson on a recent Friday, standing outside near our cars. We’d scored coveted spots in front of the café; just like on the night the cops came, there was no parking left on Main Street because Axe to Grind patrons had taken it all.
The café was hosting a tasting sponsored by Virginia-based Aslin Beer Co. that night, along with guitar-strumming singers covering ’90s alt-rock and country songs. The crowd of around 50 people included everyone from queer college students to burly guys in Army shirts and members of a local ghost-hunting club. (The club members first met Stephanie when they asked to check another building she owns for spirits; it tested positive, to her delight.)
A mohawked musician named Franklin Branch told me he had been there a few weeks earlier to play with his band, and the Al-Zubaidys made his family feel so welcome that his daughter is now planning to have her 16th birthday party at “the Axe.” Brenda Dwiggins, a veteran who recently relocated from Maine to be closer to her grandchildren, told me she works at another local bar but regularly stops by Axe to Grind for a beer.
“We have to support each other,” she said. “Especially when we all care about this community.”
Axe to Grind’s menu is a testament to that care.
When the place opened in April 2022, Stephanie, who oversees every aspect of the kitchen, focused on breakfast, lunch, and coffee. She personally prepared pastries, burritos, salads, and sandwiches.
There was also an axe-throwing court in the back room, because before the Al-Zubaidys took it over, the place had been a combination barbershop and axe-throwing joint. (The back room still has axe targets hanging on the wall, functioning both as decoration and acknowledgment of the building’s recent past.)
That iteration didn’t work, since unlike getting a haircut, axe-throwing is typically a try-it-once activity. But breakfast was also tough, Stephanie tells me, as many people in town already had their routines.
“It was very slow,” she recalls. “I was exhausted.”
But she was too invested in Hamlet to give up. She first visited in 2021, when she was mulling a run for a state congressional office. Even though she lives 80 miles away in Charlotte, her gerrymandered district stretched all the way to Hamlet and beyond. She figured that if she wanted to win an election, then she should visit the towns she might represent. (The area has since been redistricted.) She was immediately taken by what she saw in Hamlet.
As she stood outside the train depot that’s now a museum, with her three dogs running around, she thought, “‘Maybe I should do something here.’ It was so charming.”
Soon enough, she convinced her husband they should invest in the area. The Al-Zubaidys had made a profit when they sold a portion of Catawba Research, a clinical research organization they founded, and used the money to buy the building that now houses Axe to Grind.
They’ve since bought another building that serves as a trading post for local vendors, as well as a building that used to be the Birmingham Drug Company, which they’ve converted into an ice cream shop called Birmingham Sweets. They’ve also bought a house in the area, where the dogs—Chihuahuas Tank and Rigby, plus a Maltese called Puffy—can run around in the yard.
The couple chose not to flee after the café’s first menu failed. Instead, they closed the business for a few months and asked the residents what they wanted.
“We had a neighbor say, ‘There’s no good pizza here,’” Zaidoon recalls. “So, OK, pizza. What else do you want? ‘Craft beer.’ OK. You want pizza. You want craft beer.”
That’s what people got. Stephanie developed a robust pizza menu that features everything from a pepperoni pie drizzled with Tabasco-infused honey to Thai chicken pizza with peanut sauce. The pizzas are delicious, heaped with toppings and served on dough infused with a blend of Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and spices.
The menu quickly became a smash—especially the pepperoni and hot honey—and so did the craft beer selection, which is overseen by Mike Ruff, an experienced beer judge and a financial partner in the café.
“I had been waiting for years to drink a craft beer in Hamlet,” he said. “We used to drive to Moore County, which is 30, 45 minutes away, just for a beer. Now we can drive down the street.”
Stephanie said listening to her neighbors is what kept Axe to Grind from going under. That said, she’s also learned not to follow every request she hears.
“As much as I’m listening to people, I have to bring myself to this, too,” she said. “The community said, ‘You should have biscuits on the menu.’ I put biscuits on the menu, and they flopped, because it’s not part of me. It’s not my thing. I was born in the South and raised in the South, but at the end of the day, I’m a Jewish girl. And so, biscuits and I don’t really know each other. But I make lots of pizza in my everyday life, so that worked.”
She’s also lightly pushing the envelope by serving boba tea, a “French chicken” sandwich with brie and peach jam, and a transcendently decadent homemade toaster pastry filled with fresh fruit compote. These things wouldn’t shock a city dweller, but for many palates in Hamlet, they’re unusual.
“When I first put brie on a sandwich, people thought I was crazy,” Stephanie said. “And now it’s one of the most popular sandwiches. I can’t take it off the menu. I’ve learned who I can push toward something new, and I’ve learned when I need to temper it a little bit.”
Zaidoon has a similar philosophy about the café’s events, many of which he hosts. As more and more folks told him there was nothing to do in Hamlet, he programmed everything from trivia nights to comedy shows to Hamlet’s Got Talent, a multi-week talent show featuring local singers. He heard that people wanted a place to watch football, so this fall, he’ll set up TVs on Sundays.
“It’s been electric for us,” said Matthew Christian, Hamlet’s city manager. “Stephanie and Zaidoon are really here. They’re really present. And they’re attuned to what the community wants.”
Mary Davis, a recent college graduate who has lived in Hamlet all her life, said that even local skeptics have warmed to the Al-Zubaidys’ plans. Sitting in Birmingham Sweets, she told me, “I’m just going to be honest: Whenever this idea was put into the public, and everybody heard there’s this lady from Charlotte, and she’s buying all these properties, I personally thought, ‘Why is she coming to Hamlet? Why is she here?’”
Davis said she wasn’t the only local asking, but Stephanie has won them over: “She fell in love with Hamlet and saw the potential. People thought she would be gone by now, but she isn’t gone.”
In the brightly lit ice cream shop, with pastel lettering on the walls, wooden barrels full of candy, and a checkerboard tile floor, it’s easy to sense the energy she’s describing.
“It really has just sparked a new hope for a lot of people,” Davis said. “I feel like people’s minds are starting to shift. People can see that Hamlet doesn’t just have to keep going downhill.”
More than ice cream and hot honey pizza, this may be the most important thing the Al-Zubaidys bring to town. Good food keeps customers fed. A renewed sense of possibility nourishes a community.
Mark Blankenship is a writer, critic, and editor who divides his time between New York City and the Carolinas. You can find him online at markgblankenship.com