Coker Ellsworth worked in his father’s corner grocery store from the time he was 7 years old. He had a special wooden crate to stand on emblazoned with the words “Shortest
Box Boy.” For many summers and vacations to come Coker would stock shelves, work the cash register, and help with deliveries. That’s the part he liked the best: riding through town with his father, taking groceries to the seniors and other house-bound neighbors who depended on the Ellsworths’ store for their weekly list of produce, meats, and dairy items.
Built in 1941 by Ed and his father Les (who earlier owned one of the first grocery stores in San Luis Obispo near High Street), Ellsworth’s Market was a small-town fixture and neighborhood hub for generations of San Luis Obispans. Until it sold in 1970, the butcher shop was famous for its excellent cuts and expert butchering of all manner of meats (venison, beef, lamb) the townspeople brought there. Places like Ellsworth’s are icons of the best our small towns used to be, and evoke wistful nostalgia among those who remember it. But wait …
When Becky and Michael Hicks saw that the old Ellsworth’s Market was for sale (again), they saw a chance to revive that genuine mom-and-pop, neighborhood-hub feel of the building’s history, and to expand on it. “We wanted to do right by that history,” said Becky. And right they have!
In 2013, when the oldest of their two sons was just six months old, the young couple—straight from years in the food service industry—took a chance and threw all their creativity and customer service chops into the small building on the corner of Broad and Lincoln, now called Lincoln Market & Deli.
“We wanted a place where people could come, meet their neighbors, talk over lunch,” said Becky. “Get to know the stranger across from them at our community table, engage with one another, and truly enjoy the experience of connecting with community.”
Born and raised in SLO, Michael Hicks met his wife Becky (who grew up in Bakersfield) when they were both working in a popular San Francis- co restaurant. Wanting to return to his hometown to raise their family, they landed jobs managing Eureka Burger (Michael) and Madonna Inn Steak House (Becky). “The steakhouse was truly an institution,” said Becky. “And it gave me such a great experience with what it means to run a hometown establishment.”
When they bought Lincoln Market & Deli, they knew the food service part would be easy, and had confidence that the rest would come. The
Hicks began by updating lunch items, adding modern twists to the classics, such as Pulled Pork Banh Mi and their “Almost Famous” (and wildly popular) breakfast burrito. Becky completely transformed the retail store, cultivating strong relationships with local food and bever- age makers to fill the shelves with the best of locally made specialty foods, wellness items, craft beers and local wines.
“We work with many local and small vendors to sell their wares in our store, bring home to our children, and give as gifts to friends and family,” she explained. “I absolutely love the buying process. Finding new brands, makers, and products … working with other local businesses that are doing amazing things. I feel honored to be connected to so many of them.”
“Our customers are a perfect cross-section of San Luis Obispo,” added Michael. “Students, retired folks, young families, working professionals, and everything in between.”
Last summer they also transformed the original structure (but without destroying the existing building), adding a patio outside, air conditioning inside, installing brand new bathrooms, and replacing the old electrical and plumbing systems, much of which was then 75 years old!
“The biggest change we’ve made,” said Michael, “is that we’ve really tried to focus on bringing in an incredible staff. They do an amazing job of representing Becky and me in everything they do.”
“I love going to work every day, being my own boss, having the free- dom to try new and creative things, from recipes to marketing ideas,” he added. “I love seeing our regulars and introducing new customers to our little piece of SLO.”
While living and working together might strain many couples, Michael and Becky met at work so they had confidence that owning their own business would work well. They thrive on the flourishing new business community coming up among 30- and 40-somethings here. And they acknowledge the harsh realities that not every day is going to be fun and exciting.
“Food service is a daily grind,” Michael admits. “You can get the machine humming along perfectly, but there will always be little challenges that present themselves and throw it off course.”
“There are so many plates spinning at once,” added Becky. “Keep- ing them in the air takes a lot of work and a lot of planning, writing down thoughts and to-do’s. I was never very good at that, but this business has taught me how.”
Two of those spinning plates are their sons, Jackson 6, and Reese 4.
But it’s not all work and no play for the newest owners of a corner gro- cery—and the parents of two young boys. The Hicks each understand the value of balance, of taking care of yourself so you can be better at all the rest. Becky is an avid yoga and gym enthusiast. She reads and journals every day. Michael is a singer-songwriter and musician in a local band. They both love to hike and to explore new wellness-related products and activities.
“They are all following their passion while being committed to serving others. I’m so proud to be a part of that.”
“There’s a new and very cool energy among young families and business people here,” said Becky. “They are all following their pas- sion while being committed to serving others. I’m so proud to be a part of that.”
Expanding on the community-hub theme, Lincoln Street Deli has been offering workshops, events, and pop-ups regularly. The pop-up concept began in the professional chef arena and has now trickled down to other businesses. The pop-up offers quality craftsmen, food and beverage makers, who do not have a retail space of their own to showcase their products in a host retail space—in this case, Lincoln Market & Deli. Everything from house-made sausage to specialty herbs and plants can find their way onto the shelves, vetted of course by the Hicks.
“We use almost everything we sell,” said Becky. “We take things home and give them as gifts, too.”
Last December, the market hosted a Christmas pop-up where local craftsmen and specialty vendors partnered with the Hicks and each other to create a sort of holiday Farmers Market. The Hicks plan to make that an annual holiday tradition.
Tradition. Perhaps that word, more than any other, conveys what the Hicks hope the future holds for Lincoln Market & Deli. Traditions hold families, neighborhoods and towns, even countries together. Long- established traditions strengthen the fabric, the history, and the values that make a place what it is. They craft the stories and make the memories we pass on for generations.
Michael and Becky Hicks have taken the best of what is old-fashioned and made it new again. At Lincoln Market & Deli, images like a little boy standing on a wooden crate to stock the shelves of a mom-and-pop grocery store are alive and well. They hope that one day, generations from now, oldsters will be waxing nostalgic about their place, about the community it brought together, and all the sweet memories they made there.