Donna Gray remembers her grandson Grayson’s excitement the first time he recently saw Hope Mills Lake with water in it. “He was in the car with me and he looked out there and said, ‘Nana, there’s water in there,’” Gray said. “I had forgotten he had never seen it. I was so excited for him to tell me that.’’
As owner of the lakeside food stand Big T’s, Gray is almost as excited as 8-year-old Grayson was.
Now that the lake has returned, she’s expecting an even bigger upturn in business than they’ve managed to maintain since the lake was drained twice by the failure of the Hope Mills dam.
Gray’s family began operation of Big T’s in 2000 after being asked by the previous owner one Fourth of July if she was interested in taking it over. She was and renamed the business Big T’s in honor of her husband, Timmy Gray.
The inspiration for the name came from Gray’s nephew, Tyler Herbert, who called Gray’s husband by that name.
Big T’s is a fairly typical resort-style food stand with staples like hamburgers, hot dogs, sausage dogs, chicken tenders, nachos, pretzels, various kinds of french fries and what Gray calls the creamiest soft ice cream possible.
“We use a higher butter fat so it’s creamier, not the icy type,’’ she said.
Vanilla is the basic flavor of ice cream, but Big T’s offers what Gray calls a flavor burst that provides eight different flavor options.
But the star attraction at Big T’s is snoballs, shaved ice with different flavorings. A lot of different flavorings. Gray estimates they’ve got 85 flavors of snoballs available.
“We’ve changed over the years, tried things and added things,’’ she said.
For example, when Hope Mills Lake had water and was briefly visited by a resident alligator, they offered a Gator Raider flavor.
When the dam failed a second time and the lake remained empty, Gray added the Dam Buster flavor.
It may have been that attention to detail and ability to be flexible that kept customers visiting Big T’s during the years when the lake was empty.
Gray offered and still offers a free movie night once a month to get people to stop by. She also gives a lot of credit for the food stand’s survival to a couple of local car clubs, the Hope Mills Cruisers and Camaro South.
Both organizations would hold cruise-ins, where they came to Big T’s, parked their cars and showed off the vehicles to patrons.
Camaro South continues to be active and holds an event at Big T’s about once a month.
A big cruise-in is planned for April 14, Gray said. It will feature cars from Camaro South and guest vehicles that are replicas of popular rides from the Walt Disney hit movie series “Cars.”
Big T’s is also mobile. Gray said she operates food trucks that visit local schools and colleges, serving up snoballs to go.
Gray leaves most of the daily operation of the food stand to her daughter, Angela Culver, and her husband Rob. The family aspect of the business, both from the involvement of her own family and that of her customers, is what Gray enjoys most.
Angela has been in this business since she was 12,’’ Gray said. “Hopefully her grandchildren will come right behind her.’’
Gray said she remembers when she first took over Big T’s seeing children who could barely look over the counter come with their parents to order a snoball. “Now those children are bringing their children here, and I love it.’’
She still has hula hoops and sidewalk chalk for the kids to enjoy while they’re visiting. “I’m trying to make it a family atmosphere,’’ she said. “That’s what I enjoy being in this community.’’
Big T’s opened for the season on March 19. Regular hours for now are Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. There will be extended hours during the summer months.
Editor’s Note: Until further notice, due to cold weather, Big T’s will be closed. Call 910-487-6700 or 910-568-7722, check the Facebook page (Big T’s), or check the website (bigtssnoballs.com) for updates.