Merritt’s Grill


By Laurie Paolicelli

Merritt’s Grill Classic BLT.

Philadelphia has the cheesesteak, New York has the pastrami on rye, and Chapel Hill has the best BLT on the planet and it can be found at Merritt’s Grill, a tiny white store perched above U.S. Highway 15-501, enclosed by a grove of bamboo.

From its humble beginnings as a lunch counter run out of the back of a filling station, Merritt’s Grill has been making their bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches following one simple recipe: when you combine fresh, quality ingredients and warm, Southern hospitality it’s going to be good. You’ll be planning your next visit before you’ve taken your last bite.

Merritt’s began life as an Esso station, operated by Eben and Ruby Merritt. For almost 50 years, they sold gas and sundries and performed car repair. Since 1929 the unassuming station has squatted just south of UNC, marking what used to be the invisible boundary where campus met country.

Robin and Bob Britt bought Merritt’s in 1991 and started making BLTs a year later. They called it “The Love Sandwich.” And oh, was it ever loved. The sandwich was, for a time, a beloved hidden gem known only to the locals, but how could anyone ever hope to hide the smell of freshly baked bread and crispy bacon? Merritt’s went on to receive recognition and acclaim from food publications around the nation, and it was hidden no more. Its BLTs have since been written up and featured in publications near and far, including being named top of the BLT genre by The News & Observer’s former restaurant critic, Greg Cox. Though Robin Britt died in 2014, her contribution to the culinary culture of Chapel Hill lives on.

The late Robin Britt was a special face around town and helped created the Love Sandwich at Merritt’s Grill.

There are no secrets, it would seem, to a BLT. The recipe is in its very name; the ingredients are simple, basic, even fundamental. But simplicity is where perfection is found, and Merritt’s found it decades ago. Their proprietary formula consists, in part, of stacking: bacon, lettuce and vine-ripened tomatoes, smears of mayo on sourdough bread and a bit of salt and pepper. Do try this at home but don’t expect to match it. Merritt’s version also complicates things a bit by coming in three sizes: single, double, and triple. The numbers correspond to how many layers of bacon, lettuce, and tomato the sandwich contains.

Photo: CJ Toogood, Paula Toogood, John Toogood in front left to right, and Todd Blackledge with ESPN. Merritt’s Grill was featured on an ACC TV special.

The keys to the BLT kingdom were passed in 2021 when Merritt’s was sold to John and Paula Toogood and their son CJ, owners of The Bread Shop in Pittsboro. The Bread Shop had been making bread for Merritt’s for more than a decade, John Toogood said. And the bakery was looking to expand.

“We thought it would be great to find a partner and open a larger bakery,” Toogood said. “Merritt’s was struggling a little and Mrs. Britt was experiencing some health problems. So we said, how can we help?”

Co-owner Paula Toogood has added new features to Merritt’s Grill.

For years Merritt’s has achieved pilgrimage status for many people, the kind of place that’s essential to stop at maybe once a year, or whenever visiting from out of town, whenever there’s time to brave what was the hour-long wait for a famed BLT. “There was a lot on social media saying the wait is horrible, but that it’s worth it,” Toogood said. But all that’s changed: Toogood has aimed on cutting the waiting experience down to six or eight minutes.

Service may have been streamlined, but the recipe hasn’t changed at all.

Not that they didn’t try.

John Toogood wanted to cook the bacon in ovens, in the belief that the passive baking would lead to just as crispy strips, without the work of conducting a flattop. But the texture was never quite right, and the flattop won out.

Merritt’s Grill Chicken Salad.

A food truck is now in operation and catering has taken off.

But all of that is secondary. Merritt’s Grill was, is, and always will be about a simple sandwich made simply, thoughtfully, with care; an ideal sandwich with a universal appeal, but made fresh, one at a time, for the next person in line. As the Zen master who might one day visit this hallowed ground would say, “Make me one with everything.”

Merritt’s Grill Pimento Cheese Sandwich.

Vegetarian Options:

  • Grandpa’s Tomato: A sandwich made with Merritt’s famous vine-ripened tomatoes thick-sliced, lettuce, mayo and seasoned with salt and pepper!
  • Toasted Cheese: Sounds simple but the possibilities are endless! Your choice of cheese grilled on your choice of bread with any add-ons you might want!
  • Pimento Cheese Sandwich: Home-made daily, Merritt’s makes it pimento cheese daily in small batches to ensure its freshness.
  • Vegetarian: The signature vegetarian sandwich comes with fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, onion, guacamole and balsamic mayo. So simple, soooo good!
  • Salads: Made fresh every day, all salads include Green Lettuce, Vine Tomato, Red Onion and Cucumbers.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.


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