When Jolene Kao moved to Charlotte with her family in August 2022, she thought she’d take at least a year to get her bearings and figure out where she might fit in. Only 11 months later, she bought the town’s iconic Old Brick Store.
Kao, 39, had long envisioned a change. It took motherhood and a pandemic move out of Brooklyn — first to Westchester County, N.Y., then to Vermont — for her to shift from fashion producer to shop owner.
“I am somebody who’s always been ruled by fear and not willing to take that leap,” Kao said. “But everything felt right here.”
Reopened on September 29, “the Brick” has a new look and new offerings as unexpected as bottles of Japanese Kewpie mayo, copies of Tomie dePaola’s classic children’s book Strega Nona, a bangin’ breakfast burrito and a perfectly crafted oat milk cortado. But there’s still penny candy, and Kao is hoping the circa-1850s store will continue its deep-rooted role as a community gathering place.
Kao’s three-month renovation is clear when you walk in, with the checkout counter now front and center, and her smiling face right behind it. That setup felt natural to Kao, as it’s what she grew up with in her family’s Royal China restaurant in Dallas, Texas. Her paternal grandfather opened the business in 1974. Her parents moved to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1977 and eventually took over. The concept of a “third place” — somewhere for people to gather other than home or work — wasn’t on her mind then, though she saw generations of families come into the restaurant.
“Now I see how necessary third spaces are to the life of a town,” Kao said. “Charlotte doesn’t really have that yet.”
To encourage the town’s families, cyclists and Sunday walkers to gather at the Brick, Kao added a long coffee counter and seating at a farmhouse table. The full-service espresso bar, with coffee from Northfield’s Carrier Roasting, is reason enough to swing in.
While you’re there, browse the curious combination of goods on the newly installed ash shelves lining the store’s side brick wall. Kao is selling her favorite things, including the Kewpie, books and housewares that nod to different cultures and inspirations, she said. But as one of the few grocery-stocking stores in the area, the Brick also sells pantry staples such as flour, salt and Cheerios, which Kao knows are just as important as elevated apothecary items and natural wines.
“I’m trying to remain in the tradition of a general store, where there is a little bit of something for everyone,” Kao said.
Along with the well-made coffee drinks, the Brick’s new prepared foods shine in the mornings, with a biscuit sandwich and a breakfast burrito inspired by Kao’s Texan childhood. The small kitchen staff produces a constant flow of the hot, ready-to-go burritos ($8), which feature All Souls Tortilleria‘s Four Corners tortillas filled with fluffy Maple Meadow Farm eggs, Vermont Salumi chorizo, Cabot Creamery cheddar, and housemade hash browns and green sauce.
The store’s well and septic systems limit what the kitchen team can do, Kao said, but starting with “simple, easy fare” makes it easy to highlight local ingredients. Fall sandwiches, soups, salads and pastries — including more gluten- and dairy-free options — will hit the menu soon. Eventually, Kao plans to add rotating Chinese and Taiwanese weekly specials such as lu rou fan, a braised, minced pork served over rice. And, to satisfy a rumor going around town, she may even make dumplings.