Story by Sarah Naron
When gazing out the large windows of the Bear Creek General Store and Event Venue, visitors are treated to a picturesque view of the kind of pristine pastureland that makes the East Texas region such a beautiful one. Those who patronized the establishment in its early days bore witness to even more unique scenery – acres occupied by throngs of pure white turkeys.
The roots of Bear Creek Smokehouse can be traced back to 1943 when Hick Shoults, a farmer and rancher, turned to his uncle – an Ag. teacher – for advice on how to get the most out of his livestock. His uncle’s suggestion was to start raising turkeys, and Hick and his wife, Nellie, filled their land – which they lovingly referred to as Bear Bottom – with white turkeys.
Along with bringing in turkeys, Hick and Nellie added a smokehouse to the property with the intention of selling smoked meat, and the Bear Creek business was born. Hick and Nellie’s son, Bobby Shoults, who was just three years old at the time, quickly began learning all there was to know about raising the turkeys and running the smokehouse.
Bobby remained heavily involved with Bear Creek until his death in 2017. He came to be viewed as the patriarch of the business and was instrumental in teaching his son, Robbie, and grandson, Hunter, all of the necessary information – such as optimizing plant operation and following USDA guidelines – to carry Bear Creek forward.
Bobby’s widow, Brenda, and Robbie are still an active part of Bear Creek, with the latter serving as the establishment’s current president. Robbie often refers to himself as “the head mop pusher” and is always willing to help in whatever aspects of the business he can.
As Robbie pointed out, the business has enjoyed a successful run and grown by leaps and bounds throughout the years that have followed since its humble beginnings.
“It’s been great,” he said. “We’ve been blessed. We’ve become a destination spot now. Years ago, when my granddaddy started raising turkeys, it was just a place to come get your Thanksgiving turkey. And now, we have so much more to offer.”
According to Robbie, Bear Creek’s current general store facility was opened in November 2018 and was recently followed by an expansion which opened for business in October.
“We never would have thought that less than two years after opening our new store, we’d add 6,600 more feet to it,” Robbie said. “We’ve expanded it by almost 70 percent.”
The driving force behind the enlargement, Robbie said, was the need for more event space in the facility, which frequently hosts weddings and other gatherings.
“For about the last year and a half, we killed ourselves, because we were having to move our displays of merchandise around to accommodate tables and chairs,” he explained. “Now, we’ve got a dedicated area for parties and weddings.”
Another prominent feature of the addition is the Pit Room, which is located adjacent to the event space and provides an area for visitors to enjoy the best Bear Creek has to offer in terms of culinary delights.
The room was officially used for the first time during a “soft opening” held at Bear Creek on Saturday, Oct. 10.
“We have cooked on this new pit for a couple of caterings, but we have not cooked on it yet for, like, a Pit Room Day,” said Robbie during the soft opening. “So, we’re excited to see what kind of turnout we have.”
As it turned out, the event was a resounding success with a total of [#] customers enjoying food from the pit throughout the day.
“This is gonna be a hot spot back here,” Robbie said of the Pit Room. “I think it’s gonna be a big draw for us.”
Bear Creek’s new square footage and the skills of its cooking staff were also put to the test when an outdoor concert featuring the Bellamy Brothers was hosted at the establishment earlier in the fall.
“We had over 1,000 people,” Robbie shared. “It was a big crowd. They could either buy just a concert ticket or a ticket with a meal. Our plate count was 620, and we stopped counting after that. So, we fed a bunch of people, and we were able to do it in this new area. It was so nice not to have to rearrange the store.”
When asked how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected the business, Robbie reported that fortunately, they haven’t missed a beat.
“There were times in the heat of COVID where people were coming out here and were like, ‘The grocery store will only let us have two of these or two of that,’” he recalled. “We were like, ‘Hey, load up. We’ll help you to the car.’”
In addition to selling food – which rendered Bear Creek an essential business and allowed it to remain open during the early stages of the pandemic – the establishment also offers a wide variety of items such as clothing, housewares, and gift items, allowing their patrons to do more diverse shopping.
“Even when the malls were shut down, they could still look at other stuff that they might not be able to go shop for otherwise,” Robbie pointed out. “It’s been good. We’ve been blessed.”
The one aspect of Bear Creek to be negatively affected by COVID-19, he said, was catering.
“Catering has gotten to be a pretty good little piece of our business, and there weren’t as many public gatherings as there had been,” he said. “I know we had a wedding or two cancel, but reschedule. So, as far as slowing down, that’s the only thing I’ve seen slow down a little bit.”
Pandemic aside, Robbie expressed his belief that the future of Bear Creek Smokehouse is a bright one.
“Bear Creek is a destination – a fun, happy place for families to come and hang out for the day,” he said. “We try to make this a family-friendly place, where families can bring their kids and feel safe letting them run around.”
Among the attractions sure to be enjoyed by children and parents alike are goats, longhorns, a pig, and turkeys. The general store also boasts a miniature sluice where children have the opportunity to mine for arrowheads and gems.
“It’s a pretty cool spot, and we’re trying to make it better every day,” Robbie said. “We’re excited about the future here, for sure.”