The Delta farmer and restaurateur started doing gas station food reviews on social media in January 2020. Along the way, he’s eaten a lot of good food and made lasting friends.
He’s a Delta farmer. He is a restaurateur. He is a former Justice Court judge. He is a public speaker. He is the father of two daughters. Yet the thing that Stafford Shurden is most known for is a series of online videos where he eats and reviews gas station food from the tailgate of his pickup truck.
“People actually recognize me when I go into gas stations,” he laughs.
Shurden, a native of Drew, Mississippi, has a viral following on Facebook and YouTube for his Tailgate Gas Station Review series.
“I guess it resonates with people because gas stations have a history of being ‘democratic’ places, even during segregation,” Shurden said. “You might see a tractor driver and a lawyer both ordering fried chicken. Gas station food is something people agree on – it doesn’t really push a hot button with anyone.”
Adopted at birth by “incredible parents,” Shurden is a third-generation cotton farmer.
“My granddad, who was born in 1917, was a mule trader, the youngest of 18 kids. I grew up on the farm and my dad and granddad were my heroes,” he recalled. “I figured out early on that if I wanted to be around them, I needed to work on the farm. I turned 50 this month, and I’m still doing manual labor on the farm.”
When his dad retired in his late 50s, back in the 1990s, Shurden bought the farm equipment from his dad and uncle.
“I started farming for myself in 2000,” he said, adding that after he quit farming, his dad was elected Justice Court judge in Sunflower County. Shurden’s dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and lived two and a half years.
“After my dad died, I was approached by a county supervisor who told me they had to appoint somebody to fill my dad’s seat. He asked if I would be willing to serve. I had always had political aspirations, so I agreed to do it,” he said.
Shurden then ran four times for Justice Court judge and won each time, serving a total of 15 years.
“I ran for the last time in 2015. My last day as a judge was December 31, 2019. That job was the only paycheck I’ve gotten in my life, although I didn’t do it for the money. I believe in what our founding fathers wanted, and in time, that was for new people to take over these positions,” Shurden said.
No stranger to social media, Shurden says that while he was a judge, he did a lot through social media.
“I was limited to a code of conduct, so there was a fine line of what I could do.”
At one time, Shurden owned two restaurants. Now he owns just one, and like any businessperson, he wants to see it succeed.
“I worked with David Crews, the founder of the Delta Supper Club, to cater an event at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. They wanted fried fish and turnip greens. I realized how special our food is here. That is what people choose to eat. I tucked that away,” he said.
As he traveled around the Delta, Shurden did what thousands of people do every day. He ate lunch on the go from a gas station.
“I realized they were serving the same kind of food I served in my restaurant, so I started doing little reviews, as a comparison of their food to ours. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek,” Shurden said, noting that he started doing the reviews in January 2020, and it picked up during the lockdown. “Restaurants were shut down, but gas stations were open. I thought the whole thing would be funny.”
The first review he did was at Granny’s Corner in McCall Creek, Mississippi.
“I believe the population there is two, and that’s only when the gas station is open,” he said. “It looks like something from the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. It was located at a crossroads, and they had a huge chalkboard menu. They served everything on the menu every day.”
Shurden got feedback immediately from his first few reviews.
“I did a review on United Deli in Columbus. The owner was from the Middle East, and the review got over 50,000 views. A customer in my restaurant told me one day that the owner of United Deli asked him to tell me, ‘Thank you,’ because his business was booming because of the review.”
That was an epiphany moment for Shurden.
“I realized that I could do reviews to make a difference in people’s lives. I had done a couple of bad reviews prior to that, but I made a decision that day to never do a bad review again. If a gas station has bad food, I just won’t run the review. I’d say about 25% of the reviews I do never make to YouTube.”
The reviews run about three minutes.
“I have 160 hours of video that I run three minutes at a time,” Shurden said. “I have run millions of minutes on Facebook in the last three years.”
His daughter has insisted he get on TikTok, so his videos are running on that platform as well.
“I suppose she was right, because I have several videos on TikTok with over a half million views.” And for the record, Shurden’s videos are not monetized. “I do not make money doing this.”
Early on, finding a place to review was easy.
“There was plenty of low-hanging fruit, as there are so many gas stations scattered throughout the Delta,” he said, but after doing reviews of all of them, he had to expand his reach. “One of my daughters and I drove to Key West for her to go diving. It was a nice father-daughter trip, and we found a lot of great gas stations along the way.”
One of those was Dion’s Quick Chik, which Shurden says is exactly like a Double Quick found throughout the Delta.
“I do a lot more research ahead of time now. Nothing shocks me any more thanks to the feedback I get on social media. I’ll do a review of a place and get comments like, ‘If you like that, you have to try this.’ I read the comments and I get fewer bad spots than I used to.”
Shurden still gets surprised from time to time, like the time he visited a place on Poplar Avenue in Memphis.
“It’s like walking in a Whole Foods. It is so clean, and they have fresh salad, fresh fruit bowls, and the best sushi made by a Japanese guy behind the counter.”
The majority of the food Shurden reviews is country cooking and soul food.
“You start to figure out that regionally things are different. In the Delta, there is more fried chicken. On the Coast, there are more po’boys. Kent and Sue’s Quick Stop outside Bay St. Louis features a full buffet, along with made-to-order po’boys and hamburgers.”
Shurden even noticed a difference in the way chicken is prepared in different regions of the state.
“Corinth, just four hours from my house, is on the edge of Appalachia. The culture is different there. They have two kinds of chicken, spicy and not spicy,” he said.
And more than just trying food in the places he visits; Shurden often makes new friends.
“When I went inside that convenience store in Corinth, the lady inside said she knew who I was. That’s how I learned just how small Mississippi is. Then a man approached me in that store and said he knew my cousin.”
Just off Highway 98 in Hattiesburg, Mercury Pizza Company anchors a gas station. While pizza and gas isn’t an unexpected combination, learning there is a woodfired brick oven inside was amazing to Shurden.
“When I was there, a big dude walked up to my truck and asked what score they got. He told me he grew up in Parchman and I realized I went to school with his twin brother and sister. We have kept in touch since then.”
While at a gas station called The Dive on 45, located on Highway 45 around Buckatunna in Wayne County, Shurden observed a man dressed in a button-down shirt and starched khakis.
“I was intrigued and stopped to talk with him. He owned the place, and as it turns out, we had been duck hunting together in Drew. That video got 750,000 views.”
Sometimes Shurden is taken by surprise.
“I stopped to get gas and a bite to eat on my way out of Meridian and I stopped at a sketchy-looking place called Seafood Express. There were bars on the windows, and it just had a run-down look to it,” he said. “But inside, they were serving soft shell crabs and one of the best shrimp po’boys I’ve ever eaten. The place is owned by a Vietnamese family who has family on the Coast who deliver fresh fish daily.”
Another surprise was a taqueria attached to a gas station in Natchez.
“They didn’t speak English, and I wasn’t really sure what I was ordering, but it was really good.”
That helped fuel Shurden’s growing interest in ethnic food.
“At the Gautier First Stop, a Vietnamese family serves Chinese food, including handmade eggrolls. They moved to the Gulf Coast from Florida where they ran an authentic Chinese buffet.”
Shurden often loads up a cooler of finds he makes on the road.
“I love going to Vine Brothers in Centerville where they make their own sausages. When you go inside, there is a meat market on the left and a full-service restaurant on the right. They even have a full catering business,” he said.
South Louisiana has a whole other level of food.
“I have certain stops where I load up on boudin and cracklins. And there is a gas station in New Orleans that I believe has the best fried chicken in town. There is a chain of gas stations in that area called Danny & Clyde’s and they serve an exceptional roast beef po’boy.”
While heavily influenced by Anthony Bourdain, Shurden says his reviews are nothing like the famous food journalist.
“He did have an influence on the way I feel about food. He really listened to what people had to say.”
To date, Shurden has made 149 food review videos. “That’s a lot of content.” He has been recognized as a powerful force in the convenience store industry, and he has been tapped to be the keynote speaker at this year’s conference for the National Association of Convenience Stores. But doing the reviews is getting harder, as Shurden farms all by himself.
“I do feel that I have a good body of work,” he says. “I want to do something special for my 150th review.”