Hickory Hustle 3

Zackary Cranford’s Entrepreneurial Endeavors

Hickory may not seem like much of a destination, but thanks to young entrepreneur Zackary Cranford, that’s a sentiment that’s quickly changing.

Take a drive down 40 and you’ll undoubtedly see signs for Hickory’s iconic diner, Granny’s Country Kitchen. Cranford grew up in the social innards of Granny’s, his family’s flagship business. Because entrepreneurship runs in his blood, Cranford knew exactly what he wanted to study when he started at NC State. And just three years after graduating, Cranford has already opened two enterprises of his own, soldering his legacy as an entrepreneur and simultaneously lending a tourist twist to Hickory.

Seventeen Twelve Distillery

As if his youth weren’t impressive enough, Cranford actually began his first business venture while he was still a student. After working at a brewery in college, Cranford considered capitalizing on the industry—but realized it was already saturated. He turned instead to another trade that would still make the most of the inherent profitableness of alcohol: distilling.

During his last semester of college in 2013, Cranford created a business plan for his distillery. Along with his partner, Tim ____ (who serves as the spirit mastermind of the operation), Cranford developed and produced his first batch of genuine moonshine. First released in 2014, and named “Seventeen Twelve” in honor of North Carolina’s incorporation as a separate state, the moonshine’s ingredients hail from local agriculture; the grains are all grown within seven miles of the distillery. But Cranford’s crowning glory came in October 2015 with the distillery’s production of North Carolina’s first ever bourbon. The smooth spirit, spiked with a hint of toasty butterscotch, earned the youthful distillery a god medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. The distillery also houses and distills Old Nick Williams, which is made from an old family recipe from 1768. When the Williams family wanted to begin production of their whiskey again after 106 years, they toured a series of distilleries before deciding to partner with Cranford.

Want a sip for yourself? The distillery offers tours at 12, 1 and 2 pm on Saturdays with no reservations and include a discussion of the distillery’s history and a look into the distilling process, as well as a sample of the liquors for just $5. Or schedule a private tour (the distillery is a popular destination for bachelor parties!) for just $10. You can also find Cranford’s award-winning bourbon and moonshine at most North Carolina ABC stores.

Standard Oyster Company

Once you’ve wet your whistle and worked up an appetite, head into Hickory proper, where you’ll find Cranford’s latest venture, Standard Oyster Company.

The Cranfords love traveling; their first destination on every trip? An oyster bar. Cranford long dreamed of capturing that holiday ambiance and bringing it to his hometown of Hickory, and that’s exactly what he did with Standard Oyster Company. Tucked into an innocuous strip mall next to an heirloom Granny’s Kitchen, Standard Oyster captures that hole-in-the-wall vibe Cranford loves, with plenty of modern flair and amenities. A 50-seat bar, bent into a series of u’s, fills the narrow room. A private dining experience this is not. “You’re going to make friends with the person next to you, and that’s what we encourage,” says Cranford.

And really, that’s part of the experience of eating an oyster—it’s an interactive dish. From the chalkboard menu that features the daily array of oysters (which are carefully selected from around the world and shipped in fresh on dry ice), to the open raw bar in the back where you can check out the array of shellfish available, right down to slurping down your choices elbow to elbow with your neighbor, the entire process is a communal experience. “An oyster is a blank canvas for a conversation,” Cranford says with a smile.

With Cranford’s entrepreneurial genius buoying the town, it seems Hickory is becoming a blank canvas for a conversation, too.