Caley Earl Gardner, 80, fell into the grease trap behind Ray's Super Market, 901 Old U.S. Highway 1 in Moncure, and couldn't get out, Webster said.
Authorities didn't release details regarding the cause of Gardner's death, but his daughter said she thinks he suffered a heart attack.
Gardner, who was known around town as "Mr. Earl," had worked at Moncure's only grocery for 50 years, employees and relatives said.
"He was the person who was always out to help somebody else," said Marcie Lorbacher, the youngest of Gardner's four daughters. "The town of Moncure will not be the same."
Gardner showed up for work at 5 a.m. each day and was known for his sausage-making expertise.
"He could outwork and outrun any of us," Lorbacher said. "(People) came in just for the sausage. They loved his stuffed sausage, and he made a bunch of it."
Gardner went to clean the store's grease trap Wednesday morning, like he always did, his daughter said. When he didn't return, another store employee went to check on him and found him in the trap, she said.
Rescue workers were unable to revive him, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
The store closed for the day, and grief-stricken employees were sent home.
Chatham County authorities are trying to determine how Gardner fell into the grease trap. Lorbacher said he had a lot of experience with the grease trap and knew how to get out of it.