Fifty-something years ago in Chase City, Virginia, a third grader named Al had his first meal out. It was nothing extravagant, but to Al, The Speedy Lunch might as well have been NYC’s finest five-star eatery. His order: a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Crinkle-cut fries. And a vanilla milkshake. It was love at first bite.
An inextinguishable passion was born that day. Al had discovered one of the few unadulterated joys of humanity: the taste of a good burger. He vowed to spread that joy. Half a century later, Al’s Burger Shack was conceived.
It came out of nowhere. No one seems to remember the construction or excited buzz that preceded the Shack’s opening in September. Suddenly, the black oval sign appeared at the end of Franklin Street where Chapel Hill greets Carrboro, reading, simply, Al’s. Just as suddenly, the virtually unknown burger joint was flooded with salivating burger-mongers.
“I walked in and knew this place was special… then I took a bite of a Mookie and knew it was legendary…” said Megan Neligan, a faithful Al’s customer.
Other self-professed burger connoisseurs of Chapel Hill swear that Al’s serves up the best burgers in the Triangle. One patron even goes so far as to suggest that Al’s menu can compete with the ultimate burger elite – In-N-Out and Five Guys.
So what’s so great about that little white-bricked, triangle-roofed hut at the end of the road? Who’s Al, and what on earth is a mookie?
From a family of entrepreneurs, Al Bowers graduated UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in Industrial Relations. With an innovative mind and impressive GPA, Al had an array of possible career paths ahead of him. Like most college students subjected to the horrors of calculus, Bowers was a frequent daydreamer in class, but unlike his peers, he was dreaming of caramelized onions, soft American cheese, chili sauce and slaw… all smothering a moist beef patty atop an impeccably greasy bun.
His destiny was clear.
His friends knew it, too. Al was recently catching up with a college buddy over beers at a UNC football game when his friend had an epiphany: “Now that I think about it, every time we went out, no matter if it was 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., you always ended up behind a stove…”
Al is now the proud owner of his own burger joint for the same reason he enjoyed whipping up home-cooked meals for his inebriated buddies back in the day: “I like making people happy, ‘cause I like to be happy.”
Walk into Al’s, and you’ll know he’s telling the truth. A shorter, heavy-set bald fella will be standing behind the counter in his collared, pin-striped fifties’ getup with a smile so wide his eyes disappear; grinning as if he’s been waiting for you to walk in for 20 years.
At Al’s, there’s never a shortage of genuine Southern hospitality. “I want everyone who works here to treat every customer that walks through that door like a friend who just walked into their home.”
Friendship – it’s a huge theme at Al’s. Take for instance the cryptic burger selections — the Paco, the Mookie, Kaarin, Big Matt, etc… Each is named for a friend of Al’s. For instance, Mookie is the nickname of Greg Smith, Al’s long-time best friend since junior high days, who, in turn, gave Al the title Paco due to the chubby junior higher’s Chevron-styled mustache. Al’s family embellishes the menu as well: Sean, of Sean’s Bacon Cheddarburger, is his younger brother, and the Kaarin, the surprisingly scrumptious veggie burger, dons his daughter’s name.
But, of course, Al doesn’t forget to acknowledge his roots. The burger sizing labels represent three generations of Al’s – Big Al, Al’s great-grandfather; Junior for “Al Junior,” Al’s father; and finally, Al’s own family nickname, Buddy Bite.
At Al’s, food is family, and every burger is sure to provide a distinctive personality along with flavor. And that flavor is guaranteed to be local and fresh. Al’s natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef hails from Mooresville, N.C., near Lake Norman where cattle graze freely. Chapel Hill Creamery provides Al’s with cheese. Mapleview Farms makes the milk and custard. Even the drinks are local – with craft beers brewed in North Carolina and wines from local vineyards. All toppings and dressings, including the irresistible bacon and onion jam, are made directly in the Shack.
Now for the pressing question: which burger reigns supreme?
Megan will swear by the Mookie, but Al leans aggressively in favor of the Bobo Chili Cheeseburger.
“If someone were to say ‘you have to have a burger right now, what’s it gonna be?’…that’s my go-to every time. Although the Kenny J I had today…barbeque sauce, pimento cheese, grilled onions….WOOOOOWEEEE!”