A horn honk, a smile, a wave, and a shout.
That’s how my hour-long interview with Al Bowers is interrupted on no less than six occasions. And if it’s not pleasantries exchanged with the myriad locals who know and love the gregarious owner of Al’s Burger Shack, it’s his staff begging our pardon, popping in and out of conversation with their boss as they prepare for the day’s work. A check needs signing, a stereo speaker fixing, a small window pane with a crack requires his attention.
“Sorry, brother,” Bowers says to me with each passing hiccup, picking up exactly where he left off pre-interruption.
It’s a scorching hot August morning as we sit beneath the tall wooden structure adjacent to the little white brick building where Bowers first opened Al’s Burger Shack in September of 2013. Since then, Al’s Burger Shack, known simply as “Al’s” to locals, has become a Chapel Hill institution.
With lines that regularly stretch out the front door, down the two-step staircase, and along the West Franklin Street sidewalk, students, locals, and visitors have known for years what review aggregator TripAdvisor announced this past July: Al’s Burger Shack slings the best burger in America, specifically its sloppy, delicious, chili-slaw-and-onion-piled fan favorite, the Bobo Chili Cheeseburger.
“Every day is Friday,” Bowers says, when asked what kind of impact the honor has had on business.
“You never expect anything close to this,” he continues. “You never dream of anything like this. It’s crazy. You’re blown away.”
To those in the know, the devotion to Al’s goes beyond the fact that Bowers and his team make the best burger in America. As anyone who has been greeted by Bowers’s booming voice can attest, to dine at Al’s is like dining at home, even if the place is making national headlines.
“I think people in the hospitality business just have that thing in common,” Bowers says. “We just want to make sure you’re happy.”
And to those in the want-to-know?
“People are coming from all over,” Bowers says, noting how in the wake of the TripAdvisor designation, Al’s is seeing an influx of customers from all over the country.
But before the out-the-door lines, before the burger stand in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Memorial Stadium and the Al’s food truck (both of which, sadly, are no more), before the second Al’s Burger Shack location in Southern Village, before the America’s Best Burger crown, Al’s wasn’t going to be a burger shack.
In fact, Al’s wasn’t going to be anything at all.
In Spring of 2013, after spending several years managing Merritt’s Grill—another landmark Chapel Hill eatery—Bowers, who was raised in Greensboro and settled in Chapel Hill when he enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-eighties, approached his bosses about buying into the now-famous local business.
“They weren’t interested, which I understood. But I gave my thirty-days’ notice right there,” Bowers says.
With two kids, one of whom was starting college that fall, the pressure was on Bowers to figure something out fast. He leaned on his experience in real estate, where he’d made his living before getting into the restaurant business at the onset of the Great Recession.
Discovering that chocolatier The Chocolate Door was about to vacate its West Franklin Street site, Bowers, his wife Melody, and their friend and initial investor Joe Nanney jumped on the location.
“I called up the landlord, met him down there, walked inside, and a week later we had a lease,” he says. “I had no clue what I was gonna do.”
Initially, Bowers planned to open a humble breakfast shop, operating solely out of a curbside window. But he was pushed to think bigger by Melody and Nanney.
“They wanted something that could be open and selling all day,” Bowers says. “Except Sunday, of course. And they asked, ‘Well, what else do you like?'”
Bowers’s gut response was his love of hamburgers.
“Seven months later, Al’s opened,” he says.
“It was Melody’s idea,” Bowers continues, crediting his wife with the inspiration to open on September 18, 2013, National Cheeseburger Day. “I wanted to open the first week of September when the students were back in full swing. But she said we should wait.”
Just as he does with Melody, Bowers is quick to give credit to others in his orbit. He lauds his wife for her support, intellect, and the recipe for Al’s Burger Shack’s famous rosemary fries. He mentions his friends and former investors—without whom he may never have opened his burger shack in the first place—with a deep and abiding love. He sings praises most vocally and often of his staff, in whom he finds inspiration to keep pushing.
“When [one of my staff] says to me, ‘I moved out of my parents’ house’ or ‘I just bought a car’ or ‘I qualified for a house,'” Bowers says. “And it’s because you opened a hamburger joint? Man, that’s powerful.”
Bowers mentions that, while his pay scale may be a bit higher than the food-service-sector average, he is more than happy to inflate the Burger Shack’s bottom line if it means his employees are paid a living wage.
The recognition that the money he pays his staff tends to stay in his community while simultaneously serving a bigger purpose is a microcosm of Bowers’s outlook. For Bowers, focusing on the good of his local environs and its denizens, whether through their bellies or in their wallets, is more important than aiming to make the best cheeseburger in America.
“We just strive to make the best burger on Franklin and Graham,” Bowers says with a laugh, noting that he and his staff aim to control what they can control. “It’s the four-walls theory. We control what happens inside these four walls…”
He’s about to conclude his thought when we are interrupted once more as a truck drives by, honking and waving at the genial figurehead of West Franklin Street.