Let’s start with a little sacrilege. Al’s Burger Shack occupies maybe 12 feet of frontage on West Franklin alongside some 15 feet of picnic
shelter. There’s often a line out the door. McDonald’s is across the street; beyond sharing
that stretch of downtown, the two establishments have a little more in common.
Al Bowers ’ 88 owes a small but signifi-
cant chunk of his success to that arched gi-
ant. It was his first employer, back when he
was a student in Greensboro.
“I have a crazy creative side, but I do like
structure,” he said. “I learned that at Mc-
Donald’s. I tell my staff, ‘I’m here to squash
any kind of creativity you might have, be-
That might indeed sound to Al’s dev-
otees like blasphemy. After all, they wait
longer and pay more.
On an unseasonably warm February
Saturday, the place is so jam-packed there’s
no room inside for the owner. Which suits
Bowers fine. He loves to work a room.
So he makes the rounds at the 10 out-
door picnic tables. That’s about the only
seating Al’s offers, save for a few barstools
inside. It’s a shack, y’all.
Bowers is slapping backs and shaking
hands and hugging necks. Oh, and delivering orders from the small take-out window,
refilling waters and wiping down soon-to-be-claimed empty tables.
“I do whatever the restaurant needs me
to do at that time. Right now, it’s calling me
to kind of hang out. I’d just be in the way in
there.” The small kitchen has eight employees crammed together on this day, trying
their best to keep up with demand.
Days like this, his shack teeming with
happy customers, Bowers gets reflective.
How’d he get here? Practice. Specifically,
Pantana Bob’s, the Flying Burrito and Mer-ritt’s Store & Grill. He helped open the first
of those and managed the other two. Cut
his teeth as a student at the short-lived Jigsaws and broke into management at Spring
Garden in Carrboro.
Bowers grew up in a family of mostly
Well-Schooled, Al Came Back
to What He Loves
women. “They always took care of people,
and a lot of it was through food.”
The first meal out he can remember was
a cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake from
the long-since-shuttered Speedy Lunch in
Chase City, Va., his mother’s hometown. “I
just fell in love with the place. When I was
thinking about what kind of restaurant to
open, I decided I was going to go back to
what I really loved, and I love hamburgers.”
He gets his work ethic from his dad,
who was a department head in textile mills
but also owned a construction company and
a nightclub. “Side hustle,” Bowers says. “He
always had something going on in addition
to working for the man.”
It was at that first student gig that Al met
Melody. He’d be the first to tell you that
Al’s Burger Shack is not his story. It’s theirs.
He was a freshman washing dishes;
Melody Adams ’ 85 had graduated and was
co-managing Jigsaws while figuring out
her next move. She managed wait staff, not
kitchen. The freshman with the outsized
personality soon got in on the regular staff
spades game, and the two began to hit it off.
Bowers stayed with Spring Garden for
a few years more after graduating with de-
grees in industrial relations management and
sociology. He and Melody married in 1990.
She worked as a paralegal while he contin-
ued to study restaurant management in jobs
in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte
Then back to Chapel Hill, where he
jumped into real estate as the two raised
their daughters. He thought he was done
with the restaurant business. Then the recession of 2008 hit, and he went back to the
business he knew, the one that knew him.
His Aunt Aubrey taught him how to
play blackjack when he was 2. That’s where
Bowers gets his uncanny ability to remember customer names. He sings them out, and
he puts them on the menu.
There’s Sean, the bacon burger named
for his brother. Paco, the spicy burger
dubbed with Al’s own high school nickname. The Marcus Paige, who gave Al’s a
shout-out on national television during the
2016 Final Four. The Huff Daddy swerves
away from beef to honor a fraternity brother
with pork tenderloin, ham, Swiss, barbecue
sauce and horseradish aioli on a baguette.
The booming Shack has enabled Al and
Melody to open a second restaurant in Carrboro, bearing her name: Mel’s Commissary
and Luncheonette. “It will be a ‘when we
run out, we run out’ place,” Melody says —
a couple of meat sandwiches, a veggie sandwich, a meat entree, a veggie entree, a few
sides — an ode to her mother.
“She was an excellent Southern cook,
and I learned at her feet,” Melody says. “It’ll
be her chicken salad, her deviled eggs, her
lemon bars, her caramel cake, her marinat-
ed vegetable recipe, her potato salad, her
collards. This summer, when butter beans
are fresh, I’m going to have a big ol’ pot of
butter beans on the stove.”
Meanwhile, Al will have more names to
memorize. He’s opening a second Burger
Shack at Southern Village this summer,
even tinkering some with the elbow room
and the menu — turkey burgers, side salads,
varieties of fries and 30 seats inside.
Like the Shack, a small space serving food
made with love, a backstory and a structure
that dictates what it is and what it ain’t.
— Matt Dees ’01