Big Chief Drive-In, Glencoe AL

So, on this trip to Alabama, we took a quick break from barbecue to visit a terrific A-frame restaurant. The Big Chief is in the town of Glencoe, right outside Gadsden, and it was originally built in 1963 as a Jack’s Hamburgers – although this was not the same Jack’s as the large fast food chain with locations all around Alabama and southern Tennessee, and in the towns of Tallapoosa and Carrollton in west Georgia. This Jack’s was owned by Jack Locklear, and he had one store here and another in Fort Payne. I’ve not found any evidence that there were any Jack’s Hamburgers other than these two, but would love to be corrected on that point.

Before the sixties ended, Locklear sold the Glencoe location to Thomas Alford, who renamed it Big Chief. I am not certain how many other individuals have owned the restaurant since Alford, but in 2013, Jeff Word and his family bought the place and are doing a terrific job keeping the community interested in their odd throwback restaurant.

As for Locklear, he kept the Fort Payne Jack’s going for many more years before closing the business and renting the building to Esteban Rojo in 2005. Mr. Rojo has run a Mexican place called La Fonda there for the last decade. I’m a little aggravated that we’ve been to Fort Payne twice since beginning the blog and haven’t been by Big Chief’s lovely twin sister.

My son and I didn’t eat here, but the girlchild, who’d been shopping at the Gadsden Mall, ordered a hamburger and she said that it was a lot better than she was expecting, “way better” than a fast food burger. I had half a mind to sample a taste while getting the boychild settled with the grape milkshake that we shared, but in the short time it took me to unwrap the straw, she’d inhaled the whole thing. Kids!

I apologize for cropping the picture above. The sun was very bright, and I didn’t realize my error until I was home. The roadside sign has been repainted recently, and a block with a neon name that connected the two arrows has been removed. There’s a very good picture of what the sign used to look like here. Interestingly, the block was placed horizontally in 2010. This undated post from Vanishing America shows the block at a diagonal angle.

This isn’t a very large building. Fifty years ago, when we were all skinnier, maybe fifteen people could fit inside the lobby, with some stools facing the kitchen and some facing the parking lot. In these overweight days, it’s more like ten, if one of ’em’s a four year-old. The menu boards take up the width of the counter, with burgers and sandwiches on one half, and a crazy number of dessert treats on the other. They have Blue Bell ice cream as well as soft serve. Sadly, the grape milkshakes are made with regular vanilla soft serve and flavoring.

The Big Chief had a coupon running in one of the local papers while we were there, and a clarification posted on the doors and the counter that they do not actually serve grape ice cream. I suspect this is something that the Words learned when they bought the Big Chief: there are quite a few old-timers from this region, not to mention oddball nostalgists like me, who remember the days when grape ice cream was common all over northeastern Alabama. (We believe that Gadsden was, in the 1960s and 1970s, home to a Kay’s Kastles, and that chain served grape ice cream back in those days.)

The girlchild avoided the debate entirely by having a cappuccino milkshake instead, loving it every bit as much as she did her burger. “You should write a blog that’s just about burger places, Dad,” she concluded.

Related sites that helped with the history:

Bama Prints: Classic Drive-Ins (undated)
The Gadsden Times (July 12 2006)
Greasy Spoon Burger Joints in Bama (Apr. 14 2014)
Southern Foodways Alliance story about La Fonda in Ft Payne (July 18 2014)

Do you enjoy classic adventure TV? I’m reliving some great shows from my own childhood with my four year-old son. Come join the fun at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time!