Speed Burger had humble beginnings in 1964 in a trailer located just beside where the restaurant sits now.
They’re small and square. They’re topped with onion, mustard and a pickle then steamed and wrapped in parchment paper.
Pickens residents are no stranger to the delicious little Speed Burger - and now Speed Burger restaurant owners are celebrating their 50th year serving up food that’s become nothing short of legendary.
Don Turner was Speed Burger's first customer. Fifty years later owners say Turner eats at the E. Church Street Restaurant every day for lunch.
“We technically turn 50 this month,” said owner Cindy Heath, who has worked at the restaurant since she was 13 years old. “But we’re going to hold our celebration in early September and have menu specials and some give-a-ways.”
Every weekday the drive-thru line at the East Church Street restaurant wraps around the one-story brick building, which was built in 1979. The Speed Burger sign out front tells customers the restaurant was founded 15 years earlier in 1964 by Cotton and Liz Pritchard.
“It’s a family business,” Liz said. “My husband and I started it in a trailer in ’64 and modeled it after the Chili Dog restaurants, which there’s still one in Dalton. The owner of those, a friend, said if we moved to Jasper and opened a [Speed Burger] we could be partners and own third of it, then when we were ready we could buy him out.
“We worked for seven years and bought him out,” she said, “and the deal was all on a handshake.”
Liz said between 1964 and 1979 the Speed Burger was in a small trailer located on the same East Church Street property. Locals called it “The Trailer” or “Cotton’s Place.” Cotton went on to serve for several years on the Jasper City Council before his death.
Since they’ve been in business the family has no-doubt operated under the motto “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” because the small, orange-roofed building is exactly the same as it was in ‘79.
“Even the booths and vinyl flooring are the same,” said Liz, who no longer works in the restaurant.
Cindy, her daughter, said it was only this past spring when their five-decade old ice cream machine gave up the ghost.
“We’ve been through two or three motors, and the last time the repair guy came in he told us that was the last time he could fix it,” said Cindy, whose husband Billy and brother Jim also help manage the business. “We finally had to say goodbye - but our slaw machine, that’s still the same one we started with.”
Liz said she and her husband were much busier than they anticipated when they opened, but like any business they’ve had their share of ups and downs over the last 50 years.
“I remember when Hardee’s came into town,” Liz said. “The Hardee’s was in the building that Mary Ann’s restaurant is in now. That was the first chain restaurant here and it hurt us. The recession hurt us too, but with Hardee’s we had just paid off the building and I don’t know if we would have made it if I had those payments.”
But the family has made it, and while Cindy said in 50 years they’ve never taken anything off the menu they have added items to keep things fresh.
“Some things we’ve always had, like the chili, our sauce, our handmade slaw and the Speed Burgers,” she said. “But we’ve added thing like salads and veggies, and recently the dressed up fries and new sandwiches like the Philly. Our new ice cream machine lets us add some new frozen items. It’s funny though, we sell a lot more Speed Burgers toward the end of the month when people start getting low on money because they’re cheap.”
And just like their menu items Speed Burger customers and employees hang around, too.
Liz said she remembers one of her first customers when the restaurant operated out of the trailer - a man named Don Turner who still eats there almost every day. Before he passed, Liz and Cindy said postman Sammy McGhee was also a daily customer.
“And a lot of our employees have been here for a long time,” Cindy added. “I’ve got one who has been here 20 years, and several at 10. It’s like they start in high school and stay.”
Cindy credits at least part of that low-turnover rate to the five-day-a-week hours and willingness to work with employees who need time off for school or children.
“Our employees know they won’t have to work on the weekends,” she said. “People with children can come in and leave in time for school, and we close at 8:45 at night so evening shift know they won’t be here too late.”
The family says the secret to keeping a business open for 50 years is consistency and dedication to customers’ needs.
“You have to be consistent,” Liz said. “And we’ve got consistent employees so that helps a lot. We’ve got great customers, too, and really we want to thank so much the community supporting us for so long.”
Cindy said customers have made some unusual requests over the years, but “we don’t think a thing about it,” she said. “We just do what they want. Another thing that’s kept us going is that the family stays and runs the restaurant. We don’t leave because it’s the family baby. We can’t leave it with a babysitter. One of the family is always here to watch out for it.”
Keep an eye out for menu specials and giveaways in early September as part of Speed Burger’s 50th birthday celebration.