Small-town burger joints: Big on flavor but vanishing

by Tom Poland

There was a time when just about every small town had a burger joint. It was the place to be. That was back in Small Town, America, where locals proclaimed, “You can buy the world’s best hamburger here.”
The burgers were good. Very good. They tasted like home-cooked burgers, and no two burgers looked alike, unlike corporate-cloned iron-pressed burgers. Classic burger joints gave off tantalizing smoke.
Driving up and stepping into the smoky air ratcheted the hunger meter up a good many notches. I know because we had a classic burger joint in Lincolnton, Ga., a simple affair of concrete blocks painted white. You ordered at one window and picked up your food at another, mere feet away.
The hamburgers, French fries, and banana splits tasted great. I want to say you could get breaded onion rings and hot dogs too. Also a fish sandwich, lemon sours, corn dogs, milk shakes, and chocolate nut sundaes.
First run by Susie Powers as the Milky Way Freeze Bar, Yvonne Bentley later operated our burger heaven as the Tastee Freeze. We had other burger joints, the 378 Drive-In and the concession stand at Elijah Clark State Park.
Good food and good times made for great hangouts, and what cars! You’d see ’57 Chevys, Pontiac GTOs, and Chevelles. I recall Corvettes, Dodge Chargers, and Thunderbirds too. In what amounted to “Burger Boulevard,” kids would drive from the Tastee Freeze to the 378 Drive-in, on down to the park and back. Burgers meant socializing and flirting, but things would change.
Burgeoning burger chains wouldn’t do mom and pop any favors. That’s why the past owns the Tastee Freeze now as it does other Mom and Pop burger joints. I remember my first franchise burger, Kelly’s in Augusta. We’d order from the car and girls would bring us our burgers.
Cooler than cool. But, we got duped. Little did we know we were establishing a trend that would doom local burger joints and drive-ins. Cookie cutter burger restaurants sprang up like mushrooms. Here comes McDonalds, Burger King and Hardee’s. There go the uniquely delicious burger joints. Franchises’ “canned” burgers looked remarkably similar, and the taste just wasn’t there. And as fast food goes, well, today they are slow. Very slow.
We weren’t in a hurry for a burger from the Tastee Freeze. We patiently waited for the thick, juicy, hot burger, layered with an onion slice, tomato, lettuce, and a thick slab of ground beef smothered in mayo, ketchup, and mustard. A dill pickle slice topped the bun.
A great burger like that today? Not easy to find. I travel through many a small town where I see abandoned burger joints. Ragged, rusty, and falling apart, their distinctive architecture and signage stand as monuments to lucky souls who heaped up great memories there. Back in Lincolnton, they tore down the Tastee Freeze. A Hardee’s sits where the Tastee Freeze stood but I can still see that little white concrete building surrounded by classic cars.
Yes, the Mom and Pop burger joints are in full retreat, but folks in North Augusta still have a classic burger place, the SNO-CAP Drive-in. It’s been in operation since 1964 and has had several owners.
You can order from your car and carhops, girls on roller skates, bring you your food. Inside, black upholstered stools perch on chrome pedestals, and your chili dog comes wrapped in black-and-white checkered paper, which complements the black-and-white checkered tile floor. Get your shake in a glass mug topped with whipped cream. Drench your fries with ketchup from a bottle, not those annoying packets. And don’t be surprised if you see a classic car there.
I plan to go to the SNO-CAP. If you, like me, long for bygone times, you can go too. I’ll see you there with a fabulous burger drizzling all over you. We can watch the roller girls roll by and pretend we’re back in Small Town, America, and, you know, for an enchanted while we will be.

Author: Stephan Drew

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