Most any time of the day you go, the line at Melvins’ will stretch the length of the narrow grill from the cashier to the back door, sometimes doubling back up to the front – and sometimes back again.
But do not be deterred. The line will move quickly, and the short wait is so worth it.
This small Elizabethtown grill packs them in Monday through Saturday: regulars there for their second or third or fourth lunch of the week; hungry vacationers hopping over from nearby White Lake; travelers detouring miles out of their way to eat the exact same burgers they ate growing up.
There’s a recurring theme when you ask diners what brings them back to Melvins’ over and over again: the burgers, of course, are delicious; and good golly, are they fast.
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“I’ve been coming for decades,” says John Foley of Fayetteville, eating lunch with his wife Porchia. “They have great burgers and the absolute quickest service that I’ve ever seen anywhere. These folks have it down to an absolute science.”
First, the burgers.
Owner and operator Randy Harris, who bought the grill from the Melvin family in 2004, swears everything about the burgers of today’s Melvins’ is exactly the same as the burgers served there when it first opened as a pool room in 1938. Except for one thing: the Red & White where the Melvins purchased hamburger meat closed, so Harris buys high grade meat and grinds it in-house daily.
But everything else is the same. The hand-rolled ball of beef is seared on the blistering grill until it forms a flavorful crust, then smashed and flipped to continue cooking. They use the same chili recipe (it’s a secret), the same slaw recipe (another secret), the same cooking method, the same tools and the same production line.
Customers who find themselves queued up at the back of the restaurant should expect to wait about eight minutes to reach the cashier. And when you reach her, be ready. Don’t monkey around, just tell her what you want: you want one or two or three (don’t be shy) and you want them “all the way” – chili, mustard, onion and slaw. That part is crucial and isn’t open for debate – not if you want the full Melvins’ experience. Just trust in that advice. There’s no mayo, no lettuce or tomato. You can get ketchup or hot sauce, if you must.
Add a coke and a bag of chips, maybe a cookie, and get out of the way.
Often, says Harris, you’ll have your sack of burgers in hand before you put your change in your pocket (it’s cash only, by the way).
About the speed
Harris grew up in Elizabethtown, about 100 miles south of Raleigh, and graduated from N.C. State with an engineering degree before spending 20 years working as an industrial engineer. He gets just as juiced talking about the efficiency of the Melvins’ burger-making process and his well-trained, highly synchronized staff as he does the deliciousness of his burgers.
“It takes about five seconds to make an order,” he says. Five seconds. He concedes that extra large orders or buses full of FFA kids from White Lake can slow things down – just a little.
When he contemplated adding cheese to the burgers several years ago, Harris says it wasn’t something he did lightly, since he figured that slice of cheese could perhaps add another second to the assembly of each burger.
“We try not to lose seconds,” Harris says. “People don’t realize it, but if you start losing seconds on an order for a thousand orders, you’ve backed your line up for a thousand seconds, and that’s not good.”
Turns out, once his staff got into the groove, cheese didn’t really add any extra time at all. They’re that good. But credit also goes to the original Melvins’ owners, who set up an incredibly efficient system – in part due to the small amount of space they had to work in, says Harris. And Harris stays loyal to that system to this day.
“Everything is exactly positioned as it was in 1938,” says Harris. “We mimic the same steps, use the same hand motions. People who worked here 30 years ago could walk in here and get back in the serving line.”
And just how important is that system and commitment to quality control? Ask Harris’ silent partners, who over the years tried unsuccessfully to franchise the restaurant.
“There have been a couple of franchises attempted, one of which was in Raleigh,” says Harris. “But variations in the processes resulted in a different product than the original.”
‘The pool room’
When Melvins’ opened, it had four pool tables where a single row of 11 avocado green booths stand today. The pool room with the tiny grill attached to the front was opened by three Melvin brothers and run by Wilton Melvin. Around 1972, Wilton’s son Pat bought out his dad and uncles and replaced the pool tables with booths.
Long after the tables were gone, people still refer to the place as “the pool room.” Brothers Gary and Frank Andrews of Elizabethtown, each eating a hamburger and a hot dog (yes, they have great hot dogs, too), remember the pool room days.
“Between me and him, we’ve been coming here about a hundred years,” Gary Andrews said. “It’s a hometown landmark.”
Cathie Price of White Lake and her cousin Kitty Britt of Elizabethtown also claim “all my life” status at Melvins’.
“I ate here when the real Melvins were here,” says Price.
“Three times this week,” Britt chimes in. “You get to meet up with your friends, and there’s always somebody here you know. And if they don’t know you, they’re friendly anyway.”
There’s a good chance all these people – and likely a few thousand more – will be right here next summer when Melvins’ celebrates its 80th year in business. Harris has already started making plans for a giant party on the Fourth of July.
A birthday party on the Fourth of July? As John Foley says, finishing his hamburger, “If this is not hometown America, I don’t know what is.”
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
If you go
Melvins’ Hamburgers and Hot Dogs, 133 W. Broad St., Elizabethtown. 910-862-2763. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. nando.com/melvins.
On the Menu
▪ Hamburger: $2.40
▪ Cheeseburger: $2.70
▪ Hot dog: $1.59
▪ Soft drink: $1.40
▪ Chips: .75
▪ Cookie: $1.09