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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Fave Chapel Hill burger shack to open in Leland, Wilmington next

Al’s Burger Shack, which started in Chapel Hill in 2013, will be coming to Leland and then Wilmington. (Courtesy Al’s Burger Shack)

LELAND — A busy strip mall in neighboring Brunswick County will be home to one of Chapel Hill’s revered burger hot spots by fall.

READ MORE: Smoke on the Water closing? Nope, to reopen with new menu, leadership

Al’s Burger Shack will be located in front of Lowe’s Home Improvement in Leland Town Center, near HotWorx, Eggs Up Grill and The Greeks. It’s only the third in the state, the first having opened on Franklin Street near UNC’s campus and another in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village area. The restaurants are owned by UNC graduates Charlie Farris and Jason Kesler, both of whom own around 30 Jersey Mike’s franchises in North Carolina.

Al’s signature item is its Bobo Chili Cheeseburger — basically a Carolina-style burger, topped with American cheese, mustard, chili, onions, and slaw. It scored 2018’s “Best Burger in America” by TripAdvisor among a list of 10 nationwide.

The burgers are hand-pattied, made from ground chuck, with just enough fat and lean meat combination to create a juicy bite, and cooked to the customer’s chosen temperature.

A former attorney, Kesler was reared in Wilmington and returned to live in Carolina Beach after attending Chapel Hill for undergrad and Wake Forest for law school. He was practicing maritime law, but also represented a multitude of other cases, including criminal, for around eight years. Upon having his first daughter, Kesler said he began to rethink his career choice.

“She was asleep when I went to work and then she was asleep when I got back from work,” he said.

He and Farris remained in touch, the latter of whom lived in the Triangle and had begun operating Jersey Mike’s franchises. Kesler said he decided to take the leap into the restaurant industry in 2016 in order to enjoy more time with family and friends. Today he owns around 12, including in Carolina Beach and Leland, with two more coming to Oak Island and Wilmington in the near future.

“All of Leland is just exploding and the support we get from the community there is awesome,” Kesler said of choosing it as a third location for Al’s. “We do a lot of fundraisers with schools and I’ve got a really good base here in this area. And the one thing I’ve seen a lot of articles about in Leland is the amount of chains here — but this burger shack is owned by a local guy.”

When Farris and Kesler learned a few years ago that Al’s Burger Shack was potentially on the market, they decided to expand their restaurant portfolio. Both were familiar with the concept which started in the mid-aughts, founded by Al Bowers. 

Bowers opened the Franklin Street restaurant on National Cheeseburger Day in 2013 at the height of college basketball season, nonetheless, before expanding to another location 3 miles down the road in Southern Village. In 2020, he opened a spinoff concept, Al’s Pub Shack, in Governor’s Village, but had grown his footprint too quickly and shuttered the pub shack shortly thereafter.

Kesler and Farris took over the remaining two restaurants in 2022.

“Charlie and I had always dined there,” Kesler said, especially during football and basketball games. “My wife doesn’t eat burgers that often and she absolutely loves it. Al had a great product, great service.”

The two did not change any of the recipes. The homemade chili and bacon-onion jam is the same, as are the freshly prepared dipping sauces — roasted garlic aioli, sriracha aioli or Al’s secret sauce. In addition to being recognized by TripAdvisor, Al’s also has landed on IndyWeek’s annual Best Of awards in the Triangle. Its sea-salt and rosemary fries were chosen in the top three in News & Observer’s 2023 annual poll. 

“We didn’t even realize we were being included on the survey,” Kesler said. “But our fries are really good.”

Al’s also has tots, sweet potato fries and other sandwiches — black bean burger, turkey burger, grilled chicken, hot dog. Menu prices are around $10 for burgers and sandwiches, dogs are $5; milkshakes are $7, with $5 sides. The restaurant also does monthly burger specials, such as May’s green chile cheeseburger, topped with roasted green chiles, bacon, cheddar, green chile cream cheese and fried onion strings.

The Leland location will be 2,000 square feet and have 20 tables indoors and 15 more outdoors on a patio the restaurateurs have planned. The original burger shack is a majority of outdoor seating, with a few peppered inside its 800-square-foot building. 

“We are hoping to find a Wilmington location that is similar to the original,” Kesler said, but couldn’t reveal yet where it will be, as the lease hasn’t been signed.

The restaurateurs are also open to expanding further: Hampstead or Porters Neck, maybe somewhere else in Brunswick County, perhaps Southport or Shallotte. They’re also considering Raleigh.

“Charlie will run the restaurants up there and I will oversee them here,” Kesler said.

He explained the restaurant industry has been a better fit because he gets to engage more people on a daily basis. Kesler also appreciates providing young people an enjoyable work experience. The Leland location will have upward of 15 or 20 crew members operating it.

The key to success, Kesler said, is keeping it simple: “It’s not rocket science — good service, good food and a clean environment. And I may be biased, but every place I go to when I’m traveling, I look up what’s the best burger and Al’s blows it away every time.”

His personal favorite is the Mookie — bacon onion jam, blue cheese, and garlic aioli.

The Leland restaurant will be located at 3556 Leland Town Center Dr.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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