Food

Dixie Drive-In in Lumberton

  • By Andrew Kenney
  • Photography by Joshua Curry

Hungry? Follow the crowd to this can’t-miss burger joint in Lumberton.

dixie-drive-in-stevens-brothers

If you want to know the story of the Dixie Drive-In in Lumberton, it’s best to ask George Stevens before burgers hit the flat-top grill and carhops hustle the day’s first orders out a stubborn front door.

George stands at the cash register; his hair is tucked under a white paper hat, his eyes peer behind a pair of black frame glasses.

He says there won’t be a minute to talk once the lunch rush starts, so the 71-year-old ambles toward a booth and slides in. Morning light hits his face through a strip of windows. He repeats Dixie’s dogma.

“Basically, we do the same thing like we did in the ’60s. We peel our own potatoes, roll out our own burgers, cut our own fries, cook our barbecue, make our slaw, cook our chili,” he says. “My father started that way and we haven’t changed.”

By “we” George means his two younger brothers, Steve and Tony. Together they’ve worked side by side in the same building, through the same shifts, for the better part of 50 years.

The Dixie is everything to them.

The rush begins

By mid-morning, cars and trucks idle outside in the gravel parking lot.

Inside, paper orders hang in a line above the grill, where Steve and Tony prepare the day’s first hot dogs (always red) and ground beef patties. The sound of the sizzling grill brings the place to life. But not a word passes among the brothers. They just work.

“I’ve been coming here 50 years, and I’ve never seen them have a conversation in back of that counter,” says Kermit Wright, leaning out of his van.

There’s no need to talk because the Stevenses know what they’re doing.

They don’t worry that the Dixie, a brick shoebox of a building, can go unnoticed to passersby on East Fifth Street in Lumberton. Or that the building’s signage, a weatherworn marquee, only hides it even more. Because the brothers know that by noon vehicles will crowd the parking lot anyway.

The drive-in is like an anchor in the heart of Robeson County, where once-reliable job creators — farming and factories — are now in flux. Amid changes in how people make a living, the Dixie reminds them that good food is part of a good life.

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve been coming here,” says Robert Bass, 37, a longtime carhop, as he exchanges cash for a tray of burgers and fries. “This is the only place I’ve known like this.”

Breaded and cooked in lard, the fries at the Dixie Drive-In seem more Southern than French.

Breaded and cooked in lard, the fries at the Dixie Drive-In seem more Southern than French.

Family history

Practically speaking, the Dixie has to be a drive-in. With just six booths, 15 stools, and a bathroom around back, the building is too small for many diners to eat inside.

This is the way Howard and Edith Stevens, the Dixie’s founders, imagined the place. Howard had worked nights on the short-order line at a drive-in after spending the day laboring on the family farm outside Whiteville. When he and Edith decided to sell the farm and open the Dixie in 1963, their sons — George, Steve, and Tony — were nearly grown.

Older patrons can tell you how they remember the husband-and-wife team: Edith cooking fries while Howard worked the grill in a long-sleeve shirt and dress shoes. They claim they never saw a stain of mustard or ketchup on Howard.

They also remember how the sons came in after school and worked shifts. Now those shifts have turned into careers: George has never worked anywhere else; Steve came back after serving in the Air Force; and Tony, a Baptist preacher on the side, found his way home after attending Bible college.

“You do what your daddy says,” Steve says with a laugh. “I pretty much knew I was going to come back.”

Generations of customers — the children and grandchildren of the mechanics and lawyers and farmhands in Robeson County — come back, too. They come back for the same burger, fixed the same way. It only costs a little more than it used to.

Been there forever

The Stevens brothers say they don’t think about milestones. The Dixie is 50 years old this year, but the brothers say the decades run together. They’re more concerned with the daily operation of the drive-in, where they plan to cook and serve meals until they can’t anymore.

“Four families survived out of here,” Tony says. “This is it. If we close up, we’re gone.”

To keep the doors open, they follow the same formula — quick service, red hot dogs, fresh ground beef, and hand-peeled potatoes — because it works.

“You just can’t change a hamburger,” George says.

As the lunch rush slows, Tony’s granddaughter Brooke Seate, a waitress, hints of her plans to keep the Dixie open for coming generations.

She’s heading off for college in the fall, away from Lumberton. But she’s already thinking about coming back home with a business degree and using it to run the drive-in.

She sees a future here as long as hungry customers are drawn to the Dixie. That future looks a lot like the past.

Dixie Drive-In
1930 East Fifth Street
Lumberton, N.C. 28358
(910) 738-6310
Closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Andrew Kenney is a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh. A Jersey boy by birth, he traveled south to attend UNC-Chapel Hill and stayed.

This entry was posted in August 2013, Dining, Piedmont and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Dixie Drive-In in Lumberton

  1. Pingback: Andy Kenney | Lumberton cheeseburgers forever

  2. Audrey Lee Walters says:

    I remember as a little girl, my parents taking us the the Dixie for hotdogs or a hamburger fries and something to drink. As a teenager, I would ride 2nd street with my friends and pull into the Dixie to eat and talk to our friends. As a young adult I would go to the Dixie with my mom and we would go inside to eat. All the Stevens including their spouses would make you feel so welcomed. I would always step back into the back to speak to Mrs. Edith. She would be busy cooking, but she always took the time to ask me about college and how things were going. Tony, George and Steve would also ask about you and your family if they were not to busy. You always got a hi or something even if they were super busy. As a married woman with a small daughter named Bridget, we still visited the Dixie. Bridget loved their chicken noodle soup and still goes there today to get soup. Wonderful memories for many people as well as myself were made at the Dixie. Keep up the great memories by stopping by to see the wonderful dedicated family at the Dixie Drive In. Thanks, Audrey Lee Walters

  3. Felisa Loyd Moore says:

    I love the Dixie Drive Inn. I have known this family all my life and I love them with all my heart. They mean so much to me. I can’t imagine Lumberton without them. My mom worked there when she was a young girl. Also my nephew John Barnes worked there n he loved it. My niece Melissa Johns sister also worked there. There’s nothing like them fries n a cherry Mountain Dew.

  4. Sherrie Hinson says:

    After eating at one of our favorite places tonight, we heard about the write up in this awesome magazine. Well,Steve brought it out for me to read and told us it was also on line. My husband and I travel almost an hour to enjoy this wonderful experience and visit with these 3 awesome men and their families. We love the food and always enjoy the fellowship. They treat us like we have been friends forever and Tony always asks about my Mom who has Alzheimer’s and is now in a nursing home. I can only imagine the wonderful couple who raised these fine young men…I think they would be very proud and we are proud to call them our friends!! Keep it up boys….

  5. Willie Townsend says:

    I car hopped for the Stevens’ family back in the seventies. Worked many hours alongside George, Steve and Tony, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Stevens (Howard and Edith). Finest people I have ever known. I am practicing law in Iowa now after 19 years in the Navy. The values they taught me served me well throughout my life and I believe any success I have had, military or civilian, is directly thanks to the guidance of my father and the Stevens’ family. All my love and respect to them. And the food is great. I don’t get there often but when I do I eat there. Tell Steve the Dodgers will win the World Series. I will put a twenty on it.

  6. Jimmy Fisher says:

    Best burgers in the world! The only other burger that could even come close, was made at Guyton’s Sandwich Shop, in Fayetteville, NC., which has long closed its doors due to no family to keep it going. Thanks Dixie, for the world’s best burger!

  7. judy barton says:

    you missed Odell’s sandwich shop in mount airy. they have been there for years. you drive up and order the best burgers and hot dogs ever! they bring food out to you!

  8. Mary Ruth Cox says:

    Brings back lots of good memories.

  9. R.Wright says:

    I’ve been eating there for as long as I can remember. Good food, good people and good memories.

  10. rebataylor says:

    love to come back to my home town and visit DIXIE DRIVE IN LOVE THOSE FOOT LONG CHILLIE CHEESE SLAW DOGS and remembering the good old days gone by. wish i was there now having one of those dogs !!!! here in fl. we don’t have a dixie !!!! but come christmas season i will get to visit dixie drive in !

  11. I HAVE BEEN IN G.A. FOR 20 years AND EVERY TIME I CAME HOME I MADE IT A POINT TO GO TO THE DIXIE DRIVE IN.I HAVE BEEN BACK IN N.C. FOR 3 yrs, TO TAKE CARE OF MY MOM! BEFORE MY MOM PASSED IN JAN., I HAD TO GO TO THE DIXIE AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK FOR THAT HOT DOG OR A BERGER.THANKS TO GEORGE STEVE AN TONY FOR KEEPING IT LIKE IT WAS 50 yrs. ago WHEN I WAS A KID. I HAVE SENT FOLKS FROM G.A. BY THER AND THY TOLD EVERYONE IN G..A ABOUT THEM BERGERS.THANKS AGAIN FOR BENG ONE OF MY FONDIST CHILDHOOD MEMORIES!!!

  12. alisa bryant says:

    Love them guys….. Their mom was a super lady also…The Dixie is a great place to eat .

  13. Ray Smith Retired N.C.S. H. P. says:

    I’ve Been Going To The Dixie Drive– In My Whole Life, With My Parents, Grand Daddy, Brother And Sisters And My Wife. We Love The Food And The Stevens, Also Went There With My Grand Daddy Les Smith Who Worked For Coble Dairy, He Drove The Ice Cream Truck For Them And They Were One Of His Stops , Were Carried Ice Cream Churns Or Buckets To Them. We Always Had A Hot Dog And Fries Before We Left. After He Retired He Would Come Over To The House And We Would Go Eat At The Dixie, Until He Was Put Into The Rest Home He Was In His 90′s And Loved The Stevens, From Their Parent To The Boys And Their Wives. And The Story Of Their Parents Working I Remember Them Too, All Working Together. We Thank You All For Being A Services To Our Community And For 50 Years.

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