The Our State Great Debate: Smashburger or thick burger?
The stories are legion: hilarious, heartbreaking, hard to believe. The man who, while transporting parts to Alaska, was slowed down in Canadian customs until the border agent learned that he knew and loved Melvins’ hamburgers. The Japanese efficiency expert who was teaching a local seminar and, after seeing Melvins’ in action on a 15-minute lunch break, told the seminar attendees they should go to the restaurant to see an example of efficiency. The man and his relatives from Columbia, South Carolina, who flew a plane to Elizabethtown, got a car at the airport, and got themselves to Melvins’. The McDonald’s bigwigs, wearing their diamond-encrusted gold M rings, who came to Melvins’ for hamburgers the day that McDonald’s opened in Elizabethtown and admitted, What were we thinking? The order from Germany for four dozen hamburgers, which required a calculation of flying time (13 hours) and careful packing in Styrofoam and dry ice. The dying customer at Duke University Hospital whose only request was a Melvins’ hamburger — and a plane came for that, too.
Owner Randy Harris is the keeper of a Bladen County tradition that stretches back to 1938. photograph by Matt Ray Photography
Pat Melvin, 72, has a hard time getting the last tale out. He looks down, collects himself.
Melvins’ is a product of the Depression, when his father and uncles were starving, trying to make a living from logging and farming, and thought that a grill with a few pool tables might bring in some money. That was 1938. The pool tables are gone now, but hardly anything else has changed. For sure not the hamburgers, which people come from everywhere not just to eat but also to take pictures of from outside the window as they’re being made.
Roll a ball of pink, lean beef; weigh. Place 48 of those on the flat-top, mash, cook. Flip, re-mash, cook, squeegee grease. Turn 24, take off four. Four more. Bun, burger, spoonful of chili, mustard, cheese, onions, slaw, salt and pepper, ketchup, maybe hot sauce. Close bun, wrap, bag. A fountain Pepsi with pellet ice, straw — two straws if it’s diet.
Thousands of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and hot dogs a day. Exactly how many, current owner and manager Randy Harris won’t say. He also won’t discuss what ingredients go into the chili, which is the same recipe that Pat’s mother created decades ago, or the slaw — “Not ‘fish-place’ slaw,” he says. “We chop our own cabbage, and the slaw has an ingredient you can’t get around here. We work with US Foods to get it.” Neither will any of the “super, super like-family staff,” who sign a confidentiality agreement.
“The hamburger meat is designed to taste exactly as it did in the ’40s and ’50s,” Randy adds. “Meat changes through the year — if the beef comes from Montana after a cold winter, it has more fat, and we spot that and add lean when we’re grinding it. So it tastes the same, cooks the same, smells the same outside the restaurant.” Randy maintains that even changing the way the burgers are assembled alters their taste and consistency. Slaw before chili? Never.
What Randy will reveal about the process is that every five seconds, a made-to-order burger or hot dog materializes on the counter. “Before you have your money out,” he says, “it’s ready.”
And it’s six-napkin perfection. A perfect ratio of squish to firm, held-together to falling apart, chilled slaw to hot crunch of the beef — “caramelized from the heat,” Randy says — that fits perfectly in your hand. Glad you like it, because on the menu board, there are more offerings of soda flavors than food. Melvins’ serves hamburgers and hot dogs. That’s it. For 74 years and counting. Pat laughs. “Most days, we serve hot dogs and hamburgers. The other days, we serve hamburgers and hot dogs.” And they serve them beginning at 7:30 a.m. Too early? Not when people eat them for breakfast, take them to school. Not when people are on their way to the beach and stop in for two dozen. Or on their way back from the beach and want two dozen more to take home. Not when they’re on their way to Wilmington or Fayetteville for an early doctor’s appointment and the staff has requested, “Will you bring us some Melvins’?” Pat laughs again. “Those people never have to wait to see the doctor.”
Customers request light slaw or extra pepper, but if you want a two-fisted, double-duty, slathered in aioli, dripping with pimento cheese and sautéed mushrooms, tipping over with the weight of bacon strips and fried green tomatoes kind of thing, Melvins’ is not your place.
Melvins’ burger “all the way” is the siren call that draws customers from across the state to downtown Elizabethtown. photograph by Matt Ray Photography
One day, Randy noticed three clearly foreign, nicely dressed young men eating at Melvins’, only one of whom was speaking English. He introduced himself, and the English-speaker explained. They were traveling the U.S., found themselves in Charlotte, and thought, “America is famous for hamburgers; let’s Google ‘best hamburgers.’” Up popped Melvins’. They rented a car and drove 160 miles to Elizabethtown. “Was it worth the ride?” Randy asked. “Every minute,” the fellow said.
Randy believes that the key to Melvins’ success is simple: “If you do something good, stick with it,” he says. “Don’t chase this other stuff. In my mind, ‘best burger’ means we’re not serving 200 people a $9 hamburger. We serve 2,000 people an inexpensive, delicious hamburger. We have a niche.” He pauses, checks the line, and chooses to divulge a secret after all: “We have a pretty strong onion.”
Melvins’ Hamburgers & Hot Dogs
133 West Broad Street
Elizabethtown, NC 28337
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