Siler City drive-in offers irresistible burger

Laurin Deaton knows people may find it strange that she's willing to stand in line at 9:45 a.m. for a cheeseburger.

But those people clearly have never had a burger at Johnson's Drive-In in Siler City.

"I think it's kind of like an addiction," Deaton, 32, said last week as she waited with her 2-year-old son for the restaurant to open.

In Deaton's defense, Johnson's has saddled many customers with cheeseburger addictions over the nearly 65 years it has been open. Now run by Claxton Johnson, 70, the son of the founders, it has become a Chatham County institution as beloved for its homey atmosphere as for its mouth-watering burgers.

"The restaurant in a lot of ways is like an extended family," said Carolyn Routh, 44, who is Claxton Johnson's daughter; Routh has worked in the restaurant all her life. "It's like Cheers only without the alcohol."

To understand what makes Johnson's special, you must arrive at 7 a.m., when Claxton Johnson begins his preparations for the day. Johnson is a firm believer that the more time a restaurant spends with its doors closed, the better the product it serves when it opens.

Like his parents, Leonard and Christine Johnson, he insists on using only fresh ingredients. Johnson uses USDA Choice beef, the second highest rated beef behind Prime.

"Nothing's ever frozen," he said. "The bread truck's here first thing every morning."

Each morning he prepares dozens of patties by hand - he says the amount isn't set in stone. Once those are cooked, that's it, which helps explain why many customers insist on eating a cheeseburger at an hour more suited to biscuits.

Although the restaurant rarely runs out of burgers before it closes at 2 p.m., many customers don't want to risk missing out. The lines are longest on Saturdays, when a group of regulars queues up 20-deep to get their fix.

Don't skip the Velveeta

During the four hours Johnson's is open, Johnson can be found at the grill next to a tub of meat patties and a hunk of Velveeta cheese. Customers often mention the Velveeta as one of the things that makes the cheeseburgers irresistible.

Johnson, who has never had a job outside the restaurant, has no idea how much Velveeta and beef he goes through in a day. He says he doesn't have time for such questions.

Johnson's long ago stopped being a drive-in, but very little else has changed in recent decades. If you ask for an "all the way" burger you'll get Velveeta, slaw, mustard, onions, and chili on it.

It's not a crime to order a hamburger without cheese, though few do. The menu also includes hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Routh said the biggest change during her lifetime was the restaurant's switch from Coke to Pepsi products.

When Johnson's opened in 1946, it was one of the few places to eat along U.S. 64 between Raleigh and Charlotte. Today it sits on a commercial strip that has seen better days. Just down the road is the Townsends chicken plant, which is set to close in December.

True to its own traditions

That the restaurant has continued to thrive even as its surroundings have suffered and other burger chains have popped up is a testament to the power of a few simple principles.

"You never cut down on the quality or the quantity," Claxton Johnson said. "I keep the portions and the quality the same."

It's that reliability that makes customers drive hundreds of miles for a Johnson's cheeseburger.

"I know a lot of people who go out of their way to come here," said Don Joyce, 64, a Siler City resident. "My daughter comes up from South Carolina and wants to come here. It's the brightest star in this town."

Joyce paused when asked what makes the place so special.

"I don't know. It's just cheeseburgers," he said. "I guess it's Claxton."

These days Carolyn Routh and her husband, Daniel, occasionally sub for Claxton on the grill. That should not be construed as a sign that the man is ready to retire.

His father, Leonard Johnson, worked a lunchtime shift at the restaurant just hours before he passed away in 1985. Asked if he ever feels like taking a day off, Johnson dishes out one last piece of wisdom.

"When you slow down, that's when you die," he said.

View Open Road in a larger map
Related stories from Charlotte Observer