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Al takes a bite out of Chapel Hill business scene

The new Al's Burger Shack location in Southern Village had their first business day Monday.
The new Al's Burger Shack location in Southern Village had their first business day Monday.

From the moment he got behind a grill, Al Bowers knew he had a love for the food industry. Years after discovering his passion, Bowers is now the owner of Al's Burger Shack in two locations and Mel's Commissary in Carrboro. 

He discovered his love for the food industry in high school while working on a golf course and a coworker encouraged him to try grilling.  

“So that was it, I was hooked,” Bowers said. 

From there his love only grew. Bowers’ next job was at a McDonald's, where his passion for the industry grew. After high school, Bowers became a student at UNC and worked as a waiter in the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house. 

“It was awesome,” he laughed. “No, it was humbling because you know you’re an 18-year-old freshman and you think you’re something special and all it takes is a couple of senior girls to put you in your place.” 

Bowers said feeding over 100 sisters everyday gave him more confidence. 

“They are essentially your guest, even though it’s their house,” he said. “Knowing that you did good work every day and that they recognized it, that was a good feeling.”

After graduating Bowers went into real estate. It wasn’t until the 2008 housing crash that Bowers returned to the food industry. He ran Merritt's Grill from 2010 to 2012 where he rediscovered his passion. 

“It just kind of reaffirmed my love for the business," Bowers said. "It taught me simplicity which I think is reflected in my menu. It was good to get back into the guest service industry.” 

In 2013, Bowers opened Al’s Burger Shack. 

“The immediate response from our guests was pretty cool,” he said. “Those first few days people, I mean the guests seemed to like it and I mean that’s just always a great feeling.”

One of the most important parts of a restaurant is to have simple quality food, and to not get in the way of the flavor, he said. Bowers also said that his staff is part of the business' success. 

“We are super fortunate that we have really good people that do the heavy work. They just let me put my name on the door,” he said.  

Bowers has always been there for his staff, said Georgie Womack, the director of operations at the three restaurants.

“He cares about our well-being,” she said. “He cares about what we’re going through in our personal lives. He’s just all-around a really, really good person. He cares about people and his employees. He treats us like family almost.” 

Michelle Fishburne, a family friend, said she thinks there may be another reason Bowers has been successful. 

“You know that phrase, ‘he’s never met a stranger?’ That’s Al. He seems to know everyone in Chapel Hill. He is truly the friendliest person I have ever met,” she said. “He’s kind of like an unofficial mayor of Chapel Hill.”

Fishburne credits Bowers personality for helping propel the business forward in a town where restaurants often fail. 

“This kind of success is rarely seen in Chapel Hill," she said. "It usually takes a while to get a foothold and there’s so many other good eateries in town that it’s really hard to break out of the pack. But I think the key to Al doing it is number one, when you come in for a burger you feel like they’re family.” 


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