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SILER CITY — What do you get stacking condiments, slaw, onion, chili, tomato and 100% Angus-quality beef — in that order — agglutinated by a thick cheese catalyst?
The perfect cheeseburger, at least according to Carolyn Routh, third-generation manager of Johnson’s Drive-In.
Of course, restaurant patrons are free to select any combination of toppings for their burgers. But no matter the ingredients you fancy, there’s a specific order to your burger’s assembly.
“I guess the idea behind it is everything goes on from flattest to bumpiest,” Routh said, “to make sure it all stays together perfectly. What’s more annoying than your tomato sliding off your lettuce and meat coming off the bun?”
Such detail may seem inconsequential to the casual burger eater, but it represents decades of dedication to the science of burgercraft: 75 years to be exact.
On Monday, the legendary restaurant at the corner of U.S. Hwy. 64 and Raleigh Street celebrated its semisesquicentennial anniversary, and Routh knows exactly why the humble highway drive-in has survived so long.
“We never based our business just on burgers,” she said. “It’s based on quality; top quality meat cut and ground every day. When you order your burger, you know it’s getting fixed right then.”
Claxton Johnson, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, was a little boy when his father, Leonard Johnson, took up restaurant ownership. At the time, Johnson’s was the only eatery between Raleigh and Asheboro for travelers along U.S. Hwy. 64, and it became a fast favorite for passersby.
Leonard’s entrepreneurial spirit has endured through each subsequent generation. Under Claxton’s oversight, the restaurant grew from a local secret to one of North Carolina’s best-loved burger joints. Visitors still make their way to Johnson’s from hundreds of miles around the state, craving the carefully refined burger.
Routh, who, like her father, spent her earliest memories in Johnson’s kitchen, continues the family tradition as restaurant manager. When she’s not working orders alongside her boys, Tristan and Caemon, she and her husband Daniel tour the world as lead bass player and guitarist in the internationally-acclaimed bluegrass group Nu-Blu. The couple has five Billboard top 10 albums and was recently named host of TV’s Bluegrass Ridge, a syndicated talk show which appears in more than 160 million homes each week, according to Nu-Blu’s agent.
But despite the band’s success, Routh always makes her way back to work at Johnson’s.
“I mean, I grew up back here,” she said. “It’s definitely always home.”
As it did for all service industry businesses, 2020 took a hard toll on Johnson’s. The small, roadside dining room fits only 36 at maximum capacity, and dense queues have always formed around the building as visitors swarmed for the lunch rush. The space was about as poorly suited to pandemic restrictions as can be, Routh said.
“There was just no way possible to social distance in here,” she said. “So we decided to err on the side of caution.”
Following the declaration of global pandemic in March 2020, Johnson’s suspended operations for about three months. Even when mandated closures expired and Johnson’s was permitted to reopen, Routh kept the doors shut.
“I know restrictions have been lifted, but I still want to be prudent,” she said.
Even now, almost a year and a half later, seating remains closed. But lunchtime lines have again started to wrap around the building with loyal customers enduring the summer’s heat to grab lunch at Johnson’s updated pick-up window.
“We took the opportunity when things were shut down to make some big changes,” Tristan, 28, said. “We had never taken credit cards before, but now we’ve got a way to do that from our website that we set up through Square.”
Patrons can still place orders in person and pay with cash, but many prefer the new online platform, he added. The website facilitates easy payment and an automated text message alerts guests when their meals are ready for pickup.
“We’ve had only a very few complain about wanting seating back and prices going up a little because meat and supplies costs are just through the roof now,” Routh said. “But most have just been happy that despite it all, our burgers still haven’t changed. They’re still the highest quality, made-with-the-most-care burgers 75 years later.”
For now, the anniversary celebration is limited to commemorative T-shirts and a new graphic along the building’s wall chronicling the family’s history. But as pandemic conditions continue to recede, Routh hopes the restaurant can host bigger anniversary events later in the year.
“We didn’t want to do much quite yet on the day of, but this is just a kick-start to a celebration for the year,” she said. “You can’t be 75 years old and just give it one day anyway.”
Claxton is proud of what his family has accomplished over three-quarters of a century, and pleased to see his legacy endure. But — always the visionary — his sites are fixed on the next big milestone.
“We’re just getting started,” he said, laughing. “They’ve got 25 years to go until they can quit.”
To place an online lunch order, visit Johnsons1946.com. The kitchen is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (or until supplies run out), Tuesday through Saturday. 75th anniversary T-shirts are also available for purchase for $20.
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.