Back when they were dating, Julia and Justin Brooks used to pull into the parking lot at Ed’s Drive-In here in Julia’s hometown of Jackson and sit in Justin’s pickup eating burgers, drinking cherry Cokes and dreaming about their future together.
“There’s not many restaurants here, so that would be like our little date spot,” Julia remembers. “We always talked about wanting to own our own place.”
Julia, who grew up in this town of about 5,500 in the southwestern corner of Alabama, was working as a nurse at a dialysis clinic at the time.
Justin, who is from Thomasville, about 30 miles north of here, was a crane operator for a construction company.
One night while they were eating at Ed’s, Julia talked Justin into asking the owner, Maury Dumas, if he was interested in selling his place.
Dumas told Justin no, but he said if he ever changed his mind, he would let him know.
Julia and Justin later got married and bought a house in a neighborhood less than a mile from their favorite date-night hangout.
“Two weeks after we closed on our house, (Dumas) calls and says he wants to sell Ed’s,” Julia recalls. “It just felt like God wanted us to buy it. It was crazy how it worked out.
“We really didn’t have a reason to buy it,” she adds. “We just knew we loved the food. We loved the feel it gave us. We didn’t want to change anything.”
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The man behind the name
Famous for its chicken-fried steak sandwiches, crispy onion rings and soft-serve ice cream, Ed’s has been a Jackson staple since the summer of 1964, when Troy Jones opened what was then called Troy’s Drive-In out on US 43, the main artery from Mobile to Tuscaloosa.
His little burger joint had walk-up windows, a few tables out front and an aluminum awning overhead.
Ed Harris, who grew up in nearby Coffeeville, drove a milk truck, and one of his customers was Jones. They got to talking, and a couple of months after the drive-in opened, Harris gave up his milk route and went to work as a manager at Troy’s.
The burger business got in his blood, and after working there for 20 years, Harris bought the restaurant from Jones in 1984. He renamed it Ed’s Drive-In.
For the next 22 years, “Mr. Ed,” as customers fondly knew him, was there six and sometimes seven days a week – from the time he opened in the morning until he closed at night. Occasionally, when things slowed down, he would slip away in the afternoon and go home to work in the garden or maybe take a quick nap in his recliner.
“He was married to it — trust me,” Harris’ widow, Fae Harris, says. “It was a great business and it liked to have worked him to death, but he loved every minute of it.”
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After 42 years at the drive-in — first as a manager and then the owner — Mr. Ed retired in 2006 at age 71.
“When he retired, he really, really missed his customers,” Fae Harris says. “He was miserable for a long time after he retired.”
After Harris died in 2010, just four years after he hung up his apron, his customers reminded his wife just how much they missed him, too.
“I had people tell me at the funeral and after the funeral when I would see them in town that they could always depend on the fact that he was there and tending to the business,” she says. “He greeted the people. Everybody was somebody to him.”
A new chapter
The drive-in had a couple of other owners – Billy Wimberly, who took over after Harris retired, and Maury Dumas – before Justin and Julia bought it in the summer of 2019.
All that history – and the chance to add their own chapter to it – was a major selling point.
“We both appreciated this restaurant being original,” Justin says. “It’s kind of a landmark for Jackson. I think (Dumas, the previous owner) knew that we wanted to keep it that way. † † † I think he just felt like we would be good people for it.”
Julia had worked for a few months as a waitress at an O’Charley’s in college, but otherwise, neither she nor Justin had any experience running a restaurant. So, Dumas stuck around for a couple of weeks to help them through the transition.
“Maury really was a big help getting us in the right direction,” Justin says. “Overall, what I learned from Maury got us through the hard times for sure.”
They repainted the picnic tables, started opening for breakfast and on Sundays, and added a few new items to the menu.
Otherwise, they’ve left everything pretty much as it was, the way folks in Jackson have always remembered it.
“When we bought Ed’s, we got so much support from our community,” Julia says. “It just felt so loved, and it made us feel so loved.
“It showed us that Ed’s just meant a lot to our community,” she adds. “I’m getting emotional just talking about it.”
A true mom and pop business
Justin handles most of the day-to-day operations at Ed’s – opening in the morning, locking up at night and pitching in when he’s needed during the day.
He leaves most of the kitchen duties to the team led by April Taylor, who started working here when Dumas owned Ed’s and stayed on to be the manager.
“Nine times of 10, if I go in the kitchen and try to cook, they tell me to move because I’m in the way,” Justin says. “I can make just about everything we have, but I’m not the fastest at it. The ladies that work for us, they’re so much better at it. I try not to get in the way. I’ll let them do their job.”
Julia, meanwhile, is their social media star. She takes all the photos and creates all the copy for their Facebook and Instagram accounts, which she updates almost daily.
“She loves that kind of stuff,” Justin says. “I feel like I’m pretty good with customers, person-to-person, just out here walking around and meeting people. I do good with that.
“But Julia is way better than me when it comes to social media and interviews like we’re doing now. † † † I look at other restaurants across the country, and it seems like she’s running (the social media) as well as any restaurant like ours.”
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Since Justin and Julia bought Ed’s, no less than five brand-name fast-food chains – including Popeyes, KFC, Jack’s, Burger King and Taco Bell – have opened within a mile of their place.
Business, though, hasn’t skipped a beat, Justin says.
“Out of all those places coming here, our business still picked up,” he says. “I guess they share the same clientele, and we’ve got our own.
“It makes you nervous to see ’em all come in, but we’re still here and doing what we’re doing.”
The famous steak sandwich
Although the hand-pressed burgers are by far the biggest seller, Ed’s is also famous for its old-fashioned steak sandwich – a breaded and deep-fried hamburger steak patty that’s served with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on a sesame-seed bun.
It’s a recipe that goes all the way back to the early days when Troy Jones owned the drive-in.
“I’ve never had another one like it anywhere else,” Justin says. “That’s an original Ed’s item.”
Virgil Chapman, the chief deputy sheriff of Clarke County, can vouch for that.
Chapman, who’s been eating at Ed’s for more than 40 years, gets lunch at Ed’s about three times a week, and he almost always orders the steak sandwich.
“I change it up sometimes,” he says, “but most likely, it’s going to be a steak sandwich and okra.”
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The Ed’s menu also includes grilled chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, shrimp po’ boys and chicken tenders, as well as milkshakes and ice cream sundaes.
Justin and Julia have also added a few new items to the menu, including sweet potato tots, corn nuggets, chicken salad and a COB (chicken on a bun) sandwich.
They’ve brought back a few old favorites, as well – including the “wet walnuts,” which are chopped walnuts dipped in a caramel sauce and served on top of the ice cream sundaes.
“That’s something they used to do back in the day,” Julia says. “When we bought it, we had a lot of people asking us to bring back the wet walnuts like Ed used to do, so we brought those back.”
A reminder of the way they were
The Brookses live close enough that they can drive their golf cart to work every day. Some days, Julia walks to the drive-in and back to get her exercise.
Their 7-year-old daughter, Emma, fills fountain drinks for their customers, and Delta, their 1-year-old, sits in her highchair and draws on the ticket books.
“It’s just sweet,” Julia says. “I like raising my girls here.”
There’s one thing about owning Ed’s that Justin and Julia do kind of regret, though.
“I actually miss having our Ed’s date night,” Julia says. “It’s different now that we own it.
“We will see couples come up, and they’ll sit in their vehicles and eat. And it just reminds us of us.”
Ed’s Drive-In is at 3018 North College Ave. in Jackson, Alaska. The phone is 251-246-3054. Hours are 6 am to 9 pm Mondays through Fridays, 7 am to 9 pm Saturdays, and 7 am to 8 pm Sundays. For more information, go here.
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