Local franchisees Charlie Farris and Jason Kesler discuss the acquisition and future of the Chapel Hill staple
By Shane Snider | Photo by John Michael Simpson
College classmates Charlie Farris and Jason Kesler put potentially lucrative law careers on the back burner to become restaurateurs – and that culinary detour led them back to Chapel Hill when the duo bought Al’s Burger Shack last year.
The 2004 UNC graduates took the helm of the two-restaurant chain in December after successfully launching nearly two dozen Jersey Mike’s franchises throughout the state over the last decade. Al’s has become a popular Franklin Street mainstay since its launch on National Cheeseburger Day in 2013 – another location followed. When founder Al Bowers approached Charlie about the prospect of buying the restaurants last year, Charlie was intrigued. The pandemic had been hard on the restaurant business, and Al was looking to exit.
“After a conversation with Al, I kind of got the feeling he was ready to get out,” Charlie says, adding that he and Al were friends and both members of The Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro. “This place is just an institution at this point. He was kind of on an island by himself with no partners. What we can bring is the partnership between [Jason] and I. If anything comes up, I can ask Jason. What we brought to the table was knowledge and years of restaurant experience.”
So Charlie and Jason stepped in. The new owners wanted to be careful to keep the shack’s charm while updating processes that would make the business operate more efficiently. They hinted at the possibility of a future Al’s Burger Shack expansion, but for now will keep their attention on the two in Chapel Hill.
“The focus right now is making these two stores as good as they can possibly be,” Jason adds. Al’s will keep serving locally raised beef. But some of the processes will change. Charlie notes that the sauce is still made at the Southern Village location and brought to Franklin Street. “We want to make sure each restaurant is operating independently and self-sustained,” Charlie says.
Jason says before he bought into the idea, he needed to see what his family (including his wife, Erica, and his daughters, Ellie, 8, and Aubrey, 6) thought of the burgers. “I brought my family up here and we all ate, and my wife just loved it. And she’s not a big burger person. She said it was the best burger she’d ever had. So, it passed my family’s test. After that, it was just about logistics.”