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Johnson’s Drive In

Johnson’s is a destination location for the best burgers in town for 75 years and counting.

Johnson's Drive-In restaurant street sign

Johnson’s is a community icon in Siler City, North Carolina. The quaint restaurant is a destination location that has out-of-towners driving hundreds of miles from far and wide for an opportunity to grab one of Johnson’s famous cheeseburgers. The family-run restaurant will celebrate 75 years in business this July, a noteworthy milestone that all started in 1946 when owner Claxton Johnson was just five years old.

On July 19, 1946, Johnson’s was established by Claxton’s mother and father – Leonard and Christine Johnson. Today he and his daughter Carolyn Johnson Routh manage the restaurant that first began as a drive-in. As Carolyn explains, “The legal name of the business is Johnson’s Drive-In because when they started out, there was curb service. It was a true drive-in back in those days.” Leonard Johnson had always dreamed of opening his own restaurant and becoming an entrepreneur, much like his parents before him. As Carolyn explains, “He and my grandmother Christine opened [the restaurant]. At that time, my great-grandparents also had a little general store right there… in the same building. They lived in a little three-room apartment upstairs over the restaurant. It was tiny. There were four adults and [my father] who was at the time five years old. He was [working at the restaurant]…and had to memorize the orders because he didn’t know how to write yet.”

The menu at Johnson’s began with quality hamburgers and cheeseburgers. By 1960 Claxton’s parents built the space where the restaurant currently operates and expanded menu offerings. As Carolyn explains, “They added plate lunches to the menu…[but] that didn’t last too long. There is so much waste when you have a multi-item menu, [so] they decided to cut back to just their staples of hamburgers and cheeseburgers because they can devote every minute of time in prep work [to] making those [items] the best possible with very little waste.”

A Burger Worth A Hundred Miles

Johnson's Drive-In restaurant entrance

Hot dogs, cheese dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches are part of the minimalist menu, but the restaurant’s claim to fame is its old-fashioned hamburgers and cheeseburgers – made the same way since the day they opened. Voted by the North Carolina House of Representatives as Home of the Best Burger in North Carolina, the secret ingredient to Johnson’s delicious burgers lies in the quality of the meat. As Claxton explains, “We use the very best meat. We buy [Certified Angus Beef chuck roll] from Sysco. We’ve always thrived on quality – buying the best produce, the best meat, everything we buy is quality. Sysco has been great in supplying us with those products.” Carolyn adds, “We don’t sell any designer burgers. They’re essentially just like they’ve been since we opened, [topped with] simple ingredients like lettuce, tomato, coleslaw, chili, onions, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. People always want to know what the secret of the meat is – the meat is high quality and prepared fresh, that’s it. There is nothing mixed in. There’s no secret.

Restaurant hours at Johnson’s are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am until 2 pm or until they sell out. Limited hours of operation have only heightened the restaurant’s appeal over the years as hungry customers flock to get one of the few burgers that will be sold each day. As Carolyn explains, “Everything is sold out every day, and it starts fresh the next morning so you don’t have all that turnover of extra stuff that you have to worry about. Through the years, business just picked up and was so good [that] we started cutting back on days that we were open in the evening until it came to the point that we were only open for dinner one night a week. That didn’t last too long, and then we just cut back to 10 am till 2 pm, Tuesday through Saturday.”

Johnson's Drive-In restaurant side entrance

For generations, people near and far have made traveled untold miles to Siler City for a taste of Johnson’s burgers. “We’ve got customers from all over,” Carolyn explains. “People that come in here are always telling us how [this] is the best cheeseburger they’ve ever had. Most of our business is repeat business. People just keep coming back.” Claxton adds, “We’ve never advertised because the product advertises itself.”

Walking into the family-centric restaurant is like stepping back into a simpler time. The dining area features wood panels circa 1960’s and 70’s, with six booth seats, and 12 swivel stools at the counter, all with green padded seats. “It’s very nostalgic in its own right,” says Carolyn. “It has a really homey and warm feel inside. You can sit at the counter and watch the food being prepared behind the grill, and everything is just right out there in the open so you can watch. People can chat back and forth with us when we’re back there fixing food. It’s just really a family friendly easy going vibe.”

Where’s The Beef?

Claxton has seen many historical events throughout the years, but the coronavirus and resulting disruption in beef supply was a new challenge for the veteran restaurant. As Carolyn recalls, “We switched to Sysco in the height of Covid because Sysco was the company that came in and was able to offer us [what we needed] consistently and at a good price. [They were] able to guarantee what we needed to be able to stay in business at the level of quality that we [are accustomed to]. We were down for three months, and when we opened back up about mid-July… we had to wait until we could [consistently] get quality beef. We were dealing with some other vendors, and there was an issue with getting meat at all. We stayed closed a few weeks later than we wanted to because we had to find somebody that [could] guarantee us quality meat in the quantity that we needed. Sysco was the company that came through for us and bailed us out.”

Sysco Sales Consultant Kyle Thompson supported Johnson’s by ensuring that the restaurant never experienced disruptions in food deliveries, despite industry-wide supply shortages during the pandemic. “We’re working with Kyle, and [he] is fantastic,” Carolyn declares. “He’s very attainable. Anytime I need something, I can text or pick up the phone and call Kyle, and he delivers every time. If we run short on something from our order that we didn’t expect to be out of, [we] give Kyle a call, and he’ll send one of the [trucks] right over to be sure that we’ve got what we need to open.” We’ve not had any problems whatsoever with getting what we need on a weekly basis from [Sysco].

While the dining room at Johnson’s remains closed due to social distancing measures, the restaurant continues to thrive through orders placed online and by phone. As Carolyn explains, “In lieu of Covid…we installed a walk-up window. We’ve been able to keep the doors closed and still maintain our business and keep products going out the window.” Online orders now account for roughly 70% of overall sales at the restaurant.

75 Years and Counting

Looking forward to the year ahead, Claxton and Carolyn are excited to welcome customers back into the restaurant. “People become family when you’ve got such a long-running business and very faithful customer base,” Carolyn describes. “It’s hard to keep operating when the only contact you have with anybody is waving through a window when they come up to get their food. It’s exciting [to have] the possibility [of]…being able to open back up and get everybody back inside and back to our normal routine.”

Johnson's Drive-In counter bar

In July of this year, Johnson’s will celebrate 75 years in business and serving the community of Siler City. The momentous occasion will be celebrated with a look back at the moments that shaped the restaurant’s history. “We’re getting special 75th Anniversary hats and t-shirts printed up,” says Carolyn. “We’ve been using Pepsi exclusively now for many years [and] they’re printing up some window decals and things for us [as well]. We’re going to have a little history of the restaurant with some of the old original pictures when the grill first opened. It’ll be on the windows that people can read and look at coming into the business.”

Claxton, who recently celebrated eighty years of love and life is still involved in the restaurant that he has been devoted to since the age of five. “He’s still running things, he’s just doing it from home now and popping up occasionally and checking in on us to make sure we’re doing things right,” says Carolyn.

Johnson's Drive-In team and owners: Caemon Stuart, Tristan Stuart, Carolyn Johnson Routh, Claxton Johnson

Johnson’s is a monument to an old-fashioned way of life where consistency, simplicity, and quality ruled the day. The business that started with Leonard and Christine Johnson years ago will someday be passed on to the next generation. “My sons Tristan and Caemon are now the fourth generation [in] the business,” says Carolyn. “Johnson’s legacy will continue long after my dad and I are gone.” Johnson’s has withstood the world’s challenges and changes for over seven decades, and we at Sysco wish them many more years of great success and more milestone anniversaries to come. If you are ever near Siler City, NC, make the trip to Johnson’s to taste one of the best burgers you’ll ever experience. Just be sure to get there early. They sell out fast.