Worth the drive: Pikeville
Down at the Crossroads
Pikeville Store serves a warm welcome (and tasty burger) to all comers
By Drew Woolley
There’s a spot in North Alabama the locals have long referred to as “Black Ankle” for the rich, black soil that used to cover the feet of people hoofing it through the area. These days, it serves as the intersection of three county roads: From the east, 31 dead ends into 470, bound north, while 21 joins them from the west before swerving due south.
For more than 100 years, the Pikeville Store has stood at that crossroads, and for most of that time it’s been in Dwayne Wilkerson’s family. The original store on that property, built in 1906, was torn down in the ’60s and replaced by the building people all across the state know today.
For three generations — from Dwayne’s grandfather to his mother, then to he and his wife, Connie — the Pikeville Store was your typical general store with a couple of gas pumps out front offering diesel and non-ethanol fuel. But in 1993 the Wilkersons decided they wanted to do something more.
With Connie ready to move on from her work in a local dentist’s office, the couple installed a grill, added a section in the back for additional seating and transformed the longstanding store into one of the state’s hottest burger spots.
“I really just thought it would be a good idea for the farmhands around here to have something for them, and it worked out,” says Connie. “It worked out better than we could’ve expected.”
While the venture may have started with farmers in mind, it now serves anyone and everyone from Huntsville, Birmingham and throughout the Southeast. It’s out of the way for many, especially considering that they won’t find the unofficial community of Pikeville anywhere on a map – but it’s certainly worth the trip for those lured to the crossroads by tales of great food and Southern hospitality.
Labor of love
Drop by during one of the store’s weekday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch rushes and you can feel the greasy spoon buzz as locals and strangers alike come in to chat and grab a bite to eat. Dwayne works the crowd out front and manages the register, while Connie, who no longer has the time to mingle like she used to, runs the grill.
But it’s Saturdays when the community really descends on the Pikeville Store. The Wilkersons don’t keep a close head count, but since most visitors would be out of their mind to order anything but a cheeseburger, Connie can work up a close guess at their weekend business by tallying the buns she goes through in the kitchen. After some culinary mental math (15 trays of 20 large buns, plus 15 of 12 small buns), she estimates that they serve about 500 burgers on an average weekend.
“We’ve started trying to stay open later to spread it out because our normal hours just get so jammed,” Connie says. “There’s an hour wait sometimes, and I hate for people to have to do that. But it’s like they don’t mind; it’s a big party.”
That kind of success doesn’t come easy, and their hard work has earned appreciation from fans throughout the state. When al.com asked its readers for their favorite burgers in 2014, the Pikeville Store rode a wave of support into the top 15.
But as tasty as the burgers are, the atmosphere the owners cultivate is a big part of the store’s unique character. In 2006, the Wilkersons were temporarily forced to lease the business to an out-of-town owner as they took a few years off for Dwayne to fight prostate cancer. Same location, same equipment, but the store never thrived the same as it had under its previous owners’ care.
The new owner eventually moved on, and for a short time the Pikeville Store sat in silence, until Dwayne’s health improved in 2012.
“The building was just sitting here empty, so I just said, ‘Now that you’re better, let’s go back,’” Connie recalls. “Because you miss the people. I missed the people in the community; I missed the atmosphere.”
A Melting Pot
Since that return, things haven’t slowed down for Dwayne and Connie. The fast pace of Saturdays continues to pick up as increasingly varied customers check in from all parts of the Southeast.
“I wish I had a ledger of all the people who come in here,” says Dwayne. “We serve doctors, lawyers, judges and regular people like ourselves. Of course, if they’re from out of town, we don’t know if they’re a lawyer or sleeping under a bridge.”
For some people, catering to such a diverse group might be a challenge, but for Dwayne it’s just a matter of treating strangers and regulars with the same warmth. As for the food, Connie’s only secret (that she’s willing to admit) is cooking every burger as though it’s her own.
“People come in and basically know each other, they go from table to table,” she says of the hum that pervades the store. “It’s a melting pot really. Lawyers come in and sit next to farmers. It’s just like one big, happy family.”
One photo on a back wall attests to that family bond. Many members of the Wilkerson clan have pitched in from time to time, and when she was 16, Connie’s niece would work in the kitchen. On a particularly busy Saturday, she asked her aunt to find out who one of the customers, a young man, was — but be discreet.
With no time for subtlety, Connie waltzed out and called to the boy’s father, asking how old he was and whether he was single. Her niece may have turned a shade of crimson, but she got his number, and her photo with her now husband of 6 years hangs in the store as a reminder.
“He said that’s the most expensive cheeseburger he’s ever gotten,” Connie says with a laugh. “I started telling people if you want to come work here, we’ll find you a husband.”
With the growing pace of the business, the Wilkersons figure they only have a few more years of running the store left in them. But they can rest assured that the importance of the Pikeville Store as the heart of its namesake community won’t diminish. The invisible town’s boundaries may not be set in stone, but Connie has a pretty good idea of where it begins.
“I think Pikeville starts right here,” she says with a smile. “If you sit here you’ll see all types walk in. And we love it.”