What’s Cookin: Past and Present Hit

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With its famous Bananza Burger and eclectic ambiance, The Strand is as popular as a restaurant and antiques store today as it was as a movie house in the 1940s.

by MEREDITH CUMMINGS

In 1941, Roland Locklear worked at The Strand Theatre in Fort Payne, Ala., making popcorn for people who wanted to get a glimpse of Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and other Western movie stars. But his dad didn’t like it one bit. Roland was only 12 years old, and it was a rough place at night that often featured – in addition to the main picture – violent fights.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Still, Roland loved it then, and he loves coming to work in the same building every day now. In its new incarnation, The Strand is a family-owned restaurant and antiques store that Roland and his wife, Doris, along with their son, Heath, run together.

Even before I walk into the building, I know I am walking into a bit of history. The happy, old-typeface sign and interesting antiques in the window suggest time is about to rewind, with a hint that good things might happen.

The Locklears first opened their business as an antiques store for Doris to run, with the idea of someday taking items to auction. A few years later, in 2005, Heath and Roland started cooking hot dogs for workers at a metal-fabricating shop behind the antiques store. At the time, the two men worked in the hosiery business.

“We’ve worked together, literally, all of my life,” Heath says after a lunch rush, sitting across from his dad at one of the restaurant’s casual, wooden tables.

As the area’s hosiery business declined, the food business picked up.

“We gave away sandwiches before we ever sold one,” Heath says. “Then we started selling these hot dogs, and it just snowballed. Before you knew it, two tables had grown into a dozen tables almost literally overnight. Hot dogs and chips led to hamburgers, fries and onions rings. It was just one thing after another.”

But the magic bullet came when The Strand decided to bring back the well-known Bananza Burger, which Roland’s brother, Deward, originally sold as the Pic-A-Burger at Paul Bunyan Burger in Gadsden, Ala. It was later sold at a popular Fort Payne eatery, Jack’s Charco-Broiled Hamburgers, run by Roland’s other brother, Jack, an Auburn, and later professional, football player.

When people heard about the Bananza Burger’s return, it rekindled a part of their childhoods, and the floodgates opened at The Strand, Heath says. Now the burger far outsells anything else, followed by catfish and ribeye steaks.

“When we brought the Bananza Burger back there were people coming from all over,” Heath says. “They were just carried away. People that had long moved away came back to have it again.”

Brent and Carly Hellums are visiting The Strand from Red Bay, Ala., and try the Bananza Burger for the first time. They give it a big thumbs up and agree the sauce gives the burger its special flavor.

“The sauce was kind of sweet,” Carly says. Then Brent weighs in while making a mixing motion: “It’s kind of a ketchup-mayonnaise mixed together.”

Many discussions like the one between the Hellums have taken place over the years about the sauce, but only a handful of people know the recipe.

I know this because when I point-blank ask if I can have it, Heath gets a mischievous look on his face before answering: “We’d have to kill you.”

Then he leans back with a thoughtful look and continues. “The truth of the matter is it’s not just the sauce,” he says. “It’s just little things that we do different that make it so good.”

The building, which was constructed in 1889, features partially exposed brick walls covered with chipping plaster (with horse hair in it, Heath points out), and the bricks are all stamped “Made in Fort Payne.” The floor installed after the theatre was taken out is still part of The Strand today. A balcony, where black movie patrons once had to sit, overlooks diners.

The theatre closed in 1953. The building played multiple roles, from re-cording studio to clothing store, before becoming The Strand antiques store and restaurant.

Roland says The Strand was a “second-rate movie theatre” because the other one, the DeKalb Theatre, was nicer. While under the same owner-ship during Roland’s youth, the DeKalb did not admit black people. At The Strand, Roland sold them popcorn, even though that was frowned upon.

“We weren’t supposed to do that, but most of them were my friends,” Roland says. “I grew up a poor guy, and my family didn’t have nothing either.”

Roland eventually owned a coal-mining company and a construction firm and learned to fly a twin-engine airplane. At 85, he says he plans to keep coming to work at The Strand, just like he did when he was 12. “I can’t quit. I don’t want to quit,” he says firmly.

Doris, also 85, says the people keep her coming to work every day instead of retiring. “We have a lot of really nice people come in,” Doris says, “and a lot from out of town.”

Celebrities patronize The Strand as well. Most locals leave them alone, but some tourists can be a handful, says Heath, who had a music career and knows many local musicians, including the men from the band Alabama.

The Strand is a gathering place for friends, neighbors and visitors, and it features an eclectic mix of antiques, décor (including holiday decorations that stay out year round), conversation and laughter.

Heath points to the antiques segment as a part of the business’s success. Doris and Heath both take pride in their knowledge of history and love when people bring in antiques that stump them, though it doesn’t happen often.

“It’s like a game!” Doris exclaims, getting animated, as Heath lists items people routinely bring, such as knives, skillets, bottles, mason jars, “and anything! It’s just amazing the things that get brought in here.”

Heath says he understands the antiques store drives people to the restaurant.

“My selfish side says I want to be known for the food here,” he says. “But this place – people come in, and you see their faces. They walk around and look at all the stuff, and they are just amazed.”

The food at The Strand is consistently good, from the fried-just-right green tomatoes to the famous Bananza burger, in addition to lighter fare, like the grilled chicken salad, which had great flavor for a simple salad. For dessert, a banana split or, in my case, some of the most satisfying chocolate ice cream I’ve ever tasted tops off the meal.

Heath hopes to keep people coming back for as long as he can.

“In a way, it started as wanting to preserve history,” Heath says. “And it’s still kind of like that. When these old buildings are gone and all of the mom-and-pop places across the country are gone, it’s going to be a sad day. As long as we can keep that going, that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Strand is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, see The Strand’s Facebook page or call 256-997-0945.[/s2If]