If you’ve been to a Milo’s recently, you may have noticed that something is different. It’s not the burger and it’s not the Milo’s sauce and it’s not the tea. It’s more subtle than that, and it didn’t happen overnight.
“Over the last five years, we’ve been very intentional about listening to the customer,” said owner Tom Dekle, saying that his focus has been “staying true to our roots while making small enhancements.”
Milo Carlton opened his first burger shop on the north side of Birmingham in 1946. That location of what would become “Milo’s” is no longer standing, and the second-oldest location is now a barbecue restaurant in Norwood called The Pit. It was that location that Dekle’s family visited regularly. They’d drive from Vestavia for that burger, the same burger Dekle would share with his children and which now they share with their own.
Like many people in Birmingham, Dekle grew up with Milo’s, and when he had an opportunity to buy the restaurant in 2011, he couldn’t let it pass him by.
“The brand and the product were wonderfully run, though we’ve tinkered with it a bit,” he said. “A lot of companies will start with, ‘What is the easiest way to do it, and what is the cost?’ But we start with ‘What is the best product, and can we execute it in the right time?’ And if we can’t, we won’t do it.”
In 2013, the 14 locations that Dekle took over (he closed a 15th Milo’s in the Harbert Center that only served lunch five days a week and moved its employees to other locations) were slowly renovated. Along with that new look came a dedication to improving one of the menu items: the chicken finger. Under Dekle, Milo’s began breading its chicken fingers in-house.
Dekle also knew that customers were going to want more dipping sauces. “You’ve got to have a pink sauce” like other chicken restaurants, he said. So came the introduction of “Boom-Boom” sauce, which Dekle says “brings some heat.” Along with it came honey mustard, homemade ranch and “Double O,” which is a blend of the Ranch and the original Milo’s sauce.
Dekle did something with the sauces that most quick-service restaurants stay away from: he brought a sauce bar out from behind the counter — and he did the same for drinks. Milo’s would allow customers to get refills of each at their leisure. “Part of why the sauce has been so favorably received was that people didn’t know that we had some of them because they didn’t know to ask,” Dekle said.
Though some have speculated — as in one 2015 article published by Slate — that keeping sauces behind the counter is a cost-saving measure, the move out front surprisingly didn’t affect Milo’s bottom line.
“Before [moving the sauce bar to the front], people would ask for 10 packs of sauce because they didn’t want to walk back up front,” he said. “Now they can just get what they need when they need it.”
Then, nearly 70 years after Carlton first opened the doors, the Birmingham institution would undergo its biggest change yet: In 2015, breakfast came to Milo’s.
“What would be unique?” Dekle said. “We didn’t want to do breakfast unless we had something unique to add. But people would come in the morning wanting something to eat. So we decided that, if we had a breakfast offering that would be unique, we would offer it. Breakfast wouldn’t be a big operational change; we already knew how to do fresh chicken. Now, our biggest-selling ingredient in the morning is Conecuh sausage.”
Conecuh sausage was part of an effort to maintain deep roots in Alabama, and the Conecuh brand brought its own recognition and fan base to Milo’s. Millie Rae’s cinnamon rolls also kept the menu close to home.
Recently — and rather quietly — Milo’s added the grit bowl to its menu. A versatile menu item, it can be served plain, with cheese or topped with any combination of scrambled eggs, bacon and Conecuh sausage. “We didn’t want prepackaged grits,” Dekle said. “We began with, ‘What are the best grits that we can serve?’ And we formulated and tweaked it and we got to a great recipe.”
Locals have been taking notice of Milo’s social media presence, which has evolved into a brand that playfully interacts with its followers. That happened when Dekle allowed Birmingham-based advertising agency Cayenne Creative to breathe new life into @milosburgershop with the #staysaucy campaign.
“[Milo’s online persona] came from playing on the classic nature of the brand and harkening back to the nostalgia, but pulling it forward and giving it a more playful voice,” said Dana McGough of Cayenne Creative, who led Milo’s rebranding efforts in 2014. “When you look at that burger, the essence and the difference in that burger is the sauce. It’s this fantastic, hot, sticky experience that is central to Alabama. It’s an Alabama brand that isn’t like anything else.”
Milo’s Tea and Milo’s Restaurants became two separate entities nearly 20 years ago. The Carlton family wanted to focus on distribution, and leave the full restaurants to someone else. While the two entities still share the same logo and heritage, they operate independently. Today, under Dekle’s leadership, there are 18 Milo’s Restaurants across Alabama, with locations opening this year in Jasper and Cullman. He hopes to expand to 25 restaurants over the next few years. Milo’s has nearly 750 employees across the state.
All locations are company-owned, and there are no plans to franchise.
“[Expansion usually happens] through adjoining markets,” Dekle said. “We’ll have customers in our Gardendale store ask, ‘So when are getting a location in Decatur?’ and that’s how you get a location in Decatur. It’s often based on those requests. But we want to be able to service our customers. We don’t want to franchise, because we feel like we can better serve our customers ourselves and that we can better control the quality of our product while doing it.”
The menu additions are easier when the stores are company-owned, Dekle added. “If we want to add grits, we get a small group together, we talk about it and if it makes sense, we do it,” he said.
Keeping its locations company-owned is also how Milo’s keeps its ingredients fresh. Not only are the chicken fingers hand-breaded in house, the hamburger patties are never frozen, with deliveries of fresh meat and buns arriving at each store every four days. And no matter what new items pop up on the menu or how far the brand expands, there’s one thing that will never change.
“The burger is untouchable,” said Dekle. “It’s the sauce, the extra piece of meat, fresh chopped onions, pickles and the toasted bun.”
For years, Milo’s has operated with the slogan “Everybody goes to Milo’s.” Even though Dekle has modernized many things about the Birmingham classic and given it a bit of a facelift — he appears certain that, in Alabama, that slogan will continue to hold true.
Full disclosure: Weld and Cayenne Creative have collaborated on projects in the past.