By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
When I walked in for our interview, Red Caboose Café owner Donna McCown was busy peeling potatoes to make 60 gallons of chicken stew for Johnson Elementary School. She can multitask as only a woman can, and never missed a beat peeling while we were talking, watching her granddaughter pretend to take my order and give it to the kitchen, and discussing what needed to happen for the next day with her crew. I felt right at home.
Donna and her kids have been to the School of Hard Knocks, and choosing to take the risk of opening the restaurant was motivated by her desire to leave something to her kids after she’s gone, as well as wanting her family to be proud of her. When Donna was a single mom, she worked several jobs to support them, including cleaning houses and being a waitress. She also spent many years working for a local gas company and handled customer service as well as their computers. All of it served to prepare her for the hardest, as well as happiest, work of her life: being a restaurateur. She was quick to point out that while life at times had been tough, she is now married to her best friend, Kevin. He is a godly man she met at church who backed her in her decision to open the restaurant, and has labored with her side-by-side, in addition to working his other job. “It’s been tough, but all the hard work is starting to pay off,” Donna told me with a smile.
They opened late last summer, had their grand opening in September, and have fine-tuned things so that they are now humming. Their theme is, “We can be your family.” Donna told me that she wants people to feel like they are not only in a high-end restaurant as far as cleanliness, customer service, and quality of food, but also a café where they are as comfortable as a family member. “We want people to think they are in a 5-star restaurant with a ten dollar meal,” she said. She went on to say, “When you come in here, you are somebody. We don’t want you to feel like we are getting you in so we can get you out.” I can attest that the “family feeling” has been there every time I have been in.
Donna has a deep commitment to supporting the local economy as she builds Red Caboose Café’s clientele. “We want everything to be made fresh, and made to order. We are not a fast food restaurant, and ‘We guarantee it will be worth the wait’ is on the front of the menu,” she said. She gets her meat from the Piggly Wiggly in Elkmont on Hwy 127. Her own crew makes the pies and desserts, and she uses local vendors as much as possible. She is also very involved in helping her community and fellow entrepreneurs.
I asked her what she considers to be her signature dish and she quickly responded, “Burgers. We have had people say ‘This is the best burger I have ever had.’” She has a secret that makes them extra juicy, and some have names that are an affectionate nod to the community, such as, “Red Devil Sliders” in honor of Elkmont High School, or “The Steve Pettus,” which I have had, and shamelessly licked my fingers when I was finished. Donna also mentioned that the hamburger buns are always toasted, the meat is never frozen, and the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh.
There are daily specials, and Donna’s meatloaf sells out regularly. I told her, “That takes some doing. Meatloaf is usually so dry that you have to drown it in ketchup to get it down.” She smiled again and said, “Secret,” and I remained content to not be let in on it. Another one of her stand-outs is chicken and dressing. The Red Caboose Café is gaining a reputation for its desserts as well. The big sellers are the chocolate and coconut pies; they also have chess and lemon. They have Mississippi mud cake, peach cobbler, and apple dumplings. The Red Caboose Café offers carry-outs and does local delivery. They will also prepare food to be picked up for parties up to 175.
Donna finished our time by expressing her thanks to the owners of the Red Caboose building. “They helped us a lot when we were getting started.” She also said, “We now have a great team of friendly, honest, hardworking people, and we are ready to go.” If you go on Facebook to the Red Caboose Café, you’ll see the reviews, and they are impressive. And, if you want to go to a place where every day is like ‘going to Grandma’s for the holidays,’ then get yourself on down to the Red Caboose Café!
The Red Caboose Café
Facebook: Red Caboose Cafe
Address: 25483 Railroad St, Elkmont, AL 35620
Phone: (256) 226-4916
Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue-Sat, Noon-3 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays, except for special reserved events only
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner