In July of 2018, Melanie Leach launched into a whole new career: becoming the owner, along with her husband Glenn, of The Red Caboose Café in Elkmont, AL. A few months earlier, Melanie had come on board as a business partner with Donna McCown, and then Donna realized that in order to spend more time with family, she was going to need to sell her part of the ownership in the café. It was a tough decision for Donna because she truly loved ‘the Caboose’, but one that has worked well for everyone involved. Melanie has had tons of support from the community, Glenn and the rest of the family; here’s their story.
“We moved here five years ago from Oklahoma to be near family, and we would drive by this place. Somehow we felt ‘drawn’ to it, but didn’t really know why. Glenn had retired from his career with AT&T, and was now doing contract engineering for them with his team from home, and this opened up. It was perfect,” she said. Melanie had spent her career in several types of businesses. Her experience included lots of retail and lots of admin, and she was famous for her cooking, especially her baking. However, owning and running a restaurant was a whole new thing, and she got her “sea legs” in the months she and Donna were business partners. In addition, Melanie was not on her own between the loyal Red Caboose staff and Glenn, and she’ll be the first to tell you that their success has been the result of a great team. “I knew that I had some ideas that I could bring to the restaurant, and I am having fun doing new things,” she said. I asked her, “Like what?” “Well, like cheesecake,” she said. I looked over on the dessert board, and the cheesecake choices were leading the charge! There were lemon, lime, regular, and pumpkin pie cheesecakes. In addition, she loves to make cakes, pies, and cobblers. However, here is one of my favorite things about Melanie -- she likes to teach and mentor, investing in the next generation. Her crew is like family to Glenn and her, and what mom doesn’t want to make sure that her daughter knows how to turn out a mean mud cake?
To that end, Melanie is teaching Heather Duke (and anyone else on staff who wants to learn) how to bake, and the result is not only great desserts, but Heather and the other single moms that are part of the “Café Crew” know that they have a support system in the form of the Leaches that goes beyond just earning a paycheck. “We want them to feel like family, and we want the same thing for our customers,” she said. When Melanie first began to train her team, she gave the simple and time-honored principle of success: “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes.” The obvious ‘rest of the story’ is, “and treat them the way you want to be treated.” It’s working, and I can say from observation that it is fun to watch them interact with each other and everyone who comes in. Whenever I deliver Athens Now, I am always greeted with a smile and a hug, and that legendary hospitality for which the South is so famous shows up in the food!
So, what’s different this fall at the Red Caboose? “We changed the hours to better serve the lunch and dinner crowd, and we only do breakfast on Saturday,” said Melanie. They are always closed on Sunday, and they have instituted Steak Night, when Glenn cooks. In addition to being “Glenn the Grillmaster,” he is known for his sausage gravy. Glenn also invented what Melanie likes to refer to as the “hamburger re-imagined,” and they are calling it, “The Red Caboose.” Bottom layer is Texas toast, then burger steak, then curly fries, it’s finished off with brown gravy, and you get to choose one of seven sides. Many of the same signature burgers such as the Steve Pettus, the Hilltop, and the Lilly are still on the menu, and there is also a selection of healthy super salads. I had the Big Momma, which is your choice of fried or marinated grilled chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, egg, cucumbers, shredded cheese, croutons, and your choice of dressing. It was huge, satisfying, tender, tasty, and only cost me $7.99.
The Red Caboose Café is not confined to being a “Meat-and-Three,” “Southern comfort food,” steak house,” or “healthy fare,” it’s got some of it all, and they are able to pull it off well. Come and taste what I am talking about Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m.-9 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. They’ll be waiting with open hearts and arms!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner