Al's French Frys: An American Classic

This not-so-traditional fast food style restaurant is a celebrated South Burlington tradition


Story and photos by Carey Vanderborg

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Bill and Lee Bissontee added an ice cream window to Al's.

The hamburger and French fry restaurant concept, which is most associated with the term “fast food,” blasted onto the American food scene in the 1940s. At the time, restaurants were popping up all over the country offering a simple menu consisting of hamburgers, French fries, milk shakes, and Coca-Cola. The food was good, the prices were cheap, and the service was fast. It was during that decade that a young Vermont couple decided to cash in on the action.

“The menu you see today is pretty much exactly what you would’ve seen if you came here in 1946.”

Al and Genevieve Rusterholz opened Al’s French Frys in 1946, but did not want to make it just another typical fast food restaurant. At the time, fast food restaurants offered a limited amount of items and didn’t provide a place to sit down and eat because the food had been designed to be eaten "on-the-go" and without utensils. From the beginning, Al’s set themselves apart from the competition by offering a more diverse menu and a comfortable atmosphere where families and friends could hang out and chow down. With a few minor exceptions, the food, along with the way they do business at Al’s, hasn’t changed in 64 years. “The menu you see today is pretty much exactly what you would’ve seen if you came here in 1946,” says Bill Bissontee, co-owner and store manager. 

In 1982, after the Rusterholz’s divorce was finalized, Genevieve sold Al’s French Frys to brothers Bill and Lee Bissontee. The restaurant is still owned and run by Bill and Lee, along with several other Bissontee family members. When the brothers bought the place, they didn’t have any restaurant experience, but also felt they didn’t need it. After all, Al’s French Frys had already been a success for 36 years. “When we bought the place, we just stuck to what they were doing as far as items sold and preparation of the food,” Bill says.

“I’ve been eating the same thing here since I was a little girl.”

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Some customers order the same meal every time.

As much as the place is still the same as it was in 1946, a few minor adjustments to the structure of the building have been made over the years in order to accommodate more customers. Since Bill and Lee have taken over Al’s, they’ve added more seating, more parking, gutted the restaurant three different times, and also added a take-out ice cream window. As it is, Al’s is still a favorite among locals and travelers passing through town, and every move the two brothers make only enhances the quality of this American classic.

“I’ve been coming to Al’s for about 20 years now and pretty much always get the same thing,” says Sherri, 29, a three time a month customer from Burlington, Vt. The classic cheeseburger and French fry combo is ranked as the number one meal sold at Al’s. “I always get the cheeseburger with mustard and a side of French fries,” says Beth, 18, from Burlington, Vt. “I’ve been eating the same thing here since I was a little girl.”

Al’s seems to be sitting fine in the same location they’ve been in from the start without any interruption, even with multiple fast food alternatives surrounding the old-style building. Directly located across the street is a Burger King and a Quiznos, and three doors down the street is a McDonald's. But Al’s sticks to a different format that sets them apart from the rest. “We cook our food to order, whereas McDonald's doesn’t do that,” Bill says. “When you come in to Al’s and you want a burger, you place the order, and it’s cooked right in front of you, literally!” The experience of seeing the cook prepare your food and place it on your tray is something that Al’s prides themselves on. When you walk in the door, the assembly line of workers, ready to cater to your order, is a trait that most fast food chains in the United States lack. It is one of the many things that make Al’s stand apart from the competition.

"It just goes to show that our customers are as dedicated to us as
we are to them.”

Every year since 1998, an organization called the James Beard Award Foundation Committee recognizes the nation’s favorite regional restaurants. The American Classic, as defined by the James Beard Foundation, is distinguished by a timeless appeal that reflects the character of their community. In 2010, Al’s French Frys was given The American Classic Award by the James Beard Foundation, and no other restaurant in the state of Vermont has ever been recognized by the organization.

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Employees are ready to cook your food to order, something other fast food places lack.

Throughout the years, Bill and the other employees have formed a special bond with their customers that keeps them coming back for more, even if that means the occasional special treatment. “I used to have this one customer that came in five days a week and always got the same thing: an order of clams, a cup of fries, and a tea,” Bill says.  “He would come to the window and we would throw his clams down so that he wouldn’t have to wait in line. He was an older man, so I didn’t want him waiting. And so one day, I met his son who lives close by. He says to me, ‘I’m so glad that you guys are close to me.’ So I ask him what he means by that. He explains to me that his father drives here every day from Barre, Vt., [45 minutes from Burlington] to get his clams. The problem was that the father drove a car that broke down constantly. The son would have to come pick him up three or four times a year and drive him back to Barre. It just goes to show that our customers are as dedicated to us as were are to them.”

 

Where is your favorite All-American classic?

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