By Tom Seegmueller
ALBANY (Albany Herald) — For six decades, Albanians have been crowding the parking lot at 814 North Slappey Blvd. to order something to eat. While there have been many changes over the past five decades, one thing remains the same. Pearly Gates has been there with a smile.
The long-time restauranteur came to Albany in the 1950s to work at the Post office after serving in the Air Force. In 1962, some wealthy neighbors who recognized his passion for cooking asked him if he wanted to open a restaurant.
“I told them I didn’t have that kind of money,” Gates said. “They told me that wasn’t the question.”
Shortly after that, a partnership was formed and Gates became manager of the Burger Chef franchise at the now iconic location.
“When I opened, a hamburger, fries and a shake cost 45 cents,” Gates recall. “With a Coke, it cost 35 cents.”
(In an effort to be transparent, it is probably appropriate to confess that, like many others, Gate’s reasonably priced culinary offerings and Burger Chef’s proximity to Albany High School led me and many peers astray. It was a right of passage to “skip lunch” and make a clandestine run for burgers and fries. “A lot of them were worried I was going to tell the coaches or teachers they were coming here. I told them, ‘Don’t worry about me telling anyone, you’re here to eat.”)
Over the decades there have been a number of transformations at the Slappey Drive location.
“I stayed as a Burger Chef until Hardee’s bought it out after about 10 years,” Gates said. “Me and Hardee’s didn’t get along. I wanted to sell my grits, my link sausage, my eggs over light and stuff.”
This freelance shift from the franchise-approved menu offerings would be a continuing source of contention between Gates and the corporate powers to be.
“They’d come down and check me out, then tell me, ‘We’re going to take your franchise if you don’t take that link sausage out of here,’” Gates said. “I got tired of seeing them.
“We had a conference call, and I told them all what I thought. I told the ones, those that had been good to me, what I thought about them, and I told those that hadn’t what I thought. Then I told ‘em in the morning I was going to be serving my link sausage.”
That’s exactly what Gates did, and he smiles as he recounts that they didn’t do anything about it.
“I knew what folks want,” he said. “That (menu) put me on the map, and in 1990 I went out on my own.”
Since then, Pearly’s Famous Country Cooking has offered a breakfast and lunch menu with a wide range of Southern staples. During the past 40 years, the restaurant has developed a devoted clientele, with many routinely meeting there to start their day with breakfast fellowship or a lunch meeting. Meanwhile, a steady flow of traffic circles the building, visiting the restaurant’s drive-thru.
Ironically that window would prove to be the Pearly’s salvation when COVID struck. Gates remembers telling his son-in-law Carl Young, “I don’t think we can make it on the drive-thru.”
However, they decided to give it a try. And although a series of health issues limited what Gates could do, he was determined to do everything he could to help.
“I’m going to try something,” he said. “If I can’t work because of my surgeries, I’m going to sit here and talk to my customers.”
Gates began sitting outside the restaurant, doing just that.
“At first, (some) thought I was a panhandler and they wanted to give me money,” Gates said, laughing. “I said, ‘I don’t need any money.’ Some tried to buy me a drink. Finally, people realized who I am.”
While sitting through an interview at his spot along the southeastern side of Pearly’s, customers rolled down their windows and exchanged greetings and talked with him while waiting to move forward.
There wasn’t much time for a prolonged conversation, as Young and his crew of five runners kept things moving.
“I’m know I’m bragging, but nobody can compete with Carl and my daughter, Tracy,” Gates said. “She’s been here for 36 years. I have the hardest working staff of anybody in Albany.”
Gates also credits Joe Devane, his other son in law for the restaurant’s continued success.
“I tell you the truth, sales are up,” Gates said. “When I started, we had 10 people working, and today I have 30 employees operating out of the same kitchen. We created a monster.”
In a large part, that monster was fueled by Gates’s frequently stated philosophy: “I’m here to please.”
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