Tom Dekle has been a fan of Milo’s hamburgers for at least a half-century.
“Probably 50 years, maybe 55,” he says. “I can remember as a kid, going with my dad, who was a wholesaler. My brother and I would go. We’d get a box of burgers and take them back to the warehouse for the workers.”
Though Milo’s burgers and sauce haven’t changed very much over the years, Dekle has. He’s still a huge fan of the burger chain celebrating 75 years in business this year, but he also happens to be in charge of it now.
“Life comes at you in different ways,” the CEO says. “I’m part of the ownership group that acquired Milo’s about 10 years ago, and I guess I drew the long straw to get to do this. I’m a straight-up business guy — a CPA by schooling and early career — and I always knew the restaurant business, but from the supplier side.”
Milo Carlton opened his first burger shop on 12th Avenue North in the Norwood section of Birmingham in 1946. The burgers quickly became known for their secret sauce, which is served on the burgers to this day.
“For many years, he and his wife ran the single location in north Birmingham, up until the early 1980s,” Dekle says.
Carlton sold Milo’s to his son, Ronnie Carlton, who sold to Dean Chitwood in 2002. In 2011, Dekle and some of his investors bought Milo’s, which is separate from the Milo’s tea company.
“We do share our heritage and we share the same logo with the Carltons,” Dekle says. “They still own the tea company, and we still have a relationship with them, but technically, there’s no association. Our identities work favorably for each other, and we both work hard to make sure we’re staying in sync.”
Milo’s has pretty much stayed true to its roots the past 75 years, according to Dekle.
“What we deliver to the customer is a pretty simple menu,” he says. “For the most part we’ve stayed true to the quality of the core products, and that has worked for us. We want to make sure we’re addressing evolving consumer preferences. We want to stay relevant as well. We want to stay true to our core, but we don’t want to be a historic relic.”
Dekle says it’s the sauce that has separated Milo’s burgers from the rest of the pack for 75 years. To this day, Milo’s uses Milo Carlton’s recipe for the secret sauce.
“It’s very complicated to make,” Dekle says. “There are probably 15 ingredients, and where it gets complicated is it’s a cooked sauce and you have to put the ingredients in in the proper sequence, and each stage of the cooking process has to be precisely timed at the right temperature.”
The sauce can be controversial — it’s a love it or leave it proposition, even in the Dekle household.
“We had one outlier, my son-in-law who grew up in Nashville,” Dekle says. “When he first started into the family, he said, ‘I don’t get this sauce thing.’ But now he’s one of our examples. If you keep eating it, your palate can develop to it when you get used to it. Now, he’s a full-blown addict.”
Love it or leave it, the sauce is critical to Milo’s success.
“There really is nothing like the Milo’s sauce,” Dekle says. “We’re very fortunate to have a business that is built around a product that is craveable. It’s very difficult to duplicate, and we benefit from that.”
In April, to celebrate Milo’s 75th year, the chain offered 75-cent burgers at all of it stores.
“It was unbelievable,” Dekle says of the response. “When we closed at 9, there were still lines down the street and around the corner.”
On an average Friday, Milo’s 21 stores (plus a food truck) sell about 10,000 burgers. They ended up selling 50,000 on April 16. As for the sauce, they used 790 gallons.
“It literally almost killed us,” Dekle says. “Everybody, the entire corporate staff, me included, we rolled up our sleeves and wrapped burgers. While it was tiring, it was really, really fun.”
Milo’s prides itself on its made-to-order burgers, and Dekle says fries are a big part of the business, too. Not much has changed on the menu, other than chicken tenders and fried pies being added.
The chain’s 76th year and beyond will be one of growth. A 22nd location opened in Alabaster in September, and Dekle says plans call for two to four new locations each year for the next few years.
The chain also plans to grow its community involvement, including continuing an outreach it started in 2020.
“Last year during COVID, we sold Milo’s sauce in a retail bottle for the first time,” Dekle says. “We donated profits to charity. We sold somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 bottles at $5 a bottle. We donated $25,000 to a charity that gave free meals to kids, and it’s something we really, really enjoyed.”
Milo’s is doing that again this year, beginning this week, and Dekle hopes it will be an annual thing for Milo’s.
“This last 18 months has been a really strange time for Milo’s, but it’s added a lot of clarity,” Dekle says. “We don’t have anything on our board related to any new products, per se. We want to keep expanding our community involvement. That’s been a very rewarding thing to us internally.”
But as for the menu, Dekle will gladly continue to be part of the chain’s quality control. He eats at Milo’s three to five times a week.
“Our double cheeseburger with grilled onions calls my name most often,” he says. “After that, our three-piece chicken tenders. I love our chicken tenders.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Art Meripol is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Birmingham.