The Original WhistleStop Cafe

The History of the Original WhistleStop Cafe

As you get close to the little town of Irondale, you begin to think back in time to the little community where many of us grew up. There are frame houses and children playing in well-groomed yards, and sidewalks with folks out for a stroll. Here you find the Original WhistleStop Café. When you walk into the front door there are people from all walks of life eating meals prepared with tender loving care and years of tradition.

In the cafe is a poster from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes; here most folks are proud to be connected, even in a small way. Customers enjoy this friendly down home atmosphere and good home cooking. As patrons enjoy their meal, there is always the nearby rumbling of a freight train. Diners young and old scramble to get seats near the windows to watch the trains. Afterward, folks visit local shops while others sit on park benches and watch the trains, discuss the weather, politics or even the recent additions to their families.

All in all, there is a down home and delicious combination of close families, good friends, and good food in a pleasant atmosphere of good times and special fellowship.

Irondale is located just east of Birmingham on I-20. Chartered in 1887, a little mining community, then a railroad community, and now a diverse and thriving town.

The Irondale Cafe began in 1928 as a hot dog stand owned by Emmett Montgomery. Miss Bess Fortenberry purchased the business about 1932. I’m not sure exactly when the “stand” was renamed the Irondale Cafe, but I think it was shortly after Bess took over. The café was situated on the train tracks in Irondale and drew both rail workers and locals.

Bess, who came from a prominent Irondale family, was single and had a great enthusiasm for life. She was free-spirited, loved people, and built a successful business. Her great-niece Fanny Flagg would later write a book about her life and the cafe.

In the early forties, Bess leased the Irondale Cafe and went to Florida to work for the war effort. While in Florida, she ran into an old acquaintance, Sue Lovelace. After the war, Bess convinced Sue and a wonderful cook, a black lady named Lizzie Cunningham, to come back to Irondale with her and help in the cafe.

The trio made the Irondale Cafe one of the most popular places around town to dine. They cooked such good vegetables and meats, and they had a thriving sandwich business. What made the sandwiches especially desirable was that they were made “to go”–primarily because there wasn’t much room in the cafe for sit-down eating at that time.

In 1972, Bess suffered a light stroke and decided to sell the cafe and retire. Sue and Lizzie also had health problems and were ready to give up the cafe.

Someone Else’s Idea Becomes My Reality.

I was unaware that my husband, Billy, had any interest in the Irondale Cafe until he started talking about buying it from Bess in late November 1972. Billy worked with the railroad and had eaten lunch at the cafe on numerous occasions. I was busy raising children and had never been there, and really didn’t know much about Irondale.

When Billy talked to Bess about buying the cafe, she told him to have me come talk to her. I went to the cafe after lunch one day to talk with Bess and see the restaurant. I remember that when I walked in the front door, it was so dim inside that I could hardly see. A lady met me and took me back to the kitchen, where Bess was sitting on a stool drinking a cup of coffee. She introduced me to the workers who were standing nearby, and then she turned to me and said, “What in the world do you want to buy this cafe for?” I told her that it was my husband who wanted to buy it, but that I was willing to work with him. A lady who was working at the cafe had told Billy she would continue to work for us and she would just need me during lunch hour. I was really apprehensive about buying the cafe, but Billy was insistent. 

Bess told me that another couple was anxious to buy the cafe, and she was going to decide who to sell it to after she talked to me. I went home that night and prayed that she would decide to sell it to the other couple because I surely didn’t know anything about running a business. A few days later Billy came in from the railroad and told me that Bess had decided to sell it to us. I was overwhelmed. It was mid December when we bought the Irondale Cafe. We spent all New Year’s Day at the restaurant inventorying the stock, and at 5:30 a.m. January 2, 1973, we opened for business.

Bursting at the seams when we first bought the Irondale cafe, the seating capacity was 31 for the front room and the back room even less. We stayed in the original building until 1979 when we finally had to tear it down. Billy built the new building on the old site and the Irondale cafe reopened on July 22, 1980. By the beginning of 1990 we had already “outgrown” our new building so in December we purchased the old Daily Hardware Store next door and expanded again. This was a good thing, because little did we know what was about to happen…

Fried Green Tomatoes Galore

In January 1992, the movie ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ hit the screen. It premiered at the Cobb Galleria Theater in Birmingham. Fannie Flagg, Bess Fortenberry’s niece and author of the book, came with a lot of her friends and associates. She left tickets for us at the box office. A couple of friends and three of our employees, including Virginia Johnson, came with us. Ms. Flagg always made Virginia feel special. Virginia had worked for Ms. Flagg’s Aunt Bess and at the time still worked for us.

Right after the movie opened, tourists from all over started coming to the “Whistle Stop” Cafe. On February 5, 1992, The Birmingham News ran an article with a picture of two of my cooks holding a peck basket of green tomatoes. The caption read “Seen the movie? Now taste the title.”

Everyone who came to the cafe for the first time wanted to know all about Miss Bess and our restaurant and almost all the customers new and old, ordered fried green tomatoes! We’d fry 60 or 70 pounds every weekday and more than that on Sundays. It’s almost a miracle that we were able to do it. The people at the Finley Avenue Produce Market were more than helpful in keeping us supplied with all the green tomatoes we needed.

When we started frying so many tomatoes, we knew we had to have a batter mix that would be good to use in a deep fryer. We experimented, and my husband developed the Fried Green Tomato batter, which is now available around the country. We’ve found that it’s also very good with any vegetable you want to fry that calls for a liquid batter. Years of tradition and cooking at the Irondale Cafe have led to the development of several batter and cobbler mixes, as well as a marinade, and spice blends.

Our delicious Irondale Cafe Original WhistleStop Recipes Brand Fried Green Tomato, Seafood, and Chicken Batter Mix and Apple Crisp and Cobbler mixes are available across the country in small markets and in local grocery stores.

A restaurant concept based on the WhistleStop Cafe was developed in 1995. This concept was built on the original family style, good home cooking that people had appreciated in Irondale for years. The detailed plans include a WhistleStop train theme, with professional illustrations of a depot and railroad memorabilia. These plans were based on the successes of a family cafe that could be duplicated in towns across the country.

We were the owners of the Irondale Cafe for 28 years, and looking back, I wonder what would have happened if Miss Bess Fortenberry had sold the cafe to the other couple who wanted to buy it. We were really thankful for our business. We worked hard and long and had a good business before ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’, and over the years continued to grow. No matter how many customers we got, though, we will still tried our best to give everyone the same good service, the same good food, and the same friendliness that we did before the movie.

Retirement was a dream that finally came true in 2000. In a family restaurant business there are few days off, generations of McMichaels spent our Sundays serving fried green tomatoes. The only way to get Billy and I away from the kitchen was to sell the cafe, which we did with mixed emotions. We have since learned to love having family and friends in our own kitchen, using WhistleStop batter mixes, and frying green tomatoes just a few at a time. We continue to work on another cookbook and future products for marketing. Our family has retained the rights to the name, our restaurant concept, and of course our fabulous mixes. Billy Jr. has taken the food product business and grown it in a way that reminds me of the early days at the café …hard work, family and friends, and a lot of faith. A delicious success story in the making.

Train passing in front of The Irondale Cafe
Train passing in front of The Irondale Cafe
About Us: The Original WhistleStop Café
The Irondale Cafe
Mary Jo and Billy McMichael
Mary Jo and Billy McMichael
Original products from the WhistleStop Cafe line
Original products from the WhistleStop Cafe line