For more than 60 years—through some of Birmingham’s most significant social and economic history—Green Acres Café has been a constant in the city’s downtown. This iconic eatery is a popular draw in the middle of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District, which grew out of the city’s segregationist past and remains a promising—and proud—part of its future.
I recently visited Green Acres downtown for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story and see a cool video from Brittany Dunn here.
“Green Acres is a family business that is family-orientated,” says owner Greg Gratton. “All my family is involved in it. Even the ones … I have living out of town. When they come home, they want to pitch in and help. … There’s a nice, friendly atmosphere,” he says, adding that some of his employees have been with him for 15 or 20 years.
The customers are loyal, too.
“When I’m up there in the front,” Gratton says, “people will come to me and say … ‘My father brought me up on this. I’ve been eating it. Now look: I’m bringing my children.’ It’s just generation after generation,” he says, “and I have people coming in town and this is the first stop they make.”
On any given day—at just about any time of day—there’s a line to (or even out) the door at Green Acres for its take-out-only offerings. The place serves hamburgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and plates, pork chop sandwiches and plates, chicken gizzards and chicken livers, fried green tomatoes and fried okra and more.
But most of the customers are there for one thing: “They want chicken wings!” Gratton says. “All the way! That’s ketchup and hot sauce, salt and pepper.”
Specifically, “all the way” will get you wings served on a bed of fries, drizzled with that sweet-spicy sauce and topped with a piece of white bread. Those who know often order the “Managers Special,” which is five wings and fries plus fried green tomatoes for $8.40. This food comes on a cardboard tray in a brown paper bag, and that bag will sport a small grease spot. That’s on purpose; it’s part of the presentation.
“The greasy bag is just something that my father got on,” Gratton says. “He said, ‘That greasy spot just makes a presentation; it just sticks with people.’ So, I’ve never tried to change that.
“If you see anybody anywhere in this area with a brown, greasy bag,” Gratton says, “you know, they’ve been to Green Acres.” He says he was at UAB Hospital recently visiting a friend who had asked for some wings. He walked in with the signature bag of wings, and all the way down the hall he heard, “Why didn’t you bring me some? Why didn’t you bring me some of that Green Acres?”
Green Acres is the place for wings because they were doing wings before wings were a thing.
Gratton says it was his father, Charles, who came up with the idea. People were buying fried chicken by the half or the quarter, he says, and those buying the white meat didn’t want the wings. “So, my daddy said, ‘Let’s put two wings together, a few French fries and a slice of white bread for 25 cents.’ And that’s how the chicken wing business got started, and it’s just been off the chain ever since. We can’t keep up with the chicken.”
To this day, you’ll get the whole wing at Green Acres. “In a lot of the wing places,” Gratton says, “they come and cut the wing up. Well, when you get a six-piece from them, you’re only getting three wings. When you get a six-piece from us, you’re getting six whole pieces of wings.”
People associate the eatery with Birmingham, but Green Acres actually started in Chicago. William Gratton opened his first café there in 1946. A few years later, after expanding the chain to six locations, he moved to Birmingham and brought the concept with him.
The first Birmingham location was opened in North Birmingham in 1950. In 1958, William’s brother Charles used his life’s savings to open a second location across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “It was a struggle back in 1958 for Black men to own a business, I can tell you that,” Gratton says, “but my father fought through it and he struggled and we survived.”
Gratton remembers his father working in the background with Civil Rights leaders to make sure they had places to safely meet and strategize. The late Charles Gratton shared his memories of that time and growing up in Birmingham in an interview conducted by Duke University. It’s part of the Behind the Veil collection of oral histories recounting African-American life during the years of legal segregation in the South. You can hear it here.
Charles Gratton relocated his café a few times before opening the current downtown location at 1705 Fourth Avenue North in 1990. He was encouraged by local revitalization efforts.
After his election in 1979, Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr., helped create the Fourth Avenue Land Bank, a nonprofit that would buy real estate in the area from white owners (most of whom had let the buildings fall into disrepair) and sell the buildings to Black investors and business owners. Many of the new owners got rebates when they made improvements to their storefronts.
“My father bought this whole building,” Gratton says, “and it was just brick walls on the side, didn’t have a roof, and just a shell on the front. He renovated, and we opened it up.” In 2004, the Birmingham City Council named a stretch of Fourth Avenue in honor of Charles Gratton.
In 1993, Greg Gratton returned home to Birmingham from Los Angeles, where he had raised his own family. Once home, he not only continued, but also expanded the generational business into a local chain through franchising. Greg’s father was considering investing in a major, national fast-food franchise. Greg, understanding the value of Green Acres—in terms of food and history—convinced his father to invest further in his own business.
Growing the business was the goal; Greg didn’t make any changes. “It’s always just like what my father started,” he says. “I kept the same concept. I didn’t try to add anything, and I don’t try to take nothing away because he had it—it was working for him. So, you know, why try to fix something that ain’t broken? I just made it more available for the different communities in the area.”
At one point, there were nearly a dozen locations across the Birmingham metro area. Today four survive and thrive. Gratton owns two—the downtown location and another in Ensley, which his wife runs. There are two franchise locations—one in Center Point and another in East Lake.
Gratton personally trained the franchisees to make sure his brand stayed true. That matters, he says. “Green Acres has lasted so long because it’s got family love. And we enjoy what we’re doing. We enjoy pleasing the customers. And when you take an interest in something, you do the best of it.”
The walls at Green Acres downtown are decorated with business awards, vintage photos, recognition from the NAACP and Birmingham’s city council, an autographed photo of Martha Reeves, certificates and plaques commemorating community service and several photos with a succession of Birmingham mayors.
In 2007, Green Acres was honored with a Steve Harvey Morning Show Hoodie Award for Best Fried Chicken. For that, Gratton traveled to Las Vegas. When his name was called and he went up front, he says he realized he didn’t have an acceptance speech prepared. “I’m very good. You can’t really catch me off guard. My father told me all the time, “Son, you stay prepared, because you never know when somebody might call on you.’ … So, I just grabbed the award and I told Steve Harvey and I told the audience, I said, ‘Thank God for making chickens, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.’ I think that just did it.”
All that reflects decades of history, but Green Acres downtown is surrounded by much more.
The landmark café is part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District. Located just north and west of Birmingham’s central business district, it includes a three-block stretch of Fourth Avenue North and the adjacent half-blocks south of Fourth along 17th and 18th Streets.
This is one of the largest commercial sectors for Black-owned businesses not only in Alabama, but also in the Southeast. Green Acres is just steps away from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel and other landmarks.
Formally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Fourth Avenue Historic District serves as both a physical reminder of the Jim Crow era (and Birmingham’s racial history) and a retail and entertainment district catering to locals and visitors. It is an important part of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which is now a National Monument.
The historic commercial district dates to the early part of the 1900s when Black businessmen, forced from other parts of the city by Jim Crow segregation laws, established their own retail, social and cultural center.
In recent years, city leaders; area business owners; and organizations like Main Street Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and REV Birmingham have joined forces with Urban Impact Inc., a community- and economic-development agency dedicated to the betterment of this area, to revitalize the commercial district, strengthen its economic impact and preserve its important history.
The Civil Rights-centered parts of our city draw more than 350,000 annual visitors already (many going on tours like this one). And the future is looking promising for the Fourth Avenue Historic District, which is grounded in legacy and propelled forward by the vision of its minority-owned businesses.
The Art Deco-style Carver Theatre, which houses the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, is being renovated. So is the seven-story Renaissance Revival-style Colored Masonic Temple Building that once housed the offices of Black doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals as well as the NAACP. The A.G. Gaston Motel, which housed the “war room” of Civil Rights leaders during the height of the movement, is undergoing careful restoration. And the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument continues to evolve.
The Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, which has showcased nationally recognized and home-grown artists since 2003, is set to return in 2022 after a COVID-19 interruption.
And Green Acres will be ready to serve all who come here.
“The role of Green Acres,” Gratton says, “is to be where it needs to be to assist in the continuing development of the Fourth Avenue District. And not just the Fourth Avenue District, but the other areas around the city. So, I don’t just limit it to the downtown Birmingham location. My wife is very involved in the Ensley location out there, and I try to get the other two franchises to get involved in their cities, too.”
Regardless of the location, Green Acres will continue to follow the recipe for success that Gratton says sets his restaurant apart: “My love for my customers, the love for the food that I serve, and that we try to do it right each and every time.”
Green Acres Café in downtown Birmingham
1705 Fourth Avenue North (in the Fourth Avenue Historic District)
Hours: Currently 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Green Acres Ensley
913 20th Street
Green Acres Eastlake
8500 First Avenue North
Green Acres Center Point
2405 Center Point Parkway