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Daniel’s Drive Inn celebrates 70 years in Valley

VALLEY — Daniel’s Drive Inn is celebrating an anniversary this year. The year 2020 marks seventy years in the restaurant business. That’s an extraordinary feat for a small town, locally owned fast food place. Even more exceptional is the fact it’s been in the same family since 1950.

“My grandmother, Ethel Daniel, opened it in Lanett in 1950,” said current owner Becky Nelson. “It was at two different locations in Lanett, one of them behind the old Lanett gym. At the start, it was a 1950s style sit-down restaurant with a juke box.”

Mrs. Daniel and her brother, L.W. “Dub” Waldrep, ran a very popular place famous for its Daniel burger.

In 1967, Mrs. Daniel made the move down Highway 29 to the Langdale community. For five years, it was in one of the more unforgettable buildings in the Valley, the Little Brown Jug.

The “Jug,” as Valleyans loved to call it, had been built in the 1940s as an advertising stunt. Built mostly of brick and in the shape of a jug, the building was meant to be a draw for travelers along the highway, much in the manner a Lee County gas station was in the shape of a bottle and one in Roanoke was in the shape of an elephant. The three of them went up in the early days of motoring.

“We moved to our present location in 1972,” said Becky Nelson. “Ralph Groover built it as a restaurant for my grandmother. We rented this building for a long time before purchasing it five years ago in 2015.”

Becky and husband Chris own the building today. The one person people most remember being at Daniel’s Drive Inn was Mr. Dub. “He was a fixture here,” Nelson said. “He had a deep voice, and people loved to talk to him. He was with my grandmother when they first opened in Lanett and was still there until he had a stroke in 2005. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, and he lived only about six weeks after that. Dub was my great uncle and an unforgettable kind of guy. He was the one everyone wanted to talk to.”

Sarah Key and Bob Daniel were other family members involved in the business for a long time. Nelson’s mom, Harriet Wadkins, ran the restaurant for a number of years and is still active in the business. Nelson has been the owner/operator since 1999.

“We’ve always looked at Daniel’s as a family business,” Nelson said. “Some of our staff have been here for many years. Marie Jones has been here for 30 years now. Her mother, Mattie Mae Jones, was here for 44 years.”

The Daniel Drive Inn family is excited for Marie’s son, former Lanett High Panther and UAB Blazer Shaq Jones. He’s a member of the XFL team the St. Louis BattleHawks. They will be playing in a game to be televised this weekend by ESPN.

When asked if much has changed over the years, Nelson says the prices have. As everyone knows, that’s unavoidable over a 70-year period.

The Daniel burger remains ever popular along with the scramble burger and the scramble dog. The chili is what makes them all special.

“It’s the secret to our success,” Nelson said with a smile.

Breakfast is also popular. It’s served from 6 a.m. until around 10:30 a.m. Then it’s lunch, which is served until around 3:30 p.m.

Daniel’s was especially busy when the mills were running.

“We’d go from 6:30 until 9 or 10 at night,” Nelson said. “Back then, we would serve lunch all day long. Some people would stop by and get their lunch on the way to work, and people leaving the night shift would pick up lunch in the morning.”

“We have been very blessed over the years to maintain a loyal customer base, and we want to thank everyone for that,” Nelson said. “There was a time when the mill shut down we didn’t know if we’d survive, but our good customers stayed with us and kept us afloat.”

Nelson said she’d like to keep the restaurant running until she retires some 10 to 15 years down the road.

“I’m hoping a younger family member will step up to run it,” she said.

It would be nice to have it still in business in 2050 when they could serve the Century Burger.