By Caroline Newman
Photos by James and Rachel Culver
Ben Williams, one half of the Williams brother duo behind the year-old restaurant on John Hawkins Parkway, had spent most of his career in restaurant management helping the fast-casual chain Jason’s Deli open new locations around the country.
In 2017, Ben, who graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, had a chance to return to Birmingham and manage two deli locations here, with the prospect of opening a third. He jumped on the opportunity, eager to be back home and near his brother Zac and his family. The brothers grew up together in Hueytown and had remained close.
A few years later, though, Ben’s career with Jason’s Deli hit an unexpected snag – the global COVID-19 pandemic. Like many restaurants around the world, the chain had to quickly cut back on operations and decided to close the locations Ben was overseeing. That is when the Williams brothers decided to go out on their own.
“The pandemic forced our hand, but Zac and I had already been talking about opening a casual place in Birmingham,” Ben says.
“Ben has always been really passionate about opening his own place, and we decided to go in on it together, with me providing some investment and helping out wherever I was needed,” says Zac Williams, who also works as an engineer for a local software company.
With the decision made, the brothers set about making their restaurant a reality and quickly settled on a casual burgers-and-hot-dogs joint, set apart by high-quality ingredients and preparation.
“I know my way around a kitchen, but my background is not necessarily culinary-focused, so I wanted to do something that we could do well and keep simple,” Ben says. “Zac has always been a burger connoisseur, so the idea came up really early on. We knew that if we kept it simple, used high-quality ingredients, cut our own fries and kept everything fresh, we could make something people would enjoy.”
Now, Whiskey Foxtrot serves a curated, creative menu of burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, fries and sides, as well as local craft beers and a selection of bourbon and whiskeys. The burgers range from the classic Blueprint – two patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, ketchup and mustard – to the Queso Blanco, topped with queso dip, jalapeños and chipotle aioli; while the all-beef hotdogs include the “Say Cheese” – topped with house-made mac n’cheese – and the Gotti, topped with hot pastrami.
All of the beef is American Wagyu beef from cattle raised on a farm in Augusta, Georgia. Wagyu beef, Ben says, is known for its tenderness and buttery taste.
“I try to stay in touch with food trends and noticed Wagyu was something that was up-and-coming,” he says. “Wagyu is known for its quality, it has really good marbling with a higher fat content and lots of flavor. We wanted to use the best, so that is what we went with.”
As they tested burger and hot dog recipes, the brothers also tested out names. They had a long list of ideas, but they ultimately agreed on one – Whiskey Foxtrot. It comes from the phonetic alphabet widely used in the military, where “whiskey” signals W and “foxtrot” signals F. Though typically used more colorfully in the armed forces, the Williams brothers have a personally interpretation: Williams Family.
“It’s a bit of a code name for us,” Zac says.
Menu and name sorted, the brothers also needed a location. They scoured locations in Hoover, Homewood, Mountain Brook and downtown. Ultimately, they chose the Hoover location, off Interstate 459 on John Hawkins Parkway near Shades Crest Road, formerly home to Jubilee Joe’s Cajun and Seafood Restaurant. It has plenty of parking and has supported several other local restaurants.
“A friend of mine pointed us to this location, mentioning that the previous restaurant had been here for 15 years before moving to a bigger location. That told us that the space had potential,” Ben says. “We have really loved the neighborhood, it has a great vibe and the people here have really embraced us and supported us.”
Whiskey Foxtrot Burger Dive opened its doors last summer and both brothers said those early months feel like a bit of a blur.
“It was a whirlwind,” Ben says. “We had a lot of family members and friends helping us out, and we still had spikes of COVID to deal with as well as all the uncertainties of a new restaurant.”
Staffing shortages were an issue, but the Williamses began to pull together a team, from industry pros who had worked with Ben at Jason’s Deli or introduced him to others to teenagers who lived in Zac’s Meadowbrook neighborhood. The brothers themselves, of course, were filling every role they could.
“I have done everything from working the fryer to being a bartender,” Zac says, laughing. “I still come in on the evenings and weekends, to fill in where I am needed.”
It was stressful at times, Zac acknowledges, to balance restaurant ownership with his day job and his family, including three teen and pre-teen kids. But his wife, Natalie, helped out at the restaurant as well, working alongside Zac and Ben in the early days and filling all sorts of roles. Zac’s daughter works there now and his son, who will be 15 soon, is already eager to work there next summer. Zac and Ben’s parents helped out in the early days as well; their mother filling in for staff during weekday lunch and their father helping out in the kitchen on Saturday mornings.
“That has been a great experience, having everyone be a part of this family restaurant,” he says.
One year in, patrons walking into Whiskey Foxtrot will find a casual spot where they can grab a stool at the bar, order a burger or hot dog from the counter and even cap off their meal with a scoop of ice cream from the freezer near the cash register. Vintage automobile décor festoons the wall, a pinball machine sits in the front corner, drawing kids and adults alike, and tables are filled with the food that the Williams brothers envisioned a year ago.
Both brothers are thrilled with how far they have come.
“We are still so excited, one year in, and we are so happy to be here in Hoover,” Zac says. “We hope anyone who hasn’t stopped by will give us a shot. I think they will be pleasantly surprised.”
Ben & Zac’s Menu Must-Haves
Ben’s favorite: The Cowgirl burger with American Wagyu patties, bacon, white American cheese, horseradish aioli and garlic sauce.
“It is great if you like horseradish and are looking for something a little different,” he says.
Zac’s favorite: The Foxtrot burger with caramelized onions, American cheese, pickles and Foxtrot sauce.
“In our early discussions about what a burger should be, that was my vision for what I wanted our burger to be,” Zac says.
What First-Timers Should Order
For those looking for a classic burger, the brothers suggest the Blueprint, which is dressed like a traditional cheeseburger, or the Foxtrot. Anyone looking to branch out a bit could try the Cowgirl, with Ben’s favorite horseradish aioli, or the Burger of the Week, which rotates weekly and typically features adventurous combinations.
Also, Zac says, “don’t sleep on the hotdogs.”
“These are not your average hotdogs,” he says. “They are all Wagyu beef, served on a Hawaiian roll, which has a nice, sweet taste to it. They are definitely unique.”
And, the brothers agreed, order the fries.
“All of our sides hold their own,” Zac says, “but our fries are second to none.”