The doors of The Irondale Cafe were first opened in 1928 as a hot dog stand by Emmett Montgomery. Maggie Prentice came along shortly thereafter, to add hamburgers, barbecue, and a variety of sandwiches to the menu, and in 1932 Miss Bess Fortenberry purchased the business. The “stand” was renamed the Irondale Café, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bess was a single woman with a great enthusiasm for life. She was free-hearted, loved practical jokes, and built a very successful business. In the early forties she went to Florida to work for the war effort, and while there she ran into an old acquaintance, Sue Lovelace. After the war Bess convinced Sue and a wonderful cook, Lizzie Cunningham, to come back to Irondale with her and help in the café. The trio made The Irondale Café one of the most popular places to dine around town. Their sandwiches were made to go because there wasn’t much room in the café for dining in, at the time. Thus, their sandwich business began to thrive. And they were known for miles around for their delicious meats and vegetables. The original cafe was housed in a small frame building with one step up to the entrance, with floors that sprang with you when you walked. The front room had four booths lining the outer wall, small tables in the center of the room, a long counter with eight wooden and metal Coca-Cola stools. The back room had three booths and an old Rockola. The kitchen separated the two “dining” rooms. Seating capacity for the front room was 31, packed like sardines.
In 1972 Bess suffered a stroke. About that same time Sue and Lizzie both developed health problems and were unable to continue working. So Bess decided to sell the café and retire.
A gentleman named Billy McMichael had eaten lunch at the café many times, worked at the nearby Southern Railway in Irondale, and was interested in buying the cafe from Miss Bess. Having moved from Atlanta to the Roebuck-Huffman area of Birmingham in 1963 with his wife Mary Jo, and three small children, Billy needed to convince his wife that it would be the right thing to do. When he spoke with Bess about buying the café, Bess suggested he have Mary Jo come in and talk with her. “What in the world do you want to buy this café for?” Bess asked. Mary Jo told her that it was Billy who wanted to buy it, but that she was willing to work with him. Though Mary Jo went home that night and prayed that Bess would sell to someone else, to Billy’s delight Bess decided to sell to the McMichaels.
They opened at 5:30 a.m. on January 2, 1973, and served a full breakfast six mornings a week, and lunch six days a week, then sandwiches in the afternoon. They closed at 5 p.m. to do prep work for the next day, finishing about 6:30 p.m. each day. Billy and Mary Jo continued to operate in the little frame building until the end of 1979 when the county health department began seriously focusing on old, outdated buildings that housed restaurants. Since theirs was built in 1920, the Irondale Café was part of that focus. Weighing many options, and because costs and other requirements were very complicated, Billy decided to put his building experience to good use and built a new restaurant on the same lot as the original. Because of the weather and other complications, it took seven months to complete and prepare for patrons, but on July 22, 1980, Billy and Mary Jo opened the “new” Irondale Café with seating for 100 people. They also had a private room to use for overflow and private meetings or parties. Mary Jo had her own small office, the kitchen was now larger, and they had an automatic dishwasher, two stoves, five deep fryers, and plenty of room to work. Business was back to normal in no time, and the crowds continued to grow.
Newspapers reported the café’s progress over the years and brought in new customers. Mary Jo watched a lot of children grow up at the Irondale Café, and felt good to know they had a small part in their lives. Like the young man who began coming in when he was about eight years old, and continued to eat there over the years, bringing his wife and children, it has become a place where families gather to enjoy food like Grandma prepared, and that type atmosphere as well.
In December 1990 when the old Daly Hardware Store became available next door to the cafe, Billy decided to expand. In January 1992 the movie Fried Green Tomatoes premiered at the Cobb Galleria Theatre in Birmingham, and Fannie Flagg, Bess Fortenberry’s niece and author of the book by the same name, came to the opening with many of her friends and associates. Right after it opened, tourists from all over started coming to the Café. The local newspaper ran an article that asked: “Seen the movie? Now taste the title.” The crowds grew. Everyone who comes to the café for the first time orders our fried green tomatoes! We fry 60 or 70 pounds every weekday, and more than that on Sundays.
In June 2000, Jim Dolan purchased the Irondale Café, has kept the menu the same, and has retained some of the cooks who have been with the restaurant for more than 30 years. Dolan notices folks snapping photos outside almost daily, and says that while not everyone tries the fried green tomatoes, they do serve about 600 to 800 slices daily. One of the most enjoyable festivities in which the community participates is the annual Whistle Stop Festival, held every spring. That’s when you’ll find the café open on a Saturday!