A Love Letter to Cook Out, the Most Underrated Fast Food Chain
Like all good fast food, it’s quick and cheap; but there are some quirks that make this North Carolina-based chain special.
Wikimedia Commons // Michael Rivera
I hadn’t even attended my first college class when a new friend packed me into a car and drove me to Cook Out. For a Yankee transplant in Greensboro, North Carolina, it was a baptism-by-milkshake into this Southern tradition.
We parked along the small, black box of a restaurant and loped past the dual drive-thru lines to a walk-up window. There, an overflowing menu board advertised more than 40 milkshakes and a dizzying assortment of fast food. With no indoor seating for customers, we retreated back to the car with our orders, soaking in the August night air and anticipating what college would hold.
Founded in Greensboro, Cook Out will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2019. For the majority of its tenure, Cook Out was a uniquely North Carolina thing. It wasn’t until 2010—the year I graduated from college—that Cook Out crossed state lines, expanding across the Southeast with more than 200 restaurants, though the lion’s share are still in North Carolina.
I stayed in Greensboro for 12 years, eating a lot of Cook Out and coming to understand why this fast food chain is the place to take out of town visitors. The native North Carolinians I spoke to agreed that there are several underlying factors that make the chain reign supreme. Like all good fast food, it’s fast and cheap, but here’s what makes it something special.
The Unbeatable Cook Out Tray
Aside from the shakes, Cook Out’s raison d'être is its Tray, appropriately dubbed “the best combo in town.” For less than $6, you can walk away with a double hamburger, a bacon wrap, a quesadilla, and a large drink. The amount of food you receive for so little is almost obscene.
The Cook Out Tray is designed to be customizable. I have a friend who would order what she called “The Chicken Slaughter” combo: a spicy chicken sandwich, chicken wrap with ranch, chicken nuggets, and a milkshake. Hangover averted.
Mains include the Big Double Burger, twin hot dogs, and no vegetarian options. The sides, of which you get two, are sizable snacks in their own right: chicken nuggets, onion rings, corn dogs, bacon wraps, cajun fries… really just a lot of batter and oil no matter where you look. True North Carolinians order the “huge tea”—understood to be sweet, obviously—or the Cheerwine float. Pepsi may hail from the Carolinas, but down there we swear by Cheerwine, a syrupy soda similar to a cross between Cherry Coke and Dr. Pepper.
Or, for a nominal fee, you could add a milkshake instead. And if it’s your first time at the Cook Out, that’s what I recommend.
The “Fancy” Milkshakes
Katie Quine learned to love Cook Out as a high schooler in Charlotte. During college at UNC-Chapel Hill, she’d make pilgrimages to a location near rival Duke University’s campus in Durham for her beloved chocolate cheesecake shake, which mixes an entire slice into the ice cream.
Several years later, while working at the vaunted, glossy Our State magazine that celebrates North Carolina, Quine and her coworker Andy Busam launched the witty and visually abrasive cookoutmilkshakereviews.com. The self-described “best website on the internet” rates all of Cook Out’s more than 40 milkshakes on a scale—which includes color, bouquet, sweetness, body/texture, flavor/taste, finish, and quality—borrowed from a wine competition Quine had recently judged.
Over the course of one summer, Quine and her roommate tried every shake. “It was a good incentive to commit to running a half marathon I’d always promised myself I would do,” Quine said.
At the bottom of the rankings were shakes like the Hi-C Fruit Punch. “It is like Pepto-Bismol in both taste and color,” the review reads in part. “It has zero redeeming qualities, and may God have mercy on its shake soul.” Quine gave it a 5 out of 17 possible points.
Reese’s Cup stole first, with just a half-point lead over Blueberry. “When I die, I hope to be brought back as a Reese’s Cup milkshake,” the review says. “Maybe then everyone will want to be my friend.”
“Most fast-food places kind of repulse me,” said Quine, who’s now the board chair of Slow Food Middle Tennessee, “but [Cook Out] is kind of my Kryptonite.”
It’s Unabashedly Kitschy
Picture a small, rectangular building about the size of a studio apartment. Wrapped around the middle of the exterior wall are tinted mirrors that throw your disheveled image back in your face—the exact opposite of inviting you in. Indeed, you can’t go inside most Cook Out locales, not even to order. They’re not the only walk-up windows in the state—Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q comes to mind—but they're certainly the most iconic to forgo indoor seating entirely.
The rest of the aesthetic choices feel equally untouched by focus groups or marketing agencies. The Styrofoam cups say “God Bless America” and feature Bible verses, but the overall design feels more “stoned teens at a nightclub” than “church group.”
It’s unwelcoming. It’s loud. It’s unedited, unrefined, and unbelievably popular with everyone, but especially young people (who are, after all, arbiters of cool). Just try going to the Cook Outs near NC State or UNC-Wilmington on a Friday or Saturday night.
As my partner Kacie, a Greensboro native who grew up loving the chain, explained, “They are who they are. They do their thing, and they don’t really stray from it. It just feels weirdly cool.”
The Nostalgia Factor
Cook Out’s distinct setup has made it a hangout destination for high schoolers and college kids alike. This, plus it’s domination across the state, makes it a perfect symbol of your younger days as a wee Tar Heel.
My old coworker Sayaka Matsuoka, a journalist who grew up in Greensboro, rarely eats fast food and hasn’t been to Cook Out in years. But she’ll fight you if you argue that another restaurant, like In-N-Out Burger, is better. It’s part of her local obligation, rooted in formative years spent at the chain’s Battleground Avenue location as a high schooler. She’d go with teammates after tennis practice sometimes, or just loiter there with friends.
“For a while we would all just kind of congregate in the parking lot,” she told me. “It was less about the food. For me it was more about the social aspect, and I think it was because of the walk-up [window].”
By keeping customers outside the building and by not providing any seating, Matsuoka said Cook Out created an informal, backyard-barbecue kind of feel that’s perfect for teenagers. They’d traipse down a small embankment to an adjoining parking lot and commercial strip, commandeering patio furniture from the nearby Maxie B’s bakery or just sitting on the curb in the glow of a 24/7 gym.
When senior prom rolled around, the choice for a pre-prom dinner seemed obvious. Broke and already comfortable with Cook Out as a primary hangout locale, Matsuoka and her friends brought a folding table, a shitty red table cloth, and camping chairs to set up near a line of dumpsters.
The Food is Excellent
Whether you come for the Banana Fudge or Oreo Mint shake, the sweet tea or the Cheerwine float, you can’t go wrong. It’s not just drunk food, Cook Out is legitimately delicious, and a great introduction to unpretentious Southern food.
On visits home, sometimes Christian Bryant, a Greensboro native who now lives in Chicago, said he’ll often stop there before making it to his parents’ house. He’s got his order down: Oreo shake, seasoned fries, and an Out West Style burger that comes with barbecue sauce and bacon.
“They’re charred perfectly,” he said of the burgers, adding that sometimes he’ll get the “huge” version with two patties. “It’s the barbecue sauce that really sets it the fuck off.”
Despite Cook Out’s Greensboro roots, the sauce served on burgers is the thicker style found outside the Carolinas. But elsewhere on the menu, the chain tackles the region’s iconic, highly specific style of barbecue. In a state known for its distinctive pulled pork, Kacie’s decision to order the barbecue sandwich as part of her Tray isn’t a position she takes lightly.
“They do a really good job and they don’t really get credit for it,” she told me, adding that it’s a no-frills, affordable, and tasty meal—as N.C. barbecue should be.
She’s right. I’ve written about North Carolina barbecue for outlets like Newsday, Triad City Beat, and Winston-Salem Monthly, and have to say that Cook Out’s version is startlingly good. Despite not making it the “right” way—by slow cooking it over hickory wood—the taste is undeniably delicious.
I left North Carolina earlier this year for Brooklyn. There are plenty of things I miss about the Old North State—the Eden drive-in theater, the mountains surrounding Bryson City, Tarheel basketball, and swimming in the Eno River Quarry—but when I went back to visit for the first time, Cook Out is the only place I went twice. Blame it on the nostalgia or the milkshakes, but this was non-negotiable.
Cook Out has changed a little in the dozen years I’ve been a devotee. Its expansion beyond North Carolina has meant some revamped store designs that includes indoor seating at certain locations. But for those of us who developed our allegiances back when everything was still weird, our love for Cook Out will prevail through these shifts—at least as long as the things that make Cook Out distinct aren’t entirely wiped away.