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Couple takes a different kind of 'retirement' path

Photo by Joe Bellacomo

Photo by Joe Bellacomo

ALBANY, Ga. -- The last thing anyone who knows Pete and Sherry Stith would have expected the couple to do in their "retirement" is open a restaurant.

Pete Smith owned Albany Ice Machines for more than 30 years and had worked on ice machines for more than 40. The last 25 years of his ownership of AIM, Sherry Stith had done the paperwork for the company.

But what started as a dare turned into one of the most fascinating stories in the Albany area food industry.

"Hey, I love a challenge, so don't dare me," Sherry Stith said as she showed off the recently opened Build Your Burger establishment at 1214 N. Westover Blvd., which served its first customer Oct. 19. "So many people told us this wouldn't work, told us opening a restaurant was too risky.

"But I'm a people person, and it's just my personality to take on a challenge."

Even one for which the Stiths had no prior preparation.

"It was like 'WHOOM!' the last seven days before we opened," Pete Stith said. "We easily worked 80 hours over those seven days taking care of the little details before we opened."

His wife offers another analogy.

"From the time we closed on the property to the opening date, it's like I was in labor," Sherry Stith said. "It was like birthing a baby, only this birth was much tougher than when I had my kids."

The Stiths said they found what Pete Stith calls "the three things we needed most: location, location, location" through friend and real estate agent Sheryl Giles, who was impressed enough with the couple's operation she signed on as assistant manager.

"It's nice to have another right hand," Sherry Stith said. "Pete is my right hand, but Sheryl is just another right hand. I was talking with her about needing someone I could trust to help me manage the business, and she just slowly raised her hand.

"That was an answer to a prayer."

While considering their retirement plans, Pete Smith and son P.J. visited well-known franchises like Florida-based Fuddruckers and Atlanta-based Cheeseburger Bobby's. They liked the concept of those establishments, so the Stiths incorporated many of them into their own unique establishment.

"It came down to remembering how it was to make your own burger," Pete Stith said. "Unless you grill out, you just can't do that anymore. I think the last place you could get a burger made the way you want it in Albany was at Burger Chef."

Build Your Burger customers order any style of hamburger (or chicken sandwich) that suits their palate, then "builds" it the way they want from a fresh produce bar that includes lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, jalapenos, onions, pico de gallo, banana peppers, and condiments of choice.

"It's pretty much anything anybody's ever wanted on a burger," Sherry Stith said. "Look at that fresh produce; you won't find anything like that in Albany."

Build Your Burger's menu also includes salads, hot dogs, French fries, onion rings and desserts such as hand-dipped milk shakes and a cheesecake brownie with ice cream that's already become a favorite.

The Stiths said the down economy, which has played a part in a number of local restaurant closures, opened possibilities for their establishment.

"There's room for us," Pete Stith said.

The new restaurateurs have brought on 16 employees for their establishment, which is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. on Sundays. And those employees are held to high standards.

"We let eight people go in the first week," Sherry Stith said. "We hired our employees based on what they told us in interviews, and some people just did not live up to what they told us. I think everyone understands what we expect now, and we've become like a big family in a short amount of time."

The Stiths sampled all available beef patties, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, french fries and every other ingredient they serve before settling on what they personally preferred.

"One thing we stress is that this is not fast food," Sherry Stith said. "It's fresh food. We don't cook our food until we get an order. There may be, at times, a wait, but we've instructed our employees to let customers know if that's the case.

"The most encouraging thing I've heard so far is when people walking out have commented, 'This was worth the wait'."