By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
After classes ended at his Birmingham middle school, Greg Gratton and his brother went straight to work.
“We would come [into our father’s restaurant], peel a 100-pound sack of potatoes, cut them up, ice and water them down, and then flour up wings to get the business started for the next day,” Gratton recalled. “That’s what we did Monday through Friday.”
That restaurant was Green Acres Café, which is located in the downtown Birmingham Fourth Avenue Historic District, one of the largest commercial sectors for Black-owned businesses in Alabama and across the Southeast.
His father, Charles Gratton, passed away in 1999. Now Greg Gratton owns the eatery, and it’s just as popular as ever. Patrons can still be found filling the snug area and waiting in lines at the pickup counter for sandwiches—catfish, whitefish, and pork chop are among the many selections—as well as livers, gizzards, shrimp, and the restaurant’s signature whole chicken wings.
Gratton said it’s important for Green Acres to keep its prices “reasonable” and pointed to the two-piece whole wings, which includes French fries and slice of bread for less than three dollars. With three locations—Ensley, Center Point, and Fourth Avenue North—Gratton continues to lead the Green Acres Café family of restaurants, now anchored at 1705 Fourth Avenue North, and helps to maintain an institution that has been around for more than 70 years.
Green Acres was originally started in Chicago, Illinois, in 1946. After opening six locations up north, Gratton’s uncle, William, opened the first location in Alabama in North Birmingham in 1950. In 1958, Gratton’s father opened his own location downtown Birmingham, across from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Charles’s café closed for a year in 1962 and relocated several times before 1990, when it landed at its current location on Fourth Avenue North.
Gratton, now 70, spent much of his youth in the Fourth Avenue Historic District and cares deeply about his business in that part of the city.
“When we had the store across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, my brother and I would always get in trouble because we would sneak across [Kelly Ingram] Park,” he said. “We used to come over here like little bad boys all the time, knowing we weren’t supposed to be over here, but we would do it.”
Since the time when he and his brother used to tiptoe across the park, the formerly segregated Fourth Avenue has become an area that’s “open to all nationalities.”
Gratton grew up in the Norwood community with his brother, Charles Jr., and sister, Regina Witherspoon. He attended Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School, John Harbert Phillips and Arthur Harold Parker high schools. Gratton enrolled at Phillips in 1965, the year after the school was desegregated. He was treated so poorly that he had to leave after his freshman year.
“[There were] four Blacks in all of Phillips High School. … The white kids rejected us and called us all kinds of names. I mean, they made it real miserable [and] you always got your seat in the back of the room,” said Gratton, who transferred to and graduated from Parker.
After high school, he moved to Chicago, where his uncle had started the original Green Acres Café.
Gratton said he was “buck-wild” in his youth, and he went to Chicago while he was still trying to figure out what he would do with his life. While in Chicago, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Every New Year’s Eve, he would visit Birmingham to see family and go on an annual blind date chosen by his cousin. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, he met a blind date that would become his wife.
“It was like love at first sight,” Gratton recalled of Cynthia. “I said, ‘This is the woman for me.’ I went back to Chicago on January 2. I start sending her cards, start sending her flowers. I was nuts. She was the one that really settled me down.”
After returning to Chicago and learning that the post office wouldn’t let him transfer to Birmingham, Gratton put in his two-week notice and moved back to the Magic City: “I said, ‘I got to get back before somebody takes my heart,’” he said.
In June 1972, Gratton married Cynthia and worked at his father’s Green Acres location, like he did when he was a youngster. He and Charles Jr. ran the lounge section of the restaurant.
That would be short-lived, however. In 1977, Gratton moved to California, where he lived in Lynwood and Compton and worked for the Southern California Gas Company. He and Cynthia—who have three daughters, Tyeasa, 52, Tomeka, 47, and Tiffany, 42, as well as five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren—now live in Irondale and like to fish in Guntersville, Alabama.
Gratton moved back to Birmingham from California in 1993, when his father’s health declined. His father made him CEO of Green Acres Café.
The family tried to franchise the restaurants and opened a location in West End as well as others in Center Point, Forestdale, and Hueytown. The businesses thrived until around 2010, when some of the franchise owners lost interest, Gratton believes. The downtown, Ensley, and Center Point sites are still going strong.
The key to being successful in business is commitment, according to Gratton, who added that you have to “jump in with both feet and hands.”
Gratton, who still spends as much time as possible at the downtown location, said, “You cannot open up a business and say, ‘I’m gonna get a manager to run it for me.’ No one is going to treat your customers like you do. It’s just like if you have a car and loan it to somebody, they’re not going to drive it like you do because they don’t have any interest in it.”
The primary Green Acres Café location is at 1705 Fourth Ave. N., Birmingham, AL 35203. The menu is available at www.greenacres-cafe.com, and the restaurant can be reached at 205-251-3875.