By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Busy Bee Burger’s location is inconspicuous. You can easily miss it hidden in BP station across Highway 280 from Winn-Dixie in Chelsea. Order off the menu and you’ll see why owner Johnny Colafrancesco is earning a reputation for his freshly ground organic beef burgers, served on a homemade bun with a special homemade spicy thousand island. You’ll also get a taste for his big plans for new pies, barbecue pit and salad bar.
Colafrancesco, who lived for years in San Francisco and New York, opened the restaurant in November with the inspiration to simply serve burgers, fries, shakes and pies. It was to be a sort of combination of California’s In-N-Out Burger and Marie Callender’s, a restaurant chain specializing in pies.
The burgers are made with organically raised Meyers beef. “You can taste the difference,” Colafrancesco said. “It tastes the way beef used to taste. A lot of people say it’s the best burger they’ve ever had.” The quality is good enough to cook for a burger medium rare, but per customer preference, Busy Bee cooks them medium well unless requested otherwise. To spice things up on the burger, you can choose from one of more than 100 hot sauces on the “Wall of Fire.”
“[The burger] is like something you make at home with real ingredients,” customer Chris DeLucia said.
“Our goal is for you to be in and out in the time it takes to fill a tank [of gas],” Colafrancesco said of their goal for fast service. Burgers are cooked to order, though, so be prepared to wait 3-4 minutes for a quarter pound burger or 8 minutes for the large half pound burger. To speed things up, customers can call in their order in advance, and the restaurant will have it ready upon your arrival.
What stands out most on the burger is its far-from-ordinary bun. Colafrancesco developed the recipe as a light brioche, a pastry-like French bread that is puffy and airy like a traditional burger bun. The same dough is used for hot dog buns, cheese steak rolls and other sandwiches on the menu. Standout Yukon gold fries complete a meal with their crisp, skin-on edges.
Last month Busy Bee began to feature different pies daily. The restaurant now offers two to six pie choices each day and is planning to offer a selection of 20-25 soon. The most popular flavors are peanut butter, banana cream and lemon fluff. Colafrancesco hopes to fill a void for a pie house in the Birmingham area with natural adaptations of pies like those served at Marie Callender’s restaurants.
Busy Bee has also filled a void in breakfast market in Chelsea virtually nonexistent outside chains. DeLucia likes to order a breakfast burrito in the morning because it’s easy to eat on the road. Croissants with a choice of fillings are also popular.
Over the months since opening Busy Bee, Colafrancesco has adjusted his concept to adapt to what his customers were interested in eating. One customer suggested a salad bar, and in late April they added one. Along with the salad bar, a barbecue pit and smoothies, made with only fresh fruit, have completed the menu at the small restaurant.
Barbecue chicken and pork are served on their signature fresh baked bread with an option of five homemade sauces: white, Caribbean, Hawaiian, chipotle, and red
The salad bar features field greens, iceberg, spinach, fresh local herbs, and constantly changing array of other toppings. The bar also includes Colafrancesco’s homemade flavored tofu and a variety of sprouts that grow on his property in Indian Springs. There are more than 90 different kinds of sprouts that take on the robust flavor of their namesake, such as almond or black bean.
With much of the produce farmed locally, the salad bar gets at Colafrancesco’s passion for the food business. “The heart of Busy Bee is being a food company that supports local farmers,” he said. “What goes on in the community stays in the community.” The restaurant’s tomatoes and onions come from local growers, and Colafrancesco is working to source cheese and eventually meat locally eventually.
Colafrancesco plans to also start selling fresh shrimp in the restaurant; the seafood will come from his other local business, Birmingham Shrimp. His third business is Johnny Green Seed Wines. He ultimately hopes to open an affordable fully prepared food grocery store that offers an experience beyond just shopping.
With 25 years experience in catering, Colafrancesco also offers these services.
For now, he is looking to open a store near UAB and eventually turn Busy Bee into a chain, with each location’s menu adjusted to best serve its unique customer base.
Even with his big dreams for the food business, Colafrancesco emphasized that he is focused on the original Chelsea establishment serving the taste of the community permanently. “Many restaurants have come and gone in Chelsea in recent years,” he said, “ but we are here for the long run.”
16634 Highway 280, Chelsea
Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m.