News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Canyon fixture Poppa Al’s up for sale

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

The year was 1956. Detroit Dam had opened just 3 years earlier. Chevrolet was less than a year away from perfecting the mass-market automobile. And on a Mill City homestead lot just a long fly cast from the North Santiam River, a burger joint named Hailey’s Drive-in opened for business. 

It changed hands several times, although the restaurant kept its focus on burgers, shakes and fries. It was D&S Drive-in for a bit (The “s” stood for Snooky, one of the owners) and it took on its present name from owner Al Edwards, a former Oregon State Police trooper.

The Wilkersons and the Slyes took over after Edwards, but they kept the name. For the past 6 years the business has been run by Kevin Muniz, the first four years in a partnership and the last 2 on his own. Wildfires, a bout with COVID and declining sales have led Muniz to close the business. He plans to sell Poppa Al’s and hopes to have it listed within the next week or so. In the meantime interested parties can contact Muniz at [email protected].

The Canyon Weekly visited Tuesday on a gorgeous spring day that usually would mean several cars in the lot and burgers frying on the grill, which dates to the opening in 1956. 

Muniz was tying up loose ends to get the eatery ready to sell, former employees came by to take home leftover food items and Muniz’s brother-in-law Rocky came by to soak up the atmosphere. 

“I’m pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish here,” Muniz said, sitting at a chair in the low-ceilinged dining room. The dining room was added on at some point, Muniz said, but he didn’t know quite when.

What started as basically a kitchen and a walk-up service window had morphed into one of the main oases on Highway 22, with a picnic area in the back, a barbecue facility and walls that bear the graffiti of generations of Santiam High School students and passerbys. 

The half-acre property even has its own waterfall, Elizabeth Falls, which starts on the ridges above the north side of the highway, flows under the pavement in a culvert and drops a dozen or so feet before concluding its gravity-induced mission to the river.

Muniz, 63, said he “really enjoyed running the business and the character and appeal of the place. As much as I hate to give it up, it had become a bit overwhelming for me and I’m hoping to find someone out there to keep up the tradition.”

Tradition is everywhere at Poppa Al’s. The same shake machine has been in service since 1982.

“And that ice cream freezer has been around since I don’t know when,” Muniz said. “Anyone who wants to come into the place would be taking on quite a legacy.”

Diana Slye, who ran Poppa Al’s with her husband Gene from 2000 to 2016 gives the Wilkersons credit for one of the key Poppa Al’s ingredients.

“Arlene Wilkerson came up with the home made hamburger rolls,” she said. “”She was trying to make French bread and they kept coming out round. Those home-made rolls helped make it popular.”

The Wilkersons also added clam chowder and were responsible for the sauce recipes.

The Slyes added real fruit to the shakes and Diana substituted in her own chili recipe after it won first place at a cook-off in Gates.

“The community is going to be sad that it’s closed,” she said, “and I’m looking forward to it being opened again.”

The business “miraculously” survived the 2020 wildfires, said Muniz, who noted that homes as close as a quarter of a mile did not make it. Muniz was evacuated and ultimately wound up living in a trailer behind the restaurant.

Ash and debris were everywhere. Muniz spent a week cleaning up and putting things back together with the help of some relief money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He was able to re-open Oct. 10, just a month after the fires burned parts of Mill City and two months before the fires were officially 100% contained. 

He used his barbecue facility to produce free meals for those made homeless by the fires, and he sold ”Canyon Strong” merchandise to aid relief efforts. Community members and first-responders signed “Canyon Strong” banners that still hang outside the restaurant.

That symbolic importance for the wider community always has been part of the Poppa Al’s magic, Slye said.

“The place has always been for all the people driving up Highway 22, not just Mill City,” she said.

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