Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography Courtesy of Jason Pintar and Big Earl’s Greasy Eats
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t 27, Brooke Butler is right where she wants to be. In fact, this spunky hometown girl is digging in her boot heels and staking her claim in a corner of the world where respect is earned by the decade.
As one of the youngest business owners in Cave Creek—and a woman, at that—she’s in the minority, but Brooke is unflappable. As she celebrates her first year as owner of the iconic Big Earl’s Greasy Eats, her vision for preserving a legacy that began long before she was born is clearer than ever.
“I love this town. I grew up here,” she said with her signature wide smile. “I want the whole town to succeed. It’s just one of those special places. It’s like taking a step back in time. I want it to stay exactly the same as it is now.”
She’s doing her part.
Big Earl’s Greasy Eats is more than just a restaurant; it’s a piece of history. The distinctive building was originally a Standard Oil gas station in Sunnyslope. It was moved to its current location in downtown Cave Creek in 1952, where the Elrod brothers ran it as a service station until the 1980s.
For years, it was the only gas station along the road to Bartlett Lake, making it a regular pit stop for locals and vacationers alike. “It always makes me smile when people tell me stories about how they used to stop here to get gas when they were kids,” Brooke smiled.
Previous owner Kim Brennan saw the beauty and opportunity in the building, which is now believed to be the only example of its 1930s art deco station style in the Phoenix area.
She took on the task of turning the building into something entirely different, first opening Big Daddy Mojo’s coffee and ice cream station in 2001, then slowly transforming it into a full restaurant and bar. The name was changed to Big Earl’s Greasy Eats, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Patrons would say that Big Earl’s has done a great job of balancing the fine line of being family friendly while catering to the adult crowd. “We are so much of a family place where parents can eat amazing food and get a really cool craft beer,” Brooke explained. Families with young children, retirees, high schoolers and hipsters are among the crowd that flocks to Big Earl’s on any given day.
Among Brennan’s notable accomplishments was a bit of fame and fun she gained at the expense of a local newspaper man. In 2012, he penned a scathing editorial about Brennan’s portrayal of the town when she appeared on the Food Networks’ “Mystery Diners,” which featured Big Earl’s that year. In the article, he referred to Brennan as “white trash.”
Instead of cowing, Brennan turned it into an opportunity, planning the first Big Earl’s now-annual White Trash Bash. She parked a “trashy” trailer out front, put gaudy flamingos in the yard and handed out Jell-O shots and PBR. Wild costume contests like “Trashiest Couple in the Trailer Park” and “Best Men’s Romper” were held, and she added a dancing pole as a permanent fixture inside the restaurant.
The White Trash Bash immediately became a smash hit—one of the best summer events in the area.
Brennan ran the restaurant successfully for well over a decade before putting it on the market a handful of years ago. Though she had several offers, no one was interested in carrying on the brand she’d built.
No one, that is, until Brooke stepped up.
“I feel so lucky because Kim started this legacy,” she added. “Now I get to carry the torch.”
Though Brooke has only owned the business for a year, the Cactus Shadows grad was already the face of Big Earl’s, managing the restaurant for the last four years, give or take a few months when she left to work for an insurance agency.
The transition has been smooth because both women were set on maintaining Big Earl’s trademark friendliness.
“I’m such a people person. Every single day I say hi to everyone and make it a point to try and remember what they had when they last came in.
“It seems like, for a lot of restaurants, the future is all about getting rid of people and replacing them with technology. I don’t ever want Big Earl’s to be that way. That’s not who we are, and honestly, I think that’s why people like it here so much,” said Brooke.
“I feel so lucky that I get to be the one who keeps it alive,” she said with humility.
Most everything has remained the same, save for a few additions like food and drinks happy hours Tuesdays through Thursdays to keep both parents and kids coming back. Tater tots, fried mac and cheese bites and their new Jewel of the Creek salad are among the menu additions—as are brand new French fries.
The fries, Brooke said, were a bit of a surprise. When she purchased the business, she reached out to the Cave Creekers Infamous Bulletin Board on Facebook, an online community of over 14,000 members, and asked for input.
“I said, ‘Okay, you guys. I want the good, the bad and the ugly of Big Earl’s.’ I have always felt like I can improve based on listening to things people tell me. I kid you not, I had 200 people tell me they hated our fries!”
After a full day of customer testing of 12 different French fries, Brooke and the Big Earl’s staff settled on a new version. They now serve them up, along with a variation—taco fries—much to the delight of their customers.
It’s those successes, and connecting with friends and customers new and old, that make it all worthwhile for Brooke. In fact, with her first year behind her, those challenges seem to have put her more in the groove than ever. “Every day is something new, and I love it!” she said.
Business ownership isn’t her only change this year. Last December, love literally showed up on her doorstep.
“I wasn’t looking for a relationship because I was buying Big Earl’s and I thought I had enough on my plate,” she said.
Nevertheless, when Collin Dallas, whose twin brother is married to a distant relative, showed up on her doorstep needing a place to stay while visiting Phoenix for a concert, fate had different plans.
“We went to Buffalo Chip and literally hit it off in, like, 20 seconds,” Brooke laughed. “We’re getting married on St. Patty’s Day in Frontier Town.”
Just as this gutsy go-getter conquered becoming a business owner, she’s jumping into the rest of life with both feet, too. She and Collin, who moved to the Valley in May and started a pool care business with her brother, bought and began renovating a house.
“Planning a wedding, renovating a house, running two businesses—it’s been the funnest year ever!” she said with unfeigned enthusiasm.
And there is one more change. That dancing pole that was erected at the beginning of the “white trash” days, well, it’s not there anymore.
“I hated that thing!” Brooke said through a big laugh. “Literally, on day one, that was the first thing I did! Someone was there at 6 a.m. to take it down. I am so glad it’s gone!”
Whatever the future holds for Brooke, it’s looking bright. With a little luck and a lot of hard work—both of which she seems to have going for her—the Big Earl’s legacy will continue. With it, her little corner of Cave Creek will remain the charming, authentic, neighborly place we’ve all grown to appreciate.