BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Donny Mitchell hasn’t given himself a lot of time to think about all his years at Superior Grill, a Tex-Mex restaurant that was a familiar sight along Highway 280 for three decades. For him, there’s too much left to do.
On Sunday, the restaurant closed its doors for good, ending its 27-year run. By Monday, Mitchell and his staff had begun moving things out of the building. On this particular day, he and others were taking out the grill to be moved to another Superior Grill location that will be opening in Lafayette, La.
“It won’t hit me until I lock the door for the last time,” said Michell, who first came to Superior Grill in 1995 and had been its general manager for the last 17 years.
In the middle of a rapidly-changing stretch of Highway 280, Superior Grill and its signature neon sign remained a constant. Superior opened first opened in 1995 at a time when there were not a lot of restaurants in the area. As far Mitchell remembers, some of the bigger nearby restaurants were Ralph & Kakoo’s down the road, a TGI Friday’s at the Colonade and Lloyd’s.
“There weren’t a whole lot of restaurants when we moved in,” Mitchell said.
The Birmingham Superior was one of five restaurants to share the name of the Louisiana-based company, whose first location in Shreveport first opened in 1983. The restaurants were created by Phil Barbaree and Bob Kirchoff, who had originally owned a liquor store in Shreveport before deciding to take a chance on the restaurant business.
“We learned as we went,” Barbaree told the Birmingham Post-Herald before the restaurant first opened. “For a while, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. And we’re still learning.”
However, there was once a possibility that Superior would never come to Alabama. Barbaree told the Post-Herald that after opening their second Superior Grill in Baton Rouge in 1990, he and Kirchoff were looking to bring a third location to Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, but it wasn’t what they wanted.
It was on their trip back to Louisiana that the two passed through Birmingham and ultimately found what they were looking for: a building along a busy stretch of the highway. In fact, the building that Superior Grill would move into had previously been a Shoney’s and Dos Amigos restaurant.
In 2006, Barbaree and Kirchoff opened another restaurant, Cocina Superior, at Brookwood Village, but it closed in 2020.
Mitchell said that several things factored into the restaurant’s closing. The year before, its property had been sold, changing its lease, which was originally set to run out next January. Another factor was Barbaree and Kirchoff wanting to open another restaurant in Lafayette.
“Having a spot a little closer in an area where they could do that just made sense,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that through good times and lean times, especially the 2008 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirchoff and Barbaree did their part to make sure that Superior would stay in business.
“Obviously, anytime you’re in business this long, you certainly weather some storms,” he said. “We had ownership that was willing to double down when times were lean and make the place even better.”
However, Mitchell said that having community support over the years was what he treasured the most.
“They have been more than customers,” he said. “I’ve watched them bring their kids in, and as they grow up, they’ll bring their kids in.”
Superior Grill was also the launching pad for others to start their own Mexican restaurants. Brothers Rodrigo and Javier Jerez first started working at the restaurant in the mid-90s and eventually opened up their own restaurant, Margarita Grill, in Pelham in 2006.
“It was our little Superior Grill in Pelham,” said Rodrigo, better known as “RJ” to his Margarita Grill customers.
RJ said he fondly remembers his time at Superior Grill, taking everything he learned there and putting it into his own business.
“It was a good time to meet people and make money and learn,” he said. “I learned to treat people nice and to feel good when people treat you good.”
On Friday, a couple of days before Superior closed, RJ wore his old Superior Grill shirt around Margarita Grill as a tribute to the restaurant.
“It was a great experience,” he said.
Mitchell said he would love to see another Mexican restaurant move into the building, but he is happy that through Superior Grill, Birmingham has become his home and he has made countless friendships and memories in it.
“It’s been one hell of a damn ride,” he said. “Whatever the future holds, I can thank Superior Grill for the outstanding time I’ve been here.”