After 39 years of charcoal-grilled burgers and honey-blond fried chicken, 74-year-old Frances Stanish is handing over her order pad. The Austin hamburger stand Top Notch has been sold.
The new owners — two families within the company that owns Austin's three Galaxy Cafes and Zocalo — don't plan to change a thing. Not the menu, not the staff and definitely not the sky-high marquee made famous in "Dazed and Confused."
Richard Linklater's 1993 movie comes up a lot when people talk about Top Notch. That's what we love about our burger places. We get older, they stay the same age. Yes, they do.
"It's been a family-run business for 39 years. We're going to keep it a family-run business," said Kelly Chappell, the core of the ownership team that includes his wife, Leslie, along with her brother, Phillip Santa Cruz, and his wife, Amber.
Stanish started Top Notch at 7525 Burnet Road in 1971 with her husband, Ray, who died in 2004. Their son James took over, but when he died in 2008, the future of the restaurant was in doubt. Customers begged the family to stay open.
Frances Stanish said she had little choice. "I said, 'I don't want to close it. I don't want to sell it because I want Top Notch to go on.' "
She's stayed behind the counter since then, frail with cancer but insistent on handling the order-taking, even as the new owners trained with her, all of them seasoned restaurant veterans.
The decision to sell was motivated in part by her health. "I would like to stay in here until I'm 100. My body doesn't want to stay. My mind wants to stay."
The decision became easier when she found out that Chappell had celebrated birthdays as a kid at the Top Notch among the red vinyl chairs and the mingled aromas of charcoal and deep fryers.
"These people are all family people, too," she said. "I just feel like they're going to do another 39 years of good stuff, just like we did."
Frances Stanish knows about family business. In addition to her sons James and Joe, her daughters Joan Tucker and Janet Stanish-Knue have worked at Top Notch.
"It's hard to see it leave the family," said Tucker, who said she'll now spend more time with her kids. Her sister will stay on. "I enjoy the connection with the customers," Stanish-Knue said. "They always tell us, 'Y'all need to stay here forever.' "
Some of those customers have been with Top Notch forever, at least the part of forever since 1971.
"I've been eating here since I was a child," Clifford Jones, a retired dentist, said. "Best fried chicken I ever ate in my life. It just melts in your mouth."
The public will have a chance to celebrate Frances Stanish's 75th birthday with her at Top Notch from noon to 4 p.m. May 23.
For now, customers seem willing to give Chappell's team the benefit of the doubt.
"As long as it doesn't change," said Joan Yura, whose son was in school with Joe Stanish.
Her husband chimed in. "We'll keep track," Joe Yura said. "We'll say, 'Hey, that's not the same!' "
"And then we'll go up to Frances' place and yell at her, that's all," Joan Yura said.
A little bit of change is inevitable.
For Chris Dantzler, a cook for seven years at Top Notch, that's all right. "I'm excited. I think we're fixing to go places with these guys," he said.
For example, the new owners might open the place on Sundays. "Change is good, if it's done right," he said.