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It started with nine turkey eggs.

When Willie Claude and Helen Bates married in 1923, W.C.’s great aunt Mamie Bates gave them the gobbler eggs as a wedding gift. The couple started raising turkeys on their farm 30 miles south of Montgomery, and they quickly became popular as a centerpiece on Alabamians’ holiday dinner tables and for families traveling by the farm down U.S. 31 on what was then the main route to Florida’s beaches.

In 1970 their son, W.C. “Bill” Bates Jr., expanded the family business by opening a restaurant off newly completed Interstate 65 when it became the Florida route. Fifty-plus years later, Bates House of Turkey is an institution.

Its smoked turkey sandwich is on the Alabama Tourism Department’s list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” In January, Food and Wine magazine dubbed it Alabama’s best sandwich.

For seven decades Bates Turkey Farm has supplied Alabama’s governor with live birds — each named Clyde after the founder’s fishing buddy — to ritually pardon and spare from a Thanksgiving table.

Five generations of the Bates family have worked at the restaurant or farm, which now raises more than 25,000 birds. The farm supplies their restaurant and sells its turkey products year-round at Birmingham-area Piggly Wiggly stores and nationwide by mail order.

“He was a great visionary,” Becky Sloane says of her father, who ran the businesses in partnership with her mother, Teresa. “He always said, ‘If you’re not changing, you’re losing.’ I think just changing a little bit with the times while staying true to what we started out being has made us what we are.”  

To go with Bates’ traditional turkey sandwiches, plates, and chili to eat there or at home, the restaurant also has modernized its menu with turkey nachos and wraps. It’s all pleasantly affordable; nothing costs more than $8.50.

bates house of turkey

Bates House of Turkey/Contributed

By far the most popular dish is the smoked turkey sandwich, served on a sesame-seed bun with mayonnaise and lettuce. Another go-to, especially on Sundays, is Roast Turkey Dinner with gravy, vegetables, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce and a roll or muffin.

Bates also does a brisk business selling frozen turkey-filled pot pies, casseroles, and soups. Sloane says those sales have been crucial while the restaurant has been operating at reduced capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Pre-pandemic, Bates House of Turkey drew about 60 percent of its customers from Alabama, especially Birmingham. The rest are from states up I-65 or I-85. Sunday is the busiest day, especially during the tourist seasons when many vacationers are driving back home.

“We give them an alternative on the interstate,” Sloane says. “Instead of fast food that’s greasy, fried, and the same old stuff, you can get something that’s healthy for you.”

Free-range, no-hormone, and locally grown are today’s food buzzwords. But that’s also the old-fashioned way, which is how Bates has always operated. Its turkeys get plenty of sunshine or can seek shade under a pecan grove near the farm’s lake. The restaurant buys its fresh vegetables from nearby farmers.

A natural marketer, Bill Bates Jr. coined the company slogan, “eat turkey, feel perky.”

“He always said that’s what kept him going,” Sloane says of her dad, who died at age 89 in 2013. “He said that’s the reason he lived so long.”