Mississippi-born Back Yard Burgers across from University Medical Center on State Street (and on UMMC land) will reopen this weekend and you might notice some big changes. Keeping Fondren fed since 1998, the restaurant has been completely remodeled and now includes a Smoothie King and Hazel Coffee Shop.

Renovations began at the end of 2012 and will be completed with a grand reopening on Sunday that includes live music on the front porch. A cozy interior that will make diners want to stay a while includes hundred year-old Delta barnwood, Edison bulbs and warm colors. The first-of-its-kind Hazel Coffee shop gets its own cafe-lounge with vintage tables and chairs and offers charging stations for smart phones and tablets. The entire building is outfitted with free wifi.

Jacksonian Bridgeforth Rutledge, a commercial and business attorney with Phelps Dunbar, is the owner of the fifteen year-old location and says the changes are a reflection of their product. “We wanted to improve our image by making the facility of comparable quality to our food,” he said. But Rutledge’s goal encompasses more. “We want a place where people can come and stay.” Jackson native Andrew Buck will be the general manager of the store.

If all of the aesthetic changes weren’t enough, BYB will offer something that’s sure to make mornings brighter: breakfast service. “It’s a full menu,” Rutledge said, with your typical sausage and chicken biscuit options. But the menu will expand to cover a build-your-own platter including grits, eggs, meats and breads. Perfect for the med center and health-conscious crowd alike, the restaurant will serve a healthy menu with sandwiches low in fat and calories like a wheat English muffin with turkey sausage and egg whites, or oatmeal with granola and toppings. “One third of the menu is focused on healthy dining.”

Smoothie King, who shares part of the foot print of the original building, is owned by local franchisee Jason Roberts. He told us it will be a full service location that will serve nutritional fruit smoothies, healthy snacks, vitamins and supplements. Patrons will come inside for smoothies while burger and coffee customers share a common drive-thru.

Hazel Coffee has been a long time coming. Signs could be seen for the last year near the building, but Rutledge was waiting for the appropriate time. “We wanted to do this right,” he said. “All of our coffee is locally sourced and locally roasted. I think it frankly tastes better.” Mary Grace McNeil will manage Hazel and said she’s excited to begin serving hot and cold coffee drinks including mocha, hazel and cookies and cream frappuccinos.

Back Yard Burgers has always and will continue to cater to the medical center and their thousands of doctors, nurses, students and patients. But another goal of the renovation was to feel more a part of Fondren. “With coffee and smoothies, we hope to draw more from people in from the neighborhood,” Rutledge told us. A front porch will feature retractable black out shades and several “conversation areas” where medical personnel and neighbors alike can get away for a while.

So, what is the Back Yard Burger difference? What separates them from the typical “fast food” chain? Rutledge explained: “It boils down to quality of product. Our food costs are higher because we use only black angus, 1/3 pound beef burgers and lean cut chicken, things that large chains have moved away from to cut costs.” He said their 1/3 pound burger is “by far and away” their best seller followed closely by their blackened chicken sandwich. “We’re not typical fast food. Our consumers demand fast, but we don’t let speed affect our product.”

Rutledge, who owns six other BYB locations (four in the Jackson area, one in Oxford and one in Meridian) and two Corner Bakery locations in the metro, became a restaurateur by happenstance. As a Millsaps undergrad, he told us, he drove by the property everyday and looked at a dirt path going across the lot. It was path well-worn by students and employees of UMMC. “I loved Back Yard Burgers, so I drove to Memphis, introduced myself to the CEO and convinced him to let me try it,” he remembered. Fifteen years later and renovated after a two-year approval process with the state (who owns the land), Rutledge says the medical center and Fondren are special to him. “I’ve watched it maintain liveliness and value when other areas haven’t. I think the people here need the product and like it. It’s an ideal spot. I’ll be here as long as they let me.”

Back Yard Burgers began in 1987 when Lattimore M. Michael began serving one-of-a-kind, homemade hamburgers in his Cleveland, Mississippi grocery store.

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