Used to be, whenever he and his wife would go out of town to dinner, Opp businessman Merrill Culverhouse would always run into someone he knew from their south Alabama hometown.
“When you would go out of town — if it was Andalusia, Enterprise, Destin (Fla.), anywhere — you would see Opp people leaving Opp to go to eat somewhere else,” Culverhouse says.
Ever since Culverhouse and his lifelong friend, chef Jon Gibson, opened their Wheelhouse restaurant in an old peanut butter plant downtown, though, folks around Opp are staying in town when they eat out.
And even better, out-of-towners from neighboring counties, as well as vacationers on their way to and from the northwest Florida beaches, are now making the Wheelhouse, and Opp, a dining destination.
“I’ve been meaning to put a map up to let everybody put a push-pin of where they’re from,” Culverhouse says. “We’ve had people from Michigan, Indiana, all these people coming through traveling. We do pull them off the (U.S. 331) bypass.”
Just ask retired Covington County judge Frank “Trippy” McGuire III, who has lived here since the early 1980s and claims to know just about everybody in Opp.
“I’ll come here for lunch, and I won’t know three-quarters of the people that are eating here because it’s a meeting place for folks from out of town,” McGuire says. “It just makes me really proud that we have something like this.”
Culverhouse and Gibson, who used to ride Big Wheels around the neighborhood together when they were little kids, have been friends for as long as either one of them can remember.
“We grew up one street over from each other, in the same neighborhood on the east side of town,” Culverhouse recalls. “I grew up on Moore Avenue, and he grew up on King Avenue. But our yards kind of backed up to each other. I can’t ever remember a time I didn’t know Jon.”
They graduated from Opp High School two years apart — Gibson in 1986 and Culverhouse in ‘88 — and for the next 30 years or so, they went their separate ways.
Gibson joined the Marine Corps after high school and later came back home to study drafting and design at Douglas MacArthur State Technical College in Opp.
But he always had a passion for cooking that was fueled by watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen.
So, after working as a manager for Pizza Hut, Gibson embarked on a culinary adventure that took him from California to the Florida Keys and back home again, including executive chef positions at such restaurants as the Beachcomber Café in Newport Beach, Calif., and Bill’s by the Beach in Gulf Shores.
While in California, he appeared on the Food Network’s “Beach Eats” and on the Cooking Channel’s “Beach Bites” and cooked alongside celebrity chefs Cat Cora and Guy Fieri at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival.
RELATED: A small-town Alabama barbecue stand and the little boy who inspired it
Culverhouse, meanwhile, went to Auburn University, where he attended pharmacy school and graduated in 1993.
He started out as a pharmacist for Walmart in Montgomery for about three years but moved back to Opp after his high school sweetheart and bride-to-be, Susan Davis, finished pharmacy school at Samford University.
“She wanted to move back home, so I moved back in April of 1996,” Culverhouse says. “We got married that August. We just celebrated our 25-year anniversary.”
While Opp is still their home, the Culverhouses own and operate a pharmacy, Crenshaw Drugs, in nearby Luverne, about 30 miles north of their hometown.
Investing in Opp
Although he’s never been much of a cook himself, Culverhouse says he has dreamed of owning a restaurant since his college days at Auburn.
“A bunch of guys would be sitting around on a Thursday evening, saying, ‘What do you want to do 25 years from now?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘Well, I want to have a restaurant.’. . .
“Food is fun to me,” he adds. “I enjoy food. You can tell.”
Every now and then, Culverhouse would catch his old friend Gibson on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel, and periodically, he would pitch him the idea of going into the restaurant business together.
“I’ve been after him for years to come back,” Culverhouse says. “We were starving to death in Opp for different food.”
Gibson, though, wasn’t ready to come home.
“I would come back to visit my parents, but it never crossed my mind to come back (to live),” he says. “It really didn’t. And then he started hammering me — nine years before I came back.
“He would ping me every once in a while and say, ‘Hey, how about opening a restaurant?’ I would blow him off and say, ‘I’m not ready for anything yet.’”
Then, in 2017, the civic-minded Culverhouse attended a town hall meeting hosted by Opp Mayor Becky Bracke, who was looking for fresh ideas to breathe new life into this little town of about 6,800 people.
The first thing most people think of when they hear the name Opp is the annual Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo, a two-day celebration that draws several thousand visitors to town every spring to watch rattlesnake races, shop for snakeskin souvenirs, and indulge in such delicacies as deep-fried rattlesnake. The reptile roundup celebrated its 60th year this past March.
But Bracke also wanted to give people a reason to come to town the other 363 days of the year.
That meeting lit a fire under Culverhouse, and about two years later, he bought a nearly 90-year-old building at the corner of East Hart Avenue and Main Street in the heart of downtown.
RELATED: A tiny Alabama town, an old restaurant and the two guys who’ve given it new life
Built in 1931, the red-brick building stands on what folks around town call the Donaldson Block — named after M.E. Donaldson, a prominent Opp businessman back in the day.
At various times in its history, the building had been home to a post office, a bakery, a peanut butter factory, and, more recently, a real estate office.
Culverhouse saw the old building’s potential, and he knew what it could mean to downtown if he finally realized his dream of owning a restaurant. In early 2019, he called his buddy Gibson to make one more sales pitch.
“Hey, are we going to do this restaurant or not?” Culverhouse recalls their conversation.
Gibson said that he still couldn’t commit to anything because he was under contract to another restaurant for a couple more months.
“Well,” Culverhouse told him, pausing for dramatic effect, “I bought the building.”
“Well,” Gibson replied, “I guess we’re doing the restaurant.”
Gibson moved home to Opp in April 2019, and he and Culverhouse jump-started the process of transforming the old building into a new restaurant.
“We completely gutted it,’ Culverhouse says. “The only thing original is the brick walls.”
They installed concrete floors, wooden booths and tables, and Edison lighting. They built a bar. And they tore down an adjoining building to make room for a covered patio for outdoor dining.
Gibson did a lot of the design work himself.
“He’s got a lot of sweat equity in this place,” Culverhouse says. “Jon is very forward-thinking. He’s been a lot of places, seen a lot of things, and he thinks outside of the box.”
After going back and forth on what to call their restaurant, they settled on Wheelhouse, which serves multiple metaphorical purposes.
Opp is named after Henry Opp, who was a lawyer for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, and in railroad terminology, the wheelhouse is a turntable device used to turn around a locomotive and get it headed back in the direction from which it came.
Likewise, Gibson and Culverhouse saw their restaurant as a catalyst for “turning around” their little hometown.
For Gibson, Wheelhouse has another meaning, too.
“With Jon, he’s come a full 360 (degrees),” Culverhouse says. “He’s back where he started.”
A much-anticipated opening
Just eight months after they started the renovation, Culverhouse and Gibson opened the doors to their restaurant in December 2019.
Opp was beyond ready.
“There was a lot of anticipation about the Wheelhouse,” McGuire, the retired judge and a frequent customer, says. “You know that Carly Simon song ‘Anticipation’? Well, there was a lot of that. And it didn’t seem like it would ever happen. Finally, it opened up in December of ’19, and it was packed.
“Down here in a small town, when a restaurant like this opens, it’s a big deal,” McGuire adds. “And I hope that business has met their expectations.”
Gibson — who, while cooking in California, earned the nickname “Guerrilla Chef” for his passionate approach to food, sustainability and the environment — has put together a menu that features Alabama Gulf Seafood and Wild American Shrimp, including a fresh catch of the day and a lemon pesto shrimp dish. For meat lovers, the menu includes a Hereford ribeye and a bone-in pork chop.
Gibson likes to call his food “Coastal Comfort Cuisine,” and he changes the menu every spring and fall to reflect the seasons’ bounties.
“I wanted to carve out a niche that was a little bit different than everybody else,” he says. “I wanted to keep people from going down to the coast (to eat) and keep them here. Or, on their way down, they will hit us first, or, on the way back, they’ll come back for seafood again.”
The menu also features new takes on some old favorites, including a seafood pot pie, a grilled chicken mac and cheese, and a chicken-fried hamburger steak.
“I take stuff that I grew up with as a kid and people around here grew up with as a kid and I just twist ‘em enough that they’re unique but still familiar,” Gibson says.
Inside, the Wheelhouse seats about 100 diners, and there’s room for another 50 on the patio outside, where, on Friday nights when high school football is not in season, local bands Five Runs and the Ten Mile Branch Band crank it up.
RELATED: This destination Alabama cafe is worth the trip, by car or boat
Like all restaurants, though, the Wheelhouse had to adjust on the fly when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
Gibson pushed the pause button for about six weeks to rethink his menu and come up with more takeout-friendly selections.
Then, when the dining room reopened, he added the Blue Collar Plate — which comes with a choice of a meat and two sides — to the lunch menu.
“COVID hit, and I said, ‘I’ve got to find something to strike a nerve with people to bring them in for lunch,’” Gibson says. “So that’s why I started the Blue Collar Plate.
“I threw the hamburger steak on there, and now it’s my No. 1 seller for lunch,” he adds. “I never realized that people love hamburger steak as much as they do. Probably 90 percent of our lunch sales are the Blue Collar Plate.”
This summer, Gibson also rolled out a food trailer, called Wheelhouse V2, that he hauls around Opp and Andalusia, setting up shop three days a week during lunch. That menu features quesabirria tacos and build-your-own burgers.
“I had these big, wild ambitions to go all over to Covington County, Coffee County, Crenshaw County,” he says. “But I’m keeping myself busy just here in Covington County. We’re doing well. People like it.”
After living in California and the Keys, moving back to little ol’ Opp has been a bit of a culture shock for the globetrotting Gibson.
“I mean, I had been gone for 30-plus years,” he says. “I really wasn’t used to it at first. I had that separation anxiety at first of not being in a bigger town.”
But it’s great to be home again.
“It feels good,” Gibson adds. “It feels good that we’re at least bringing stuff back to the community and trying to build it back up.”
And he’s grateful to his old friend Merrill Culverhouse for staying after him to come back.
“Persistence pays off sometimes,” Culverhouse says.
Becky Bracke, the town mayor who was partly the inspiration for getting those wheels turning, couldn’t be prouder.
“It has meant a lot to Opp — for it to be two local boys born and raised in Opp, to want to give back to Opp,” she says. “You know, a lot of young people leave, but these two came back and really invested.”
Wheelhouse is at 105 East Hart Ave. in Opp, Ala. The phone is 334-764-6482. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For a menu and more information, go here.
The story behind these glorious Alabama grits
This Alabama funeral home is also a popular food truck park
The Alabama restaurant that’s a window to another world
The refreshing story behind this heavenly Alabama water