On a mission
Daniel McGaha visited his first Cook Out restaurant 10 years ago, and it wasn't the kind of experience that would keep an average customer coming back.
"I was in High Point, North Carolina in 2007. I went to see a friend of mine, and he took me there for the first time,” he said.
“We were sitting there, and the employees were talking about how they’d been robbed with an AK-47 the night before. Apparently, a guy stuck the gun through the window and took all their money. It was crazy.”
The North Greenville University graduate purchased the first of what would be many Cook Out trays that day. From then on, “I was hooked,” he said.
“You can get corn dog or a quesadilla or chicken nuggets as a side. It was fantastic. We ate at two other Cook Outs in High Point that weekend.”
After trips to Mount Airy, Asheville, Raleigh, Shelby and even Newport News, Virginia, the Greenwood resident has now visited 103 Cook Out locations and is setting a goal to see them all by 2020.
“By 2020, I will have been to every Cook Out,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
His love for the regional burger joint only increased during college. McGaha recalls a time when he visited his local restaurant daily.
“During my senior year of college, they built a Cook Out in Cherrydale and I gained more than 15 pounds,” he said.
“The last two weeks of college, I had three papers due, so I went to the Furman library every night. But before I did that, I went to Cherrydale and got a chicken strip tray with hushpuppies and cajun fries. Then I went to the library until 2 a.m. As I was leaving the library, I would go back to Cook Out and get a dozen hushpuppies and a Cheerwine float. I did that every day for the last two weeks of college. I know that’s horrible.”
As the trips to Cook Out increased, so did the number of locations he was visiting.
“I’d been to like 25 of them before I realized, ‘Hey, I’ve been to a lot of Cook Outs,’” McGaha said. “When I saw that the restaurant was super regional, and that they were expanding, I decided to see if I could visit all of them. From then on, I knew if I saw a Cook Out, I was going to go to it.”
McGaha, who is currently serving as a youth pastor in Greenwood, kept up with new restaurant openings online.
“Cook Out didn’t even have a website until a few years ago,” he said. “They had no online presence. I remember there being a guy that ran a Cook Out fan site that I would go to and he had a list of all the locations.
“My desire to see them all really didn’t get serious until the Cook Out tour,” he said.
Cook Out Tour 2016
In 2016, McGaha was nearing the century mark for restaurants visited when he decided to go on tour.
He and his friend, Wil Langley, visited 34 Cook Outs in 40 hours. The two left from Greenwood and drove to Charlotte, Pinehurst, Durham, Wilson, Goldsboro, Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, among other cities.
“There were like 17 in Charlotte alone,” McGaha said. “It felt like we were there for a long time. It was demoralizing. You’d pull into a Cook Out, get your food and then plug the next one into your GPS, and it was seven minutes away. All I could think was that I hadn't been hungry in 12 hours, but we had to keep going.”
The two pushed through all obstacles, meeting impressed managers and employees along the way.
“We saved every cup from every Cook Out we went to and we took that stack of cups to each one,” McGaha said. “We had managers taking our picture and giving us free food. Cook Out posted something about it on their Facebook page, and some guy commented and said it was a great honeymoon idea.
“It’s not a good honeymoon idea. You feel like death the whole trip,” he said. “There was nothing about it that was fun, but I’m absolutely stoked to do it again. I already have dates for this fall.
McGaha will leave on Oct. 11 for the 2017 tour.
“We’re going to hit every Cook Out that’s left in Virginia,” he said. “There are about 30 there, so we’re going to get through all of those. It’s commitment.”
Some folks might think he’s crazy, but McGaha would argue that his hobby gives him a great opportunity to meet new people.
“When you tell people you’ve been to 103 Cook Outs, they don’t understand why anybody would do that,” McGaha said.
“I’m a youth pastor, and there are teenagers that will see me around town and say, ‘You’re the guy that loves Cook Out so much,’” he said. “When I get up and talk at chapel services, or FCAs or schools, I talk about how much I love Cheerwine and Cook Out and they get a laugh out of it. You can text anybody and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Cook Out and get a milkshake?’ and they’re always down for that. It’s a funny anecdote. The Cook Out thing is not the most important thing I do by any means, but it absolutely gives me leverage to talk to people.”
Cheerwine is another one of McGaha’s favorite things.
“One of the main things that drives my affection for Cook Out is that they have Cheerwine,” he said. “Cheerwine is the greatest beverage on earth. I actually have real-life friends that I met through the Cheerwine online fan club. I’m apart of the Cheerwine Tastemakers Association— people who taste new Cheerwine products and fill out surveys. Cheerwine is just so great. It’s red and it has double the amount of carbonation of a normal soda. It’s so good.”
The Brevard native isn’t the only Cook Out super fan.
“There are people out there with Cook Out tattoos,” McGaha said. “My tattoo, I guess, would say ‘Body by Cook Out.’ It’s a cult following. You can go on the Cook Out Twitter and see people begging them to mail a tray to California or New York or wherever. The hype around Cook Out is real.”
Why is the hype real? That answer might be simpler than you think.
“It’s so cheap,” McGaha said. “The Cook Out in Mount Airy has trays for $3.99. You can’t beat that.”
His partner in crime, Langley, doesn’t go to Cook Out to save money, however.
“Wil gets a two hot dog tray with bacon and cheese on the hot dog and bacon and cheese on the fries. It’s $9.50,” McGaha said. “I did not know that was possible to spend $10 on one thing at Cook Out.”
With more than 100 Cook Outs remaining on the list, McGaha’s love for the restaurant hasn’t wavered.
“If I had to pick somewhere to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Cook Out,” McGaha said. “It’s the best value in fast food.”
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