Austin foodies who stop into 5280 Burger and Taphouse in search of a juicy burger may find another unexpected treasure: the backstory of Tex-Mex restaurant El Arroyo’s famous sign.

The story begins in the ’70s, when 5280 owner Clay McPhail moved from East Texas to Austin to study business at The University of Texas.

During his college years, McPhail got by working at The Bucket—a bar with live music seven nights a week and a capacity for 1,000 people. It was there McPhail met Doug English, a UT football player and regular at The Bucket who later went on to play for the Detroit Lions and become McPhail’s business partner.

In 1987, McPhail and English reconnected and decided to buy El Arroyo, which was then owned by Bob and Mary Ogden and was counter service only.

“We wrote a one-, three- and five-year business plan on a yellow legal pad and opened [El Arroyo] two months later,” McPhail said.

On opening day, McPhail and English found an old sign covered in debris and a big stack of tile letters in the back. McPhail cleaned the debris and debuted El Arroyo’s first-ever sign: “Warning: All traffic must exit—entering Tex Mex zone.”

“The police came two hours later and told [us] to change the sign because so many people were slamming their brakes and pulling in,” McPhail said.

After that first day, the El Arroyo sign operation was in full swing. McPhail changed the sign every single night after the restaurant closed for 26 years, amounting to 9,400 different signs.

“My favorites were the self-deprecating ones,” McPhail said, recalling a popular one that said: “El Arroyo: conveniently located near most hospitals.”

McPhail sold El Arroyo to Ellis and Paige Winstanley in 2012 and stopped managing the sign in 2013. However, the sign is still changed daily.

A year later, McPhail moved to Denver to open the first 5280 Burger and Taphouse and expanded the restaurant to Austin in November 2021.

McPhail said his current restaurants stand out with quality, as the 5280 kitchen staff spent three days trying 50 different queso recipes before they landed on one with habanero, poblano and serrano peppers.

McPhail said in the next couple years, his team is considering opening a second Austin location and bringing back the daily sign tradition.

“We think we have the best burgers in town by far,” McPhail said. “We just need to get the word out.”