Good Food That’s Good for Your Soul

Joy Smith made a name for herself with her creamy cheesecakes, but her new café offers plenty of savory treats, too. 

Smith is the chef-owner of Sorelle Café, tucked into Homewood’s close-knit Edgewood neighborhood. She opened her café in August of 2021, and the cozy and comfortable storefront on Broadway (where Lag’s Eatery used to be) is a dream fully and deliciously realized. It’s also the natural progression of a multifaceted business Smith started in 2017 with a single space in the West Homewood Farmers Market. 

She quickly built a name and a clientele and moved to the bigger, busier Saturday Market at Pepper Place. She found retail outlets in local Piggly Wiggly stores and at Smiley Brothers Specialty Foods in Pelham. She catered for friends and family. 

Smith still has the catering company—offering everything from pick-up and delivery breakfast, lunches and dinners to full-service big events like weddings “with servers and all the bells and whistles”—as well as the retail business, but now she also has a place of her own.

We sat down with Smith for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can see the entire store here and watch a cool video by my partner Brittany Faush.

“This whole thing has been a fantasy since I was seven,” she says. “When the space came open, I made the leap. It was a leap of faith, too. It’s definitely not lost on me that I’m on this side of the glass. … It’s a lot of work, but I’m fully aware of the blessings of it and I’m thankful.”

The café has been “very well received,” Smith says. “Walk in; look in the cooler; grab your breakfast, lunch or dinner; and leave happy.” Customers can eat at the café, inside or outside. “People can come and sit at my pie counter and enjoy a salad, sandwich or a slice of cheesecake. I’m working on a good cup of coffee and hopefully, eventually, a glass of wine.”

The café offers grab-and-go meals like grilled ginger-lime chicken with confetti rice and cilantro aioli, tenderloin medallions with creamy polenta and mustard-sage sauce, classic lasagna and a neighborhood favorite—meatloaf muffins and mashed potatoes. “They always say, ‘you can’t, please everyone,’ but I’m going to sure try,” Smith says.

Inventive dishes offer a variety of tastes and textures. Customers eat their fresh colors with a blue salad (baby spinach, blue cheese, blueberries, dried cherries and a cherry vinaigrette), a red salad (mixed greens, roasted red peppers, strawberries, goat cheese, sesame crunchies and sesame-red wine vinaigrette) an orange salad (romaine, carrots, oranges, grapefruit, toasted almonds and a ginger-citrus vinaigrette) and a green salad (baby spinach, cucumber, green grapes, goat cheese, currants, toasted almonds and a basil green goddess dressing).

Vegetarian options range from a veggie pot pie with rutabaga, russet potatoes and cannellini to mushroom enchiladas with spinach, peppers, onions and avocado cream to vegetable lasagna with spinach, squash and mushrooms.

Most meals are conveniently packaged for two, four or six people, so families have choices. “Another thing I think sets us apart is some of our dishes can be utilized in more than one way,” Smith says. “Like our roasted veggie pesto pasta is a little side dish that is great with our sliders for lunch. But also, you can heat that dish up. I’m the only one in my family that eats shrimp, so I’ll throw a handful of shrimp in, throw the pasta in, three minutes and you’ve got a beautiful dinner.”

Smith says she tries to buy from local purveyors as much as possible—fresh eggs from Bois d’ Arc Farm (aka BDA Farm)  in Uniontown go into her quiches and frittatas. She’s working with Birmingham’s Red Bike Coffee, and she cooks with organic produce and grains.

Her cheesecake deserves a few words. 

“It’s been in our family for a long time,” she says. “It’s not a New York-style cheesecake. It’s baked twice in two different layers. It has a sour cream layer and a cream cheese layer. Super light and creamy, not really sweet. It goes great with fresh fruit. It has a graham-cracker crust made with tons of butter and lots of love.”

The café space is inviting. Her pie counter is a beautiful, silky-smooth and huge live-edge piece of cherry wood. You might smell the aroma of homemade stock bubbling on the stove in the kitchen. Refrigerated cases (painted with flowers) hold grab-and-go cheesecakes, casseroles, entrees, sides and salads. Lush plants thrive among the upholstered wingback chairs and antique tables. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t want metal seats. I don’t want cement on the floor. I don’t want hard surfaces.’ … I wanted it to feel cozy—a place where you want to hang out.” 

Be sure to take a look at the miniature kitchen diorama Smith’s sister created for her, and marvel at the tiny bowls and pans, the little dishes drying on a rack, the pies, the clock that looks like the clock Smith remembers from her childhood, the miniscule reading glasses scattered here and there.

It’s details like this that make Sorelle special. Even the name of her business is meaningful—Sorelle translates to “sister” in Italian. Smith says she relied upon the good advice of great friends when she was getting started. One friend, especially, would always encourage her to prioritize her goals. 

“When I was trying to come up with a logo, I was like, okay, ‘What is the most important thing to me?’ And it’s relationships. It’s your tribe; it’s your sisterhood. It’s family and friends. So, that’s where Sorelle came from. I wanted to build a place where (we) could gather and eat a good meal and have fellowship together.”

She shares her café space with a sister of sorts. Both Smith and Fanolua Gulas are members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which offers mentoring and scholarships and grants to women pursuing culinary careers. 

“I’m so excited,” Smith says about Gulas, who owns The Greek Kouzina, which lots of people know from Pepper Place. “She makes the best melt-in-your-mouth baklava and spanakopita—beautiful triangles of spanakopita.” 

Smith says, “What matters most in this world is relationships. And I’m going to brag a little bit. Most people say that they’re honored to have one good friend in the world. I am beyond blessed, because I have handfuls of good friends and support. Meeting other women—and we bond so quickly—I love to support other people and other women.  I’m so proud that I have a really good, big support system. That’s what it’s all about.”

Smith is self-trained with plenty of restaurant experience—back of the house and front, too.

“My mom was a single mom. … She was a nurse and worked all the time. But she cooked all of our meals—homemade bread, pies, all the good stuff. I just grew up next to her. She would often get dinner started and leave a note, you know, ‘the potatoes are in the water; just boil them and mash them.’ So I’ve been cooking forever.” She started sharing her love of food early, too, inviting friends over after school for a bite of whatever was left over from the night before.

Her first job was in a small-town bar. “I worked one night dishwashing and moved up so fast. They wanted me to be the manager in … three months at 16 years old. It was crazy.”

Until recently, Smith had been operating out of a commercial kitchen (which was hard for her customers to find); these days she makes new friends daily as she carves out her own place in the neighborhood. A water station out front draws runners who often return for lunch or dinner; there are dog biscuits and a water bowl there, too.

She says being in Homewood means a lot to her. “It’s my favorite, favorite thing. I’m so honored to be here and to serve this community. I’ve lived in Homewood for 23 years. … meeting the people walking in the door, and they say, ‘I live right up the street.’ Their kids come in; I have some games stuffed away for the kids. … I’ve had people come in on their lunch break and bring out their computer; a couple people that I know who are writers have used the space.” 

When asked what she does best, Smith simply says:  “Feed people. Yeah. Mind, body and soul. That’s what I hear. That’s what I feel.

“I love to take care of people. I love to feed people, so I don’t even have to make the beautiful … whatever, if I’m feeding you and you’re saying ‘ummm’ and we’re talking and you’re enjoying your experience, it fills me up.”  

Smith says she wants people to know the care she takes preparing their food—whether they get it from a grocery shelf, during a catering event or at her café.

“I want everybody to love the food. I want them to know that it was thoughtfully prepared with intention and love. I hope it’s more than just food, though. I hope it’s a connection because that, to me, is what it’s all about.”

Sorelle Café 

903 Broadway Street, Homewood, AL 35209

(205) 848-2818

https://www.facebook.com/Sorelle1000/

Hours

11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Closed Sunday

La Nueva Michoacana: One More Reason to Love Green Springs Highway

There’s a cool, sweet spot on the global culinary crossroads that is Green Springs Highway. But there’s much more than homemade ice cream and other frozen sweet treats at La Nueva Michoacana.

I recently visited La Nueva Michoacana for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video.

There’s ice cream, of course. Lots of it—scooped into cups, waffle cones, waffle cups and packed in larger containers to go. There’s a rainbow of homemade popsicles, too. But you’ll also find fresh fruit in a cup, spicy snacks in a bag, elote (Mexican street corn) on a stick as well as ice-cold juices, fresh chicharrones, and homemade potato chips.

And the flavors! Sweet, spicy, salty, sour, savory. Sometimes even all in a single treat! And, if you want more heat, there are bottles of Valentina hot sauce on the tables.

Juan Sanchez, the owner of La Nueva Michoacana and the person who makes the ice creams and popsicles and just about everything else here, says this combination of ice cream and snacks is typical of what you would find in a similar shop in Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico where his family is from originally. 

With Ady Lopez translating, Sanchez tells us that this kind of ice cream shop is very popular in Mexico but, of course, it’s not what you’d usually find in Alabama, so that makes his place different from other ice cream shops here. Also, he enjoys providing variety for his customers. 

It should be noted, and Sanchez says, there are thousands of Michoacanas all over Mexico and throughout the United States. (It has become a generic term, although there are lawsuits pending about this.) Like the hot dog stands owned by the first Greeks who came to Birmingham, a “Michoacana” can be a path to economic mobility, a foothold in a local food community, a way to build an independent (usually family-owned) business without a lot of capital.

With a 4.5 rating on Google reviews and a line out the door on the weekends, the bright, colorful La Nueva Michoacana in Homewood, with its shiny silver tables, family-friendly booths and Mexican music, enjoys a loyal following. Sanchez, who has been in business for five years this month, says his “customers are a variety of people. Every culture. The main audience is Hispanics, but we have a variety.” 

They seem to enjoy everything, but a quick glance at a Sunday afternoon crowd shows ice cream to be the main draw—especially for families.

There are some 28 different flavors of ice cream right now, but Sanchez says he’s planning to add 14 more in the next month or so. These flavors range from creamy white coconut with fresh coconut flakes to a vibrantly blue “cookie monster” ice cream filled with broken bits of cookies. There’s much more including mango; pistachio; chocolate; and an amazing caramel ice cream with cajeta, a goat’s milk caramel imported from Mexico. 

The treats are made in-house from natural ingredients (“es natural” is part of the store’s logo). Most of the recipes, Sanchez says, are family recipes. He learned some from his sister, and he also has friends in Mexico in the food industry who have shared their recipes with him. 

Gallons of icy fruit juices (aguas frescas) include mango, coconut, mixed fruit, cantaloupe, hibiscus, and more. The lime-and-cucumber version is especially refreshing.

A colorful variety of paletas (popsicles) offers familiar and exotic options. Some are made with cream; others are fruit based. There are a few versions of strawberries and cream; there are straight-up fruit paletas made with mango, coconut, lemon, avocado, strawberries and more. Many of the popsicles are loaded with big pieces of ripe fruit—as pretty as they are tasty. 

Sanchez says, “How they look brings the attention of the audience, and then the audience wants to buy the product.” He adds that when he makes them, he “puts a lot of thought and effort into it. It takes a lot of patience to do the small details.”

You’ll find popsicles here you’ll not find elsewhere. There’s a creamy fruit-studded, not-too-sweet paleta reminiscent of a traditional Mexican fruit salad. We loved the delightfully sweet-fiery mango-and-chamoy combination that is a popsicle version of “fruit in a cup.” 

Then there’s actual fruit in a cup—big chunks of fresh, mixed tropical fruits topped with chamoy sauce and chile powder. The mangonada is one of the most popular items here. Another fruit concoction is called gazpacho and features mixed fruit with cheese (and onions if you want). Also in a cup but savory:  Mexican street corn salad (esquites) topped with chile powder and lime.

A large rack holds dozens of flavors of chips offering countless options for easy, to-go snacks in colorful bags. You see Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, and Fritos in flavors you might not have seen before. There are bags of Sabritas, Rancheritos, Crujitos, and more. Pick a bag, and they will fill it with toppings like melted cheese, jalapenos, salsa, and corn sticks or cucumber, jicama, peanuts, and chamoy or corn, mayonnaise, jalapenos, and chile powder. Or any combination you’d like.

La Nueva Michoacana is only one of many Green Springs businesses offering global flavors. Sabor Latino serves up Peruvian dishes just steps away. There’s a small tienda (with imported Hispanic goods) in this shopping center, too. And the popular La Perla Nayarita Mexican Seafood & Grill is in an outparcel here. All along Green Springs, you’ll find a world of diverse dishes—Ethiopian, Korean, more Mexican, Salvadorian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and more—in restaurants and in a number of food trucks that come and go. 

Just down the street, Mi Pueblo Supermarket draws regional customers with its bounty of fresh produce and dried chiles; homemade tortillas and scores of pastries; meats and seafoods; Mexican soft drinks, snacks, and candies; and specialty housewares. There’s a daily buffet in the back, a snack station up front and mariachi music storewide. Mediterranean Food Market, known for its helpful, friendly service, is a popular place for halal meats; Middle Eastern foods; and specialty cheeses, breads, candies, and spices. The new Halal Supermarket International is a short drive away. Hometown Supermarket is one of the state’s largest Asian markets, and it also has impressive African and Indian and South American sections. Really, the place is huge, and Mr. Chen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant is inside the store.

Green Springs Highway is one of the busiest business roadways in Homewood, and the City of Homewood sees it as an important gateway between Lakeshore and Oxmoor Road. Also recognizing the increasing regional draw of the diverse businesses located there—and Birmingham’s growing appetite for global flavors—the city is making access to these stores and restaurants easier with a $2.25M revitalization project that includes beautiful green medians with trees. New infrastructure will make Green Springs more bike and pedestrian friendly while better regulating traffic. Eventually a bike lane will travel all the way to UAB. 

It’s an investment in the city, its residents, its businesses, its many visitors, and in good taste. From a food standpoint, there is no other place quite like this in our area.

The changes will most certainly draw even more new customers to the businesses here, and places like La Nueva Michoacana will welcome them. 

Sanchez says he feels proud of what he’s built here in Alabama; he’s proud to own a Michoacana. “We’re bringing a part of Mexico here,” he says. 

La Nueva Michoacana 

104 Green Springs Highway 

Homewood, AL 35209

205-703-4604

Connect with @LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm  

https://www.facebook.com/LaNuevaMichoacanaBhm/

Hours

11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday

Bow & Arrow 2.0

David Bancroft is a quick study. 

The celebrated chef-owner of Acre in the university town of Auburn opened a second restaurant concept called Bow & Arrow in 2018. The vibe at his newer place is Texas-smokehouse-meets-Alabama-potluck, which is a lot; but it’s really a lot more than that. 

The restaurant is a life lesson about listening to customers, recognizing what they want, and doing what it takes to make them comfortable and happy. The Bow & Arrow that people visit today is not the Bow & Arrow that Bancroft and his wife, Christin, originally envisioned:  They changed that vision to accommodate their visitors.

We sat down with Chef Bancroft for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video from my partner Britney Faush.

Bancroft, who was born in Alabama and grew up in San Antonio, wanted to create a South Texas-style smokehouse at Bow & Arrow. The kind of place where you walk right in and straight up to a meat counter where your brisket and other barbecue is cut to order, weighed on scales, and piled on butcher paper-lined trays with white bread or tortillas. You can grab a dessert from the cashier, a soda from the fountain, an icy beer from a portable cooler. You get homemade pickles and chow-chow from a condiments table, pick up some plates and silverware, and then find a seat (probably next to a stranger) at a communal table. 

All the meats and some Southern sides photo from Bow & Arrow

No hostess. No wait staff. Just make a plate and make yourself at home.

But people didn’t really get that. The offerings were different from other barbecue joints. There was a brisket learning curve.

“All the families that were going through were just very stressed,” Bancroft says. “They would get up here … and would have what I call ‘line anxiety.’ There was a group of people that really loved what we were trying to execute at Bow & Arrow, but then, there were also the … families that were in a rush and hurrying back and forth and trying to get from gymnastics to the ball field to school to a meeting. The ordering style was a little stressful and it caused a lot of anxiety and people would get a little frustrated at the front of the line.” 

So, when the early days of the pandemic closed his restaurant to all but steady and profitable to-go orders, handed off at the drive-through window, Bancroft decided to make some changes.

“It was really an opportunity for us to either go big or go home,” he says. “If there was ever a time to make a change, it was going to be right then and there.” Bancroft prayed hard about it and then decided he “was sawing it all in half.”  

He drew plans on napkins and computer paper. He removed walls and built others. He took out the buck hunter video game (and sold it on Facebook Marketplace to a guy from Mississippi) and put in a server station. He built a hostess stand up front, a handsome bar in the back and cozy seating in the middle area that once was the meat counter line. He kept the bones of the place—the exposed beams, garage door walls, beautiful stonework, crisp whitewashed woodwork, chic lighting, and some of the leathered granite counters. He kept the sizable herd of trophy deer on the walls; each is labeled with the name of the hunter who contributed it—Bancroft, his friends and family, his dentist, his chiropractor, the guy who does pest control.  

But his entire business model changed:  He went from a handful of pit masters to a full-service wait and bar staff and today employs about 75 people at Bow & Arrow.

Elements of his original smokehouse remain. You’ll smell the smoke and hear the chop, chop of the butchers. You still can get slow-smoked ‘que by the pound served with white bread or tortillas. But the variety of dishes on the menu now allows this chef to show exactly what he can do and expand upon his Alabama roots and Texas upbringing.

Bancroft spent formative years on his family’s Alabama farm in Hartford hunting and fishing with his grandfather and learning how to smoke and grill what he caught. He watched his grandmothers Bebe and Mama Jean cook Sunday supper and learned to serve others with a gracious heart. Growing up in Texas, he remembers an abuela bringing tamales instead of orange slices for soccer game snacks. He and his baseball buddies, at age 16, would camp at the Medina River and cook cowboy breakfasts (tacos with chorizo and potatoes) over an open fire. 

That history and his homegrown love of food are interpreted here in various delicious ways that reflect Bancroft’s growth as a chef.

“You know, the beauty of this restaurant is that you can still see all of that influence of my Grandpa Kennedy who is the fish farmer, the cattle farmer, cotton, pines, peanuts, chickens in South Alabama, and everything that you would see at their table—at Mama Jean’s long farm table—with old Country Crock tubs and Cool Whip containers (filled with) zipper peas and collard greens. … Everybody had that grandma who literally recycled every plastic container she ever received.  … We’re still holding true to that style. 

“We’re still going as far into depth of technique as we can just to get to a very simple acceptable Southern product. We’re spending the time, the effort, the labor making these things from scratch.” 

But what guests find at Bow & Arrow is “a little bit more refined and has a little bit more technique” coming from all the things he’s learned at Acre. “It now has much more French technique, Spanish technique, German technique,” he says. “I mean, you name it, Mexican, obviously. All of that literally is the South. So now we’re not just drawing from influences from just grandmothers … All of what is the South—that is blended together now—is something that we’re honoring here.”

At Bow & Arrow, there are barbecue plates with Texas brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and jalapeno-cheddar sausage. There are platos of Creole-fried Alabama catfish, “chicken fried” chicken with sawmill gravy, and wood-grilled skirt steak and Gulf shrimp brocheta with pineapple pico. Appetizers include goat cheese guacamole, chili-lime wings with poblano ranch, and chips and house-made salsa. Sides range from green beans and hash brown casserole to sweet corn rice and smoky borracho beans. There are salads and sandwiches and a variety of tacos made with fresh flour tortillas.

The popular “beef ‘n’ cheddar” soft tacos (shaved brisket, homemade queso blanco, cheddar, crispy onions, and sweet rib sauce) are Bancroft’s cheeky take on Arby’s classic sandwich. 

Wood-grilled fajitas feature meats—skirt steak, chicken, and Gulf-fresh shrimp—basted with butter using rosemary branches. These come with sauteed poblanos and onions, guacamole salad, salsa de fuego, grill butter and flour tortillas alongside sweet corn rice and borracho beans. 

Enchiladas are inventive. The 30A version features two cheesy blue crab enchiladas, lemon-chipotle crema, salsa cremosa, avocado and crushed tater tots. Christin’s enchiladas are two chicken enchiladas with queso blanco, salsa cremosa, radish, cilantro, goat cheese, and pico de gallo. The “King George” enchiladas (named for George Strait, not British royalty) are two cheesy carnitas enchiladas with sliced brisket, queso blanco, chili con carne, hill country hot sauce, and tortilla strips.

The bar that anchors the back of this restaurant serves a variety of specialty cocktails (a cucumber mojito, kombucha lemonade, any kind of mule you’d like) as well as local and regional craft beers and more than a dozen variations and versions of margaritas. 

Four different barbecue sauces cater to just about any regional taste. There’s a Texas red sauce; a mustard sauce; a sweet rib sauce; and an Alabama white sauce that Bancroft made sure passed a taste test with his friend Chris Lilly, of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q fame.

It’s those personal touches that matter. 

They make their own bacon at Bow & Arrow (curing the pork bellies, pressing them into shape, slow-smoking and then hanging them to air dry). That bacon makes the collard greens some of the best anywhere; it takes the cheeseburger to a different level. A tortilla press cranks out fresh bread daily. Memaw’s eclair is the perfect way to end a meal. Christin’s grandmother’s recipe is that time-honored combination of graham crackers, Cool Whip and French vanilla pudding layered and shingled and topped with homemade fudge. “The kind of fudge that you’ve got to crack with a spoon,” Bancroft says. “When people get that first bite … I’ve had famous chefs come and get that with a scoop of ice cream, and they’re like, ‘What was that?!’” 

Memaw’s Eclair photo from Bow & Arrow

Bow & Arrow attracts a variety of customers—people in business suits, construction workers, teachers, moms, students, grandparents—and it’s family friendly. A thoughtful (and nicely priced) kids’ menu is printed on a page cleverly illustrated by Paulina Arroyo with a maze, a word search, a dog named Dolly, kids named Walker and Kennedy and lots of things to color. 

Bancroft made a national name for himself and created an outlet for his self-taught skills as a farmer, forager, and chef when he and Christin opened Acre restaurant in 2013. That restaurant—with its modern interpretations of traditional Southern cuisine—is on an acre in downtown Auburn, and it’s landscaped with edible plants; Bancroft and his staff pull seasonal produce from this garden for their guests. 

He has been a 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” award, and he won Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown competition in 2017. Bow & Arrow was named one of the “Best New Southern Barbecue Joints” by Garden & Gun magazine. 

Accolades, no doubt, will continue. Clearly, Chef Bancroft is doing lots of smart things here, but he’s especially happy that he got Bow & Arrow right.

“We want everybody to feel welcome,” he says. “We want everybody to enjoy the ambiance, the energy, the flavors, the aroma, but we also want them to know how much effort we put into the food. … I think people can see it right when it hits the table … and when they taste it, and they go, ‘Oh, yeah. We get it.’ … Families get to really share now, with a little bit less stress of having to order at the counter. I think they’re leaving happy.” 

He says the thing that makes him most proud of this 2.0 version of Bow & Arrow is the team that got him to this point. “Just the adversity that we had to go through, the challenges that we had changing from one model to another after the first year of business. … We all came out stronger,” he says. 

“There’s always an opportunity to make a change. There’s always an opportunity to find improvement, and it’s hard to do, but this team did it,” he adds. “This team is successful now because they went through that. They will always know that they do have an option, that they do have a choice—to either sit there and suffer through things or find something that makes them passionate and happy.

“The number one thing that happened here is now we are truly connected to the … heartbeat of this business, and it’s so much more fun for us to share that story now having gone through all of that.” 

Bow & Arrow

1977 East Samford Ave.

Auburn, AL 36830  

Phone: (334) 246-2546

www.bowandarrowbbq.com

Hours

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

To-Go Window/Online Ordering

Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Sunday 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Alabama Chef Competes on National Stage

Chef Scott Simpson, who brings a global approach to dishes at The Depot in Auburn, will be representing our state at the 17th Annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off. The winner of this event will hold the title of King or Queen of American Seafood.

The competition is set for Saturday, August 7 in New Orleans, and Chef Simpson is ready.

“I’m really competitive by nature, whether it’s sports or anything else,” he says. “I look at things quite strategically and do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity to perform well. I’m one of those people who believe that today’s preparation is tomorrow’s performance.”

I spoke to Chef Scott for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the complete story here.

In 2018, Simpson placed second at the 4th Annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off. This past June, he took first place at the state competition, which led him to New Orleans where he will compete against 12 other chefs from around the country.

In Gulf Shores, he wowed the crowd with pan-seared Gulf yellow edge grouper, and he’ll cook something similar in New Orleans. 

“I’m doing a kind of remake, a new version of it, but the same ingredients, same procedure for each ingredient, just structured together a little bit differently,” he says. “I’m calling it ‘poblano-wrapped seared Gulf grouper,’ and that’s with a saffron Veracruz sauce. And it’s on a Gulf shrimp, Conecuh bacon, street corn risotto.”

This is a perfect example of the bold, creative mix of flavors and cuisines this executive chef offers his guests when they come to the restaurant he co-owns with Matt and Jana Poirier in the historic train depot in downtown Auburn. The Depot is a place where Chef Simpson tops wood-fired grilled oysters with a garlic chipotle butter, mixes Mexican-style chorizo sausage into his blue crab dip, and pairs McEwan & Sons organic blue corn grits with a gochujang BBQ sauce on a sweet tea-brined Beeler’s porkchop.

His global inspiration comes from a childhood spent enjoying the foods of an Italian grandmother on one side and a Hispanic grandmother on the other. Surrounded by good cooks and good food from a young age, Simpson says he’s always known he’d make his way in the world through food. And he’s done exactly that. 

Simpson grew up in California, and his formal food education and background include training in Florence, Italy, at the Giuliano Bugialli Professional Culinary School, (the first English language cooking school in Italy) and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA, where he trained under such prestigious chefs as Rick Bayless, Roberto Donna, Michael Chiarello, Terri Sanderson and Karen McNeil.  

Then he ventured even farther afield. 

With a career spanning 30 years, he has trained other chefs and opened ultra-luxury properties around the world— from across the U.S. to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Jamacia and back home again. He came to Auburn in 2014 to become Executive Chef & Culinary Educator for The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor for Auburn’s Hospitality Management Program. After spending some time in Auburn, he met the Poiriers (founders and owners of The Hound in downtown Auburn), and, together with general manager Richard Tomasello, they opened a Gulf seafood brasserie at the Auburn Train Depot. 

Focusing on sustainable and responsibly harvested seafood, Chef Simpson, the son of a marine biologist, became the first fully qualified and certified James Beard Smart Catch chef in the state of Alabama. So, he comes to this national seafood cook-off, which promotes the quality and variety of domestic seafood, with a depth of knowledge.

During the Great American Seafood Cook-Off competition, each chef will prepare a dish highlighting the use of domestic seafood while interacting with the audience and celebrity hosts Chef Cory Bahr (Food Network Star finalist, Food Network Chopped Champion and former King of Louisiana Seafood) KLFY TV10’s Gerald Gruenig and “Chef Ref” Chef Michael Brewer, also a former King of Louisiana Seafood. A panel of nationally renowned judges will score each dish based on presentation, creativity, composition, craftsmanship and flavor.

Decerning diners look for much the same, and so excellence is always the goal—on a stage or in the dining room. 

“For competition, it’s different because you really have a lot of eyes on you,” Simpson says. “There’s a stopwatch that’s constantly on the far front of your mind, and you have other people who are beside you—quickly moving—that are competing against you. When I’m in the restaurant, we are 100% team, we are 100% family.

“In the restaurant, we certainly take the mentality that we’re going to create a winning dish. We’re going to fine-tune it, and then we’re going to present it to our service staff, let them taste it, talk through it. And then we run that night with high expectations that … we’re going to see nothing but clean plates coming back, and guests are going to tell us that’s the best whatever they’ve ever had. That’s what we go for.”

Photo by Tristen Cairns

Simpson says this upcoming competition and the opportunity to represent Alabama is “an amazing validation of all we’ve been trying to do since we opened the doors, almost six years ago. We’ve been trying to showcase Alabama, to be comparable to the best in other foodie cities around our country. And we felt very confident that we could do that.”

Perhaps a teacher at heart—and most certainly a lifelong learner—Chef Simpson says, “I’m taking a chef de partie. Her name’s Morgan McWaters. She came from a small operation. … so, she’s really earned most of her, if not all of her, cooking skills here, and she’s the one that helped me (in Gulf Shores).  … And so, I’m looking forward to her now going to this next level and getting that experience. Of course, I get the chance to show her what other chefs are doing … I mean, the kinds of presentations that everyone’s attempting in this hour timeframe are very aggressive, and I would say they’re on the edge. … I’m excited to see what everyone else puts out, to maybe have some takeaway ideas from this, to have the camaraderie of meeting some other great chefs from across the country.  

“I hope to perform to our best possible ability and to leave everything there in New Orleans that we can possibly put forth and to feel—because of a lot of preparation—no regrets,” he says. “And to know that we gave ourselves every possible chance to showcase Alabama and The Depot restaurant and the whole culinary team—front and back of the house—who’ve done such a great job to develop us. 

“This is right in our wheelhouse,” he adds, “it’s like a slow pitch to what we aspire to do each and every night. So, I think that it would be great validation and confirmation of everything we’ve been doing and striving for in this restaurant ever since we opened.”

Green Acres is the Place to Be for Wings and a Side of History

For more than 60 years—through some of Birmingham’s most significant social and economic history—Green Acres Café has been a constant in the city’s downtown. This iconic eatery is a popular draw in the middle of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District, which grew out of the city’s segregationist past and remains a promising—and proud—part of its future. 

I recently visited Green Acres downtown for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story and see a cool video from Brittany Dunn here.

“Green Acres is a family business that is family-orientated,” says owner Greg Gratton. “All my family is involved in it. Even the ones … I have living out of town. When they come home, they want to pitch in and help. … There’s a nice, friendly atmosphere,” he says, adding that some of his employees have been with him for 15 or 20 years.

The customers are loyal, too. 

“When I’m up there in the front,” Gratton says, “people will come to me and say … ‘My father brought me up on this. I’ve been eating it. Now look: I’m bringing my children.’  It’s just generation after generation,” he says, “and I have people coming in town and this is the first stop they make.” 

On any given day—at just about any time of day—there’s a line to (or even out) the door at Green Acres for its take-out-only offerings.  The place serves hamburgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and plates, pork chop sandwiches and plates, chicken gizzards and chicken livers, fried green tomatoes and fried okra and more. 

But most of the customers are there for one thing: “They want chicken wings!” Gratton says. “All the way! That’s ketchup and hot sauce, salt and pepper.”

“All the way” is the way to go with these wings.

Specifically, “all the way” will get you wings served on a bed of fries, drizzled with that sweet-spicy sauce and topped with a piece of white bread. Those who know often order the “Managers Special,” which is five wings and fries plus fried green tomatoes for $8.40. This food comes on a cardboard tray in a brown paper bag, and that bag will sport a small grease spot. That’s on purpose; it’s part of the presentation.

“The greasy bag is just something that my father got on,” Gratton says. “He said, ‘That greasy spot just makes a presentation; it just sticks with people.’ So, I’ve never tried to change that.

The brown paper bag with a signature spot is how they do to-go at Green Acres.

“If you see anybody anywhere in this area with a brown, greasy bag,” Gratton says, “you know, they’ve been to Green Acres.” He says he was at UAB Hospital recently visiting a friend who had asked for some wings. He walked in with the signature bag of wings, and all the way down the hall he heard, “Why didn’t you bring me some? Why didn’t you bring me some of that Green Acres?” 

Green Acres is the place for wings because they were doing wings before wings were a thing. 

Gratton says it was his father, Charles, who came up with the idea. People were buying fried chicken by the half or the quarter, he says, and those buying the white meat didn’t want the wings. “So, my daddy said, ‘Let’s put two wings together, a few French fries and a slice of white bread for 25 cents.’ And that’s how the chicken wing business got started, and it’s just been off the chain ever since. We can’t keep up with the chicken.”

To this day, you’ll get the whole wing at Green Acres. “In a lot of the wing places,” Gratton says, “they come and cut the wing up. Well, when you get a six-piece from them, you’re only getting three wings. When you get a six-piece from us, you’re getting six whole pieces of wings.”

People associate the eatery with Birmingham, but Green Acres actually started in Chicago. William Gratton opened his first café there in 1946.  A few years later, after expanding the chain to six locations, he moved to Birmingham and brought the concept with him. 

The first Birmingham location was opened in North Birmingham in 1950. In 1958,  William’s brother Charles used his life’s savings to open a second location across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “It was a struggle back in 1958 for Black men to own a business, I can tell you that,” Gratton says, “but my father fought through it and he struggled and we survived.”

Gratton remembers his father working in the background with Civil Rights leaders to make sure they had places to safely meet and strategize. The late Charles Gratton shared his memories of that time and growing up in Birmingham in an interview conducted by Duke University. It’s part of the Behind the Veil collection of oral histories recounting African-American life during the years of legal segregation in the South. You can hear it here.

Charles Gratton relocated his café a few times before opening the current downtown location at 1705 Fourth Avenue North in 1990. He was encouraged by local revitalization efforts.

After his election in 1979, Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr., helped create the Fourth Avenue Land Bank, a nonprofit that would buy real estate in the area from white owners (most of whom had let the buildings fall into disrepair) and sell the buildings to Black investors and business owners. Many of the new owners got rebates when they made improvements to their storefronts.  

“My father bought this whole building,” Gratton says, “and it was just brick walls on the side, didn’t have a roof, and just a shell on the front. He renovated, and we opened it up.” In 2004, the Birmingham City Council named a stretch of Fourth Avenue in honor of Charles Gratton.  

In 1993, Greg Gratton returned home to Birmingham from Los Angeles, where he had raised his own family. Once home, he not only continued, but also expanded the generational business into a local chain through franchising.  Greg’s father was considering investing in a major, national fast-food franchise. Greg, understanding the value of Green Acres—in terms of food and history—convinced his father to invest further in his own business. 

Growing the business was the goal; Greg didn’t make any changes. “It’s always just like what my father started,” he says. “I kept the same concept. I didn’t try to add anything, and I don’t try to take nothing away because he had it—it was working for him. So, you know, why try to fix something that ain’t broken? I just made it more available for the different communities in the area.”

At one point, there were nearly a dozen locations across the Birmingham metro area. Today four survive and thrive. Gratton owns two—the downtown location and another in Ensley, which his wife runs. There are two franchise locations—one in Center Point and another in East Lake. 

Gratton personally trained the franchisees to make sure his brand stayed true. That matters, he says. “Green Acres has lasted so long because it’s got family love. And we enjoy what we’re doing. We enjoy pleasing the customers. And when you take an interest in something, you do the best of it.” 

The walls at Green Acres downtown are decorated with business awards, vintage photos, recognition from the NAACP and Birmingham’s city council, an autographed photo of Martha Reeves, certificates and plaques commemorating community service and several photos with a succession of Birmingham mayors. 

Green Acres won a Hoodie Award in 2007 and was a finalist for several other years.

In 2007, Green Acres was honored with a Steve Harvey Morning Show Hoodie Award for Best Fried Chicken. For that, Gratton traveled to Las Vegas. When his name was called and he went up front, he says he realized he didn’t have an acceptance speech prepared. “I’m very good. You can’t really catch me off guard. My father told me all the time, “Son, you stay prepared, because you never know when somebody might call on you.’ … So, I just grabbed the award and I told Steve Harvey and I told the audience, I said, ‘Thank God for making chickens, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.’ I think that just did it.”

All that reflects decades of history, but Green Acres downtown is surrounded by much more. 

The landmark café is part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District. Located just north and west of Birmingham’s central business district, it includes a three-block stretch of Fourth Avenue North and the adjacent half-blocks south of Fourth along  17th and  18th Streets.

This is one of the largest commercial sectors for Black-owned businesses not only in Alabama, but also in the Southeast. Green Acres is just steps away from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel and other landmarks. 

Formally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Fourth Avenue Historic District serves as both a physical reminder of the Jim Crow era (and Birmingham’s racial history) and a retail and entertainment district catering to locals and visitors. It is an important part of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which is now a National Monument.  

The historic commercial district dates to the early part of the 1900s when Black businessmen, forced from other parts of the city by Jim Crow segregation laws, established their own retail, social and cultural center. 

In recent years, city leaders; area business owners; and organizations like Main Street Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and REV Birmingham have joined forces with Urban Impact Inc., a community- and economic-development agency dedicated to the betterment of this area, to revitalize the commercial district, strengthen its economic impact and preserve its important history.

The Civil Rights-centered parts of our city draw more than 350,000 annual visitors already (many going on tours like this one). And the future is looking promising for the Fourth Avenue Historic District, which is grounded in legacy and propelled forward by the vision of its minority-owned businesses. 

During its days as a movie theater, the Carver Theatre was known for being the place where African-Americans could see first-run films.

The Art Deco-style Carver Theatre, which houses the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, is being renovated. So is the seven-story Renaissance Revival-style Colored Masonic Temple Building that once housed the offices of Black doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals as well as the NAACP. The A.G. Gaston Motel, which housed the “war room” of Civil Rights leaders during the height of the movement, is undergoing careful restoration. And the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument continues to evolve.

The Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival, which has showcased nationally recognized and home-grown artists since 2003, is set to return in 2022 after a COVID-19 interruption.

And Green Acres will be ready to serve all who come here.  

“The role of Green Acres,” Gratton says, “is to be where it needs to be to assist in the continuing development of the Fourth Avenue District. And not just the Fourth Avenue District, but the other areas around the city. So, I don’t just limit it to the downtown Birmingham location. My wife is very involved in the Ensley location out there, and I try to get the other two franchises to get involved in their cities, too.”

Regardless of the location, Green Acres will continue to follow the recipe for success that Gratton says sets his restaurant apart: “My love for my customers, the love for the food that I serve, and that we try to do it right each and every time.”

Green Acres Café in downtown Birmingham

1705 Fourth Avenue North (in the Fourth Avenue Historic District)

205-251-3875

Hours: Currently 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Other locations:

Green Acres Ensley

913 20th Street

205-786-7040

Green Acres Eastlake

8500 First Avenue North

205-838-2700

Green Acres Center Point

2405 Center Point Parkway

205-815-0949

Hubbard’s Off Main is a Main Attraction in Oxford

Food brings people together. No question about that. And creating a gathering place for conversation and fellowship, as well as good food, was one of the reasons behind Hubbard’s Off Main in Historic Main Street Oxford. That’s because the restaurant’s owner, Charlotte Hubbard, is one of her city’s most steadfast champions.

Hubbard has served on Oxford’s City Council since 2012, but she’s been involved in her community for most of her life. She’s a retired educator from Oxford City Schools, and before she was a restaurant owner, she owned an antiques store. Hubbard has been instrumental in Oxford’s 3-million-dollar revitalization and preservation of its historic downtown. Oxford became a Designated Main Street community in 2014. She proudly touts the popular Saturday Main Street Market—with music and makers and food trucks and growers—that draws people from in town and beyond. 

Lots of these people also come to Oxford to eat at Hubbard’s Off Main.

I recently was one of them. I visited to write a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here and see a cool video from my partner Brittany Faush.

The restaurant grew to be more than Hubbard originally envisioned. “I just wanted to do soup and salads, and we ended up doing more Southern country-type foods,” she says. “We found out, you have to find out, who your customers are going to be, who’s going to come. … You have to find out what those customers want and start doing that.” 

What they wanted were familiar foods, and the food at Hubbard’s is that; it’s also delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. Produce comes from Watts Farms down the road in Munford, Hubbard says. They buy from Forestwood Farm and Evans Meats & Seafood in Birmingham. They get pecans from a farmer with an orchard on County Line Road and honey from Eastaboga Bee Company. Their coffee vendor, Southern Girl Coffee Co., is across the street, and they get olive oil and gourmet ingredients from The Main Olive around the corner. “We buy locally as much as we can,” Hubbard says.

In the kitchen, chef Jordan Smith uses these fresh, local finds to create a varied and savory menu for restaurant dining and a thriving catering business. Smith is young—26—but she creates dishes with the knowledge and confidence of a cook with decades more experience.

“The biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten is when people tell me that I cook like their grandma,” Smith says. “That really gets you because everybody loves their grandma’s cooking and that just really brings you back home. That’s what I like to do for people … give them that experience that they may not get from their grandma anymore.”

That translates to homemade pimento cheese, crab cakes with a house remoulade, and their own take on shrimp and grits made with a Cajun cream sauce and polenta.  There’s a burger and catfish or shrimp po’ boys; fish and chips made with fresh grouper; an Oxfordian salad with feta, berries and roasted pecans atop fresh greens; a hand-cut 12-ounce rib eye and an 8-ounce filet, and chicken Marsala. You’ll also find country cooking like chopped steak, fried chicken and catfish as well as meatloaf. Do not miss the award-winning collards. 

One of the most popular dishes at Hubbard’s, the Low Country Chicken, garnered the restaurant regional fame when it made the state tourism department’s list of 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama. In this dish, a tender chicken breast is topped with a Carolina-inspired sauce of sweet corn, bacon, fresh tomatoes, and cream. It is delicious. 

All these dishes are simply, yet thoughtfully, made to order. “It’s Southern comfort food,” says Smith who especially loves to cook vegetables. “I like to taste the food. I like to keep it simple. So, you add just a little herbs and garlic to something, and you can really taste the freshness of, say, a simple squash … I don’t like to overpower the food, for sure. … I want people to know they’re getting something really fresh.”

Hubbard’s also features a full-service bar with craft cocktails like Main Street Lemonade spiked with Jim Beam bourbon and fizzy with ginger ale and an Alabama Slammer made with Tito’s vodka, amaretto, and Southern Comfort.  There’s a nice selection of wines and local and regional craft beers, too.

The restaurant itself, with its textured, century-old brick walls and glossy heart pine floors, is nearly as much of a draw as the food. 

It’s a beautiful and unique space with character. It invites you to linger. “I think people are looking for places to gather,” Hubbard says. “It’s hard to gather at a chain or a place that’s not really inviting because they’re … turning a lot of tables.”

The main dining room at Hubbard’s Off Main used to be a clothing store. The historic building was originally a wood-frame structure built in 1885. In 1901, the wooden building was replaced with a brick masonry building by Thad M. Gwin, who owned and operated the clothing store. Hubbard renovated the interior and exterior in 2015.

Today, the large storefront windows shine lots of light into a main dining room decorated with vintage photos and furnished with an eclectic assortment of beautiful antiques including small and communal dining tables, pianos, a sofa in a cozy waiting area, copper and wooden bowls on the tables and various other interesting pieces. Many of these things came from the antiques store Hubbard used to own. Her favorite piece is an old ice box that she bought more than a decade ago when she was campaigning for her first term on Oxford’s City Council. It was sitting under a woman’s carport. Now it’s tucked into a short hallway that leads to two private dining spaces—one a small jewel-box of a room with glass windows that offer airy privacy and the other, a long, narrow room, anchored by a beautiful carved wooden bar, where Hubbard started her restaurant some eight years ago. 

The current main dining space was once home to her brother-in-law’s music store and a performing arts center. Oxford is a place where history matters, so there’s music here still. Local bands perform on a small stage near the front door on Friday and Saturday nights. On Thursdays, there’s music in the round, with local musicians performing their own work, Hubbard says. 

She and her staff recently added an outdoor seating area—Hubbard’s Out Back—to offer more options for socially distanced dining. She says she used money from the CARES Act to make this happen and help keep her business busy and moving forward.

Hubbard’s has become a hub in this tightly knit town. During the early days of the pandemic, her community helped Hubbard keep her business going with curbside pick-up and to-go orders. “Luckily, we were … six years open, and so we had established that customer base that … came every week—or two or three times a week.” Hubbard’s, in turn, helped its community by providing meals for the city’s elderly residents and for some of the homeless people who, at the time, couldn’t get into shelters where they usually would go for food.

There’s a feeling of community inside the restaurant, too.

Smith says: “Although I may be known as the chef and the leader here, you can’t do this without a really awesome team backing you up and willing to work hard and be dependable. And we have a really good team here—from front of house to the small crew in the back. And I just, I couldn’t do it without them. And Charlotte, too. … I look up to her so much. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. She really cares about this place.”

Smith means the restaurant, of course, but the town, too.

Hubbard, ever the advocate for Oxford, says she sees new signs of progress every day and welcomes all of it. She lives in a loft above her restaurant and so has a perfect view of what’s happening downtown. “I think the downtown area is going to be really popular,” she says. “We have a couple of people who are working on buildings now to come downtown with restaurants.” There soon will be another restaurant next door to Hubbard’s Off Main, and in the meantime, she welcomes the food trucks that come for the nearby Saturday market. 

Hubbard sees all this as an opportunity for cooperation rather than competition. A cluster of restaurants will draw business for everybody. This kind of progress, she says, is exciting—and  great for her city.

Hubbard’s Off Main

16 Choccolocco St.

Oxford, AL 36203

(256) 403-0258

Hours

Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Monday.

Dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Lots of Things are Brewing at Bizarre: The Coffee Bar

Bizarre:  The Coffee Bar is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar at night, but this unusual place also is an all-day incubator for several minority-owned local businesses.  The café, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner (most nights), has become a hub in Birmingham’s Black business community, offering space for multiple vendors to attract attention and, in turn, build their own businesses.

I visited Bizarre for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video by my partner Brittany Dunn.

Bizarre was started in 2018 by two women, Jennifer Butler and Mia Perryman, friends who met 15 years earlier at Jefferson State Community College. In October of 2019, they partnered with Will Harvill who has since become the face of the business as well as “the general manager, head bartender, custodian, party promoter, DJ, and everything else involved with Bizarre: The Coffee Bar.”

How Harvill pivoted during the pandemic made Bizarre what it is today.

“When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves as a coffee bar in the middle of a city where people weren’t drinking coffee, where people weren’t going to work, where nobody was out,” Harvill says. “We choose not to shut down … Bizarre has never been closed one day since the pandemic started. … Pretty much, I ran the place by myself for almost four or five months. 

“Because we sold food, that made us essential; because we sold alcohol, that made us popular. We were probably one of the only bars open in downtown Birmingham for almost four or five months. … We literally, overnight, became a coffee bar that sold a little bit of liquor to a bar bar that sells a little bit of coffee.” 

But that’s only a piece of it. 

To increase foot traffic—and get people back downtown—Harvill partnered with other Black-owned businesses to expand the offerings at Bizarre. 

“We weren’t a major destination place, so we started reaching out to local brands—people I knew on Facebook who had products that I just thought were awesome,” he says. “My Sweetheart Bakery is a cake company that we reached out to, and, oh my God, between their cake and chicken salad—some of the best you could ever get—we sold a ton of it. I mean, we pushed both our brands to higher heights just by partnering together.” That translates to a lot of money. “Last year,” Harvill says, “we sold $72,000 worth of cake and chicken salad.” 

There’s a turmeric lemonade with burdock and ginger root made by a local company called Lively & Fit.  “We sell 20 gallons a week of this stuff,” he says. “It’s crazy.”  It’s also delicious. In the morning, the juicy drink is a healthy way to start the day; at night, Harvill mixes it with Dickel No. 8 and a house-made sour mix for The Roots, the bar’s most popular cocktail.

“We’ve got special ingredients you can’t buy anywhere else,” he says. One of these is a lavender syrup made by local businesswoman Amie Scott Ceo. Harvill mixes that concoction into cocktails, too. “We have a Black-owned coffee brand (Beanali Coffee). These are Kenyon and Somalian beans that we get shipped from Africa. They’re roasted here in Alabama, and we grind the beans fresh.” 

On the counter next to a stack of My Sweetheart Bakery’s enticing sweet potato cakes, you’ll find Will’s mama’s whipped shea butter and Tae Lee’s financial literacy board game called Game of Fortune:  Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt! 

Lee, a frequent customer, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker behind the financial literacy company Never Go Broke, Inc. She test-marketed her Game of Fortune at Bizarre during a game night. 

Even the art on the walls illustrates a partnership. 

Executive Art, with its canvas prints of famous and local people (or whatever you want), started when some friends of Harvill’s said, “‘Hey, you need some paintings. Here’s a couple of them. If you sell them, great. If you don’t, they’ll just hang on your wall.’ That grew to us selling almost four or five pieces a week of this wonderful artwork,” he says.

“None of this was planned. We woke up one day, and we had almost eight or nine different vendors that make up the entire Bizarre culture that we sell every day. We make each other better, definitely.”

Harvill says, “My customers are lots of local people who knew me, lots of entrepreneurs who just love the vibe. Any day you come to Bizarre, you can run into a networking situation … anything from running into the mayor (more on Mayor Randall Woodfin in a moment) and his cabinet to running into entrepreneurs who are in fields that people aspire to be in. And you can share a cup of coffee or a drink with them, and they will freely give you their advice. They love this place because it’s just real chill. …  Nothing fancy. Nothing extra. Just really, really comfortable.”

So, you’ll see students with their laptops and cups of coffee, people who work nearby coming in for lunch, folks winding down the end of the day with a cocktail or a glass of wine or a beer.

They come for café au lait and espresso drinks; classic breakfast plates with smoked sausage, grits, and eggs; hot dogs with chow chow; fajita (chicken or steak) nachos made to order; fresh cucumber salad or fruit bowls; and they come to eat that chicken salad, which when made into a sandwich becomes a delightfully messy fork-and-knife situation. 

Most evenings, Harvill shares Bizarre with local food trucks and chefs—folks who have their own kitchens (mobile or incubator space) but don’t own a restaurant. So, businesses like Simone’s Kitchen ATL, Anthony Redeaux of Redeaux’s Bistreaux (check his Instagram @redeauxbistreaux for info), Big Red Smoked BBQ and others step in. “We close our kitchen down, and they make all the money off of food revenue. It gives them exposure. It brings their crowd to intermingle with my crowd, and we both win. The level of exposure that it brings, the people who come for their food who otherwise would not come to Bizarre makes it all a win for everybody.” 

At Bizarre, happy hours last pretty much all day and there are always specials like Taco and Tequila Tuesdays, Old Fashioned / Waffle Wednesdays (the karaoke starts around 8-ish), Samosas and Mimosas, and an exciting take on wine tasting with Wine Shots and Adult Lunchables. Check the Facebook page for details. 

They serve locally sourced spirts like Redmont Distilling Co.’s Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin and Campesino rum. 

And on the last Sunday of the month, there’s a T-shirt brunch with local vendors like B!Moe Apparel setting up in the parking lot with a food truck and a DJ. Harvill sells plenty of his own T-shirts but says, “It’s just something so cool about taking the competition out of it. Because what happens is … people don’t just buy one T-shirt, they buy one from every one of the vendors and again, we all win. … It’s a party. Everybody’s eating and drinking and buying shirts.”

These sorts of opportunities not only allow all these businesses to have a brick-and-mortar presence—a place to sell regularly and connect with new customers—but they also keep Bizarre interesting.

“You’re never going to get the same experience twice here,” Harvill says. “You meet the dopest people in the city at Bizarre. And if support is anything that you’re interested in, as far as small businesses, you’re not going to find a place that harvests that type of atmosphere and environment more so than Bizarre.

“Our motto is, ‘we don’t compete, we complement,’ which is why we open up our doors to other businesses that sell the same things we do. … Some people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But we always say we’ve never lost money helping other people. Ever.” 

The past year has seen Bizarre—and Harvill—take a leadership role in these few blocks of downtown, which are mostly home to Black-owned businesses. 

A few weeks ago, one of the vaccination sites had some shots left over at the end of the day. “For whatever reason,” Harvill says, “they called me.” So he jumped in his car and accompanied healthcare workers “to every bar that was open and we were able to get all the staff vaccinated. … Now, when I walk into a bar, everybody wants to buy me a drink,” he says. “We’re trying to normalize this type of stuff, not glorify it. If everybody does it, it’s not a special thing. It’s just a way of life. It’s just doing your part. It’s really a small part when you think about it. All it is is taking a platform that someone else gave you and utilizing it.”

When windows were broken at a nearby business during protests last summer, Harvill started an effort with a Facebook post and his own money to help the owner replace them. “Not only did we raise three grand in two hours to fix his windows, but people kept putting money into it,” he says. “So, I turned it into a nonprofit.” The organization is called Bizarre Blessings. 

“Literally, every Friday since the riots have hit, I go out at nighttime … find a minority-owned business—be you a food truck, be you somebody flipping burgers on the grill outside a club or a convenience store—and I give you $150. We don’t take pictures of it. We don’t put it on Facebook. We just bless you.”

Bizarre got some national attention when Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin wore a Bizarre mask for an interview on MSNBC. 

Harvill had given the mayor a mask months earlier. The two had met years ago when they were interning for Congressman Earl Hilliard, Sr. “We were both freshmen in college, just bright-eyed and wanting to take over the world,” Harvill says. “We became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.  

“My phone blew up early, early that morning” with text messages, emails, Facebook posts, he says. “I looked … and it was a picture of the mayor and he had my Bizarre mask on. … It went viral. Next thing I know, I’ve got people from Texas, California, DC calling me, asking, ‘Hey, can I order that mask? Can you ship me that mask?’ And we started really, really mass producing them and sending them out. The cool part about our masks and our T-shirts is $10 from the sale of every one of them goes to our nonprofit … Bizarre Blessings.” 

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar also was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December of 2020 when Clarkson spotlighted Harvill’s partnerships with other local businesses. 

Harvill welcomes this attention from elsewhere because his community-minded model is something he’d like to grow and share.

“Our ultimate goal is to create this micro version of an incubator in neighborhoods and cities all over the country,” Harvill says. “Go to Huntsville, there’s a (version of) My Sweetheart Bakery … a minority-owned cake company that’s one of the best in the city. Nashville has a version,” he says, adding that every city does. “If we can put a Bizarre or some version of Bizarre in all these cities to highlight all these people who don’t have brick and mortar, then eventually they will.”

Bizarre: The Coffee Bar 

217 22nd St. N. in downtown Birmingham

205-538-7100

https://www.facebook.com/Bizarre.TheCoffeeBar

Hours

Monday—Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

Sometimes, just depending, the party extends past 11 p.m.

Yo’ Mama’s only Alabama restaurant to receive James Beard Foundation grant

Yo’ Mama’s, a homegrown lunch and brunch place in downtown Birmingham, has long enjoyed a loyal local (and regional) following. Now the eatery has attracted some welcome, timely national attention, too.

Yo’ Mama’s is one of about three dozen restaurants around the country – and the only one in Alabama – to receive a James Beard Foundation (JBF) grant through the organization’s Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.

Crystal Peterson, co-owner and the general manager of Yo’ Mama’s, says they are thrilled with the grant. “It’s really cool to be included in something that is considered so prestigious in the food industry.”

These grants are part of JBF’s efforts to recognize and provide financial resources for food and beverage businesses that are majority-owned by Black or Indigenous people.

The foundation notes: “Black and Indigenous people often have portions of their cuisines and cultures appropriated, their hand in creating major American food and beverage items and dishes erased, and their images exploited and racialized to the benefit of their white counterparts. We recognize these facts and seek to highlight the merits and contributions of Black and Indigenous people.”

Fish tacos—grilled or fried—are served with Yo’ Mama’s signature POE sauce, salsa fresca and slaw. There’s a gluten-free corn tortilla option, too. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Peterson says one of the many contacts she’s made through the years forwarded an email to her about the grants. “I sent it to my sister, and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s just try out for it. You never know, but the fact that we are Black, and we are women-owned, we’re pretty much a double minority, and we may be able to get this thing. The least we could do is just try.’”

She says the grant money – $15,000 – will help cover payroll, but it’s more impactful than that. The additional money will help them help others.

“It’s gonna alleviate pressure on us on the financial side, sure. But it also frees you up to be creative. As a business owner when you’re stressed about the income and cash flow, it takes you away from other things. … By having that financial freedom, it helps us stay … involved in the community.”

Yo’ Mama’s employs women from Jessie’s Place as well as people with autism. They feed families at the Ronald McDonald House. They feed Birmingham’s homeless. “Street homeless,” Peterson says, “not just the homeless who stay in the shelters. We’ll go to the people who are actually street homeless.”

They also work with community-focused nonprofits. “It’s hard enough for the 501(c)(3)s in the area already,” Peterson says, “because so many businesses are seeing losses, they’re not spending money on the giving side. Because they already have so much loss, they don’t have it to give. So, we still try to stay active in those things because we know that they need the money now more than ever.

“We firmly believe in ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ Every time we are given something, we definitely give back.”

The grants are part of the JBF commitment to be more inclusive overall, and “to recognize, celebrate and support the efforts of all types of food and beverage businesses, not just those that have been acknowledged for decades at the James Beard Awards.” This includes lunch places like Yo’ Mama’s as well as pop-up supper clubs, food trucks and brewpubs. “In speaking with the foundation,” Peterson says, “they’re saying that they’re about to change how they award the James Beards; it doesn’t have to be fancy food anymore. They’re going to try to actually include all genres of food that are just good food.”

Yo’ Mama’s has been in business since 2014, when Crystal, along with her father (who does the finances) and her sister (who handles the website, digital media and online interface) helped her mom, Denise Peterson, realize a longtime dream of owning a restaurant. The place was popular from the get-go. They specialize in homestyle cooking with Southern roots and are perhaps best known for their fried chicken and waffles and the daily specials that, Peterson says, are dishes her mom cooked for the family when she was growing up. With the exception of a few Meals of the Day, everything is gluten-free or has a gluten-free option.

But there’s more than that at Yo’ Mama’s.

One of the most popular dishes at Yo’ Mama’s is the fried chicken wings with Belgian waffles. The waffles are topped with homemade syrup and fresh fruit or not. Photo by Tan Crowder.

“We have a lot of people who think that all we sell are soul foods,” Peterson says, “because most of the time, when it comes to Black people, we only are referred to as ‘soul food.’ But I always tell people, ‘It depends on where your soul goes.’ Because, if you want tacos, we’ve got it. If you want shrimp and grits, we’ll take you to a little bit of New Orleans. We got it. Where’s your soul going? We can take you there.”

Yo’ Mama’s is currently open for curbside pickup and takeout, with some seating outside. Peterson says during the pandemic, they did research and started using vented to-go boxes so the food travels well whether you pick it up yourself or use a delivery service.

According to JBF, the fund uses the most recent census data to help disburse grants equally across Black and Indigenous populations throughout the United States. The foundation identified six regions of the country, each containing 16% to 17% of the total Black and Indigenous population in the U.S. Yo’ Mama’s received its grant in the second round of funding; other recipients in the region that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma were Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine and Food Friends Catering, both in Florida.

The grants are part of the JBF Open for Good campaign, launched in April “to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is stronger, more equitable, more sustainable and more resilient when it re-opens post-COVID-19.”

The aim is to lift up Black and Indigenous business owners within the food and beverage industries during these difficult pandemic times and keep supporting them moving forward so they can survive – and thrive – into the future. To that end, JBF is enlisting other organizations and industry experts to provide guidance on professional skills like marketing, structuring business plans and negotiating contracts.

“What James Beard found out is that money is not the biggest problem; sometimes it’s education,” Peterson says. If you can educate and finance at the same time, you can really help people cope with something like going from 200 customers one day to 20 customers the next, she adds.

Peterson says her family has been thinking about franchising Yo’ Mama’s and expects that the various Zoom meetings, forums and expert advice offered by JBF can help make that dream a reality.

“It helps when you know that information,” she says, “when you’re trying to make a deal versus letting a lawyer talk you to your deal.” Peterson is looking for guidance on a business model that best suits their homestyle, gluten-free niche. “Between all the contacts they have and the mentorship I can gain from them, they also connect you with other business owners who are chefs or people that are in the business areas – not necessarily the food side. And they also have help with the food side … recipes, calorie counts … all the kinds of things you are required to have as a franchise.

“We’re ready to get all the information, because I’m ready to start negotiating contracts to franchise.”

The JBF grant Yo’ Mama’s received is a kind of personal affirmation, too, Peterson says.

“To me – to us – it’s really just a blessing. And we know that we’re running our business right simply because we keep getting blessings. … It’s just awesome.”

For more info about the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, go to https://www.jamesbeard.org/investment-fund.


Savory shrimp and grits is a mixture of cheesy grits (cheddar, Asiago and cream cheese), fresh shrimp and spicy sausage. Photo by Tan Crowder.

Yo’ Mama’s
2328 2nd Ave. N.
Birmingham, AL 35203
205-957-6545

Open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Twice-monthly brunch (the second and last weekends each month) will resume in June.

Yo’ Mama’s is on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and Yelp.

This story originally appeared on Alabama NewsCenter.

A Fresh Approach to Every Day

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy in downtown Tuscaloosa is a lot of things to a lot of people. That’s because the offerings and the ambiance change from hour to hour—all day, every day.  

Photo by Jen Brown.

The place starts early each morning as a juice bar and transitions to a bar bar at night. It seems seamless; it’s certainly clever, with some of the same healthy ingredients morphing into different dishes and even drinks. For instance, the fresh-pressed juices that fuel an easy, quick breakfast or provide a mid-afternoon pick-me-up are mixed with compatible spirits for a healthy happy hour to wind down the day. And in between, there’s a full-on lunch with wraps, grain bowls and paninis. 

I visited Sage for Alabama NewsCenter recently. You can read the entire story here and see a cool video, too!

Ken Cupp, who owns Sage with his wife, Cheyenne, says, “For me, Sage is a lifestyle.” The multi-concept juice bar, lunch spot and cocktail lounge offers a lot of fun options, he adds. “My wife and I are both passionate about healthy foods, and that’s something that started this journey. But we also like to have a good time.”

Photo by Jen Brown.

The two built out their space in Tuscaloosa’s Temerson Square to be a changeable place.  

As breakfast segues into lunch, it’s a light and airy cafe where sunlight from the big front windows illuminates the exposed brick walls, comfortable counter seating, the colorful fruits at the juice bar. When afternoon slides into evening, they turn the lights down, change the music and the soft sofa seating begins filling up. While you can get a cocktail whenever you want (Ken says he’s not judging), at night the juice bar becomes an intimate speakeasy where signature cocktails, a variety of gin drinks and several martinis are made with house bitters and syrups and other fresh ingredients and served alongside wines by the glass and bottle and local and regional craft beers in bottles, cans and on tap. There are non-alcoholic drinks available, too, including kombucha on draft and Sage’s signature lavender lemonade.

The entire menu at Sage—the fresh juices, smoothies, paninis, wraps, grain bowls and signature cocktails—reflects the couple’s personal experience. Ken, an Alabama native who went to the University of Alabama, is a mixologist as well as restauranteur. In upstate New York, he had an Italian restaurant with his father-in-law, who is an Italian executive chef. Cheyenne, who studied marketing and graphic design at the University of Buffalo, went to yoga school and was inspired to start juicing. So, they opened a juice bar on the side. 

They moved to Tuscaloosa in 2019 and opened their new place in June 2020 and called it Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy. You don’t have to surreptitiously knock on a door three times to get in, even with the Prohibition-themed name. “We liked the way the word sounded,” Ken says, “and it just flowed a little bit better to me than ‘Sage Juice Bar & Bar.’”  

Even so, they opened during a trying time. 

“It definitely was a journey,” Ken says, “but we made it through all the obstacles and we’re still afloat. I’m proud of that and confident that we’ve been able to be a stable point for Tuscaloosa and a rising star in a market where I’ve seen a lot has changed since I went to school down here over a decade ago.”

Besides, Ken says, “The time is always right to be healthy.” And at Sage, that time is all day long and long into the night.

During juice bar hours, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they serve a variety of bright, good-for-you combinations like Immunity (romaine, spinach, kale, cucumber, apple, lemon, pineapple and ginger) and Saving Grace (pineapple, apple, mint, coconut water and cayenne) and Sage Punch (watermelon, apple, pineapple and orange). These juices also are blended with frozen fruit into nutrient-dense “hybrids”—a cross between a juice and a smoothie. 

The traditional smoothies, blended with frozen fruit instead of ice, are popular, too, especially the Cabana-Berry with banana, strawberry, pineapple and coconut water and the Heavy Metal Detox with wild blueberries, banana, cilantro, orange juice, barley grass powder, spirulina and Atlantic dulse.

These same smoothies become more of a meal when made into smoothie bowls with the addition of crunchy, colorful toppings. “Our smoothie bowls are works of art,” Ken says.

Photo by Jen Brown

He named the beautifully composed smoothie bowls after the Bowl Championship Series. The Fiesta Bowl is especially popular with its rolled oats, blue spirulina, vanilla and almond milk topped with granola, banana, blueberries, kiwi, coconut flakes, local honey, chia seeds and almond butter. The Rose Bowl has an açai berry base with granola, strawberries, raspberries, mint, coconut flakes, local honey and chia seeds. 

For lunch, there are toasts like classic avocado amped up a bit with chili flakes, black pepper and sea salt. The Botanical Boost salad is a mix of kale, spinach and arugula with feta, strawberries and candied pecans. 

Heartier lunch options include paninis like The Heart of Dixie with sliced turkey, garlic aioli, roasted red peppers, gouda and arugula on ciabatta. The grilled cheese is a popular combination of gouda, American cheese and cheddar on sourdough bread with dill pickles and homemade garlic aioli. 

In fact, all the sauces and drizzles are made in-house, Ken says. The sweet-savory homemade peanut sauce is what makes the Thai chicken wrap, with its cashews and kale and cilantro, so popular. A chipotle aioli complements the Carnivore wrap, which features salami, pepperoni, ham, provolone, evoo and oregano.

The pretty grain bowls all start with a base of brown rice and quinoa, but toppings range from sweet potatoes to lentils to chicken to black beans and more with sweet ginger, creamy Italian or cilantro-lime drizzles. You also can create your own grain bowl by choosing a protein, two vegetables, a cheese and a drizzle. 

A “boosted brunch” on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. features a breakfast panini; powered-up classic toast with avocado spread, lots of pepper and scrambled egg; and a Sunrise grain bowl with feta and scrambled eggs and Italian drizzle.

Ken sources his fresh ingredients locally whenever possible; he gets free-range eggs and more from Jason Waits of Black Sheep Farms out of Coker.  “Jason and I sit down once a season, and he’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what are you looking for?’  He’ll pull out his notepad … and I’ll say, ‘I can use this or that,’ and he’ll plant rows and bring it to me.” It doesn’t get much fresher than that, he adds.  

And that’s important, because even the 4-7 happy hour is healthy at Sage when fresh juices are spiked with liquors to create vitamin-rich signature cocktails. You’ll get things like the Intoxicated Immunity made with Tito’s and the Immunity juice combination or the Blurred Optics with pineapple vodka and the Optic Boost juice of carrots, apple, kale and ginger. During Sunday’s brunch, the Saving Grace and Sage Punch juice combinations become mimosas with the addition of prosecco.

Open seven days a week, Ken employees between 15 and 20 people who are as important to his success as the food and drinks. All are well versed in the ingredients of the healthy lifestyle they fuel each day. Ken says everyone at Sage can explain the benefits of the products “in a way that’s not intimidating; they can go as in-depth as you’d like.”  

When asked what Sages does best, Ken says it’s a combination of things:  an inviting ambiance; a consistent product; and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. “As an entrepreneur, I call it the ‘trifecta of the restaurant industry,’” he says.

“I tell that to my staff all the time. ‘Those are the three controllables.’ You can go to a lot of places that maybe have one or two out of the three. I’m like, hey, why not strive for all three? I’m passionate that we do do all three of those.” The restaurant business can be a tough industry with its high moments of intensity, so it’s important to be passionate about what you do, Ken adds. “If we can control that, and the customers are happy because of those three intangibles, then, ultimately, my day-to-day is going to be happier and I’m going to have staff that’s happy. I hear it all the time from my staff. They love coming to work, and that’s just a really cool thing to create in the restaurant industry.”

Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy

2324 4TH Street
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401

(205) 737-7663

https://www.sagejuicebar.com

Hours

Juice Bar:  Monday—Saturday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Lunch:   Monday—Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Cocktail Lounge:  Monday—Wednesday open to 10 p.m.

Thursday—Saturday open to 12 a.m. 

Sunday Hours:   7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Celebrating Women & Science at The Lumbar

Your first clue that The Lumbar is a bar like no other is the row of beers on tap. They are situated on what owner Rylie Hightower calls the Spinal Tap, and there are 26 of them—the same as the number of vertebrae in a human spine. Then there’s the giant (16-foot) microscope that’s actually a load-bearing wall. Colorful pop-art posters celebrate female scientists like trailblazing mathematicians Vivienne Malone-Mayes and Ada Lovelace, laser pioneer Donna Strickland and Claudia Alexander who specialized in geophysics and planetary science. Old medical textbooks, a LEGO racecar, a vintage oscilloscope and a Brownie Target Six-16 box camera line shelves above comfy velvet sofas.

This is the kind of thing that happens when a scientist walks into her own bar.

Hightower just (a couple weeks ago) earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she conducted research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy in the laboratory of Matthew Alexander, Ph.D., in the Department of Pediatrics and uncovered a key signaling pathway for Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients. 

This work, in a way, led to The Lumbar. 

My partner Brittany Dunn and I visited The Lumbar for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here and see Brittany’s fun video.

When Hightower started her graduate courses, she had a nursing degree, but most of her classmates had degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. “I was not doing well in class,” she says, “so I traded help with school for drinks. That’s how I made all my friends, and I ended up passing my classes the second time I had to take them.” 

Knowing that lots of good can come from people gathering over cold drinks to talk about their passions, she wanted to make a place for that to happen.  

“I really wanted to create a space where people could … be inspired by those sorts of collaborative conversations that are happening around the world of science,” she says. “Or, it doesn’t have to be science, but if people leave here inspired to do something in the world, my goal has been met for the day.”  

So, she contacted her dad, Tim, a structural engineer who could build almost anything. He was in their hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, but he traveled to Birmingham to help his daughter build out The Lumbar space in the historic Pepper Place district. They opened for business on November 30, 2018.

“We are a science-centric bar that uses food and creative drinks to inspire the community to go out and change the world,” Hightower says. “But that is not enough to describe us at all. Probably the number one comment I have gotten is that people come back because they feel comfortable, welcome, accepted and they always leave happy. So, I think outside of trying to educate and inspire and catalyze community change, the only other thing that matters more is that people can come and be themselves and be comfortable and safe and happy. They may or may not learn something before they leave, and that’s great, too.”

The Lumbar has a diverse and loyal following, from “adjustment hour” regulars to Saturday morning Pepper Place marketgoers who line up for the tasty Bloody Marys.

“We do get a lot of scientists and physicians and nurses from UAB and a lot of respiratory therapists,” Hightower says. “We have a ton of people who actually come thinking that we are a chiropractic office and then they realize we can’t really do that, but we can adjust you with some liquor if you’re feeling like tequila today. And so, a lot of people come here for rehab and then they leave probably not getting the rehab they were thinking they were going to get, but hopefully we make them feel better anyway.”

If you’re into beer, they’ve got your back with brews ranging from a Guinness Nitro Stout to the Elysian Space Dust IPA, from Einstok Icelandic White to Blake’s Hard Cider—all lined up on the Spinal Tap that Tim spent weeks designing.

The cocktails at this cocktail bar are carefully crafted to pay homage to scientific principles and theories and the people behind them. They currently are celebrating Women’s History Month (and will continue that celebration into April because one month is not enough).

“One of the cocktails that I contributed to the (Women’s History Month) menu is Photo 51, and Photo 51 is actually the name of the picture—the first-ever picture—that was taken of DNA. That picture was taken in the lab of Rosalind Franklin. … Most people have heard of Watson and Crick being credited with the discovery of DNA. However, Rosalind Franklin’s lab was the first lab to actually image DNA. So, I am trying to give Rosalind Franklin credit for her discovery.” Photo 51 contains blanco tequila, orange curacao and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic. It comes with a stick of crystal blue rock candy because Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer. 

The Adjustment Hour (Tuesday-Saturday from 2 to 5 and all day Sunday) features $2 off local craft beer cans and bottles and wines by the glass (including bubbles) from all over the world. There also are specially priced cocktails like Good Ol’ Fashioned Chemistry with bourbon, Rylie’s sugar and Angostura bitters; the Francis Collins (a riff on a Tom Collins that’s named for the director of the NIH); and a signature blue margarita called a Heisenmarg. 

You’ll see those New Mexico Hatch chiles incorporated into lots of the dishes, too—from snacks to burgers to colorful bowls. These menu items play on the science theme with clever names like Tetris Tots (Tetris-shaped tater tots) and crispy String Theory Fries both served with green chile ranch that is more savory than spicy.

The green chile cheeseburger was The Lumbar’s original signature dish, Hightower says. “When anybody asks me what they should get, I say green chile cheeseburger with Tetris Tots every time.” 

They started with seven items on the menu—now the burger lineup alone is bigger than that. There are ten different choices ranging from a jalapeno gochujang burger with homemade slaw to a Southwest veggie burger made with quinoa, brown rice and black beans and topped with American cheese and avocado to a Smash Burger with spicy, pulled barbacoa beef and green chile aioli. Other sandwiches include the LGBT sandwich, The Lumbar’s take on a classic BLT with the addition of green chiles and the house-made green chile aioli, and there’s a grilled cheese with homemade green chile pimento cheese and bacon.

Snacks include pepper jack mac bytes (mac and pepper jack cheese battered and fried) and smoked chicken wings with a sweet, spicy gochujang sauce served with cool green chile ranch. 

Hearty bowls include a Fiesta Bowl with sweet potato waffle fries topped with roasted street corn and a scoop of green chile pimento cheese and a Frito Pie bowl with corn chips, house-made beef chili and shredded cheese. 

There’s no phone number for The Lumbar, but you can place a to-go order on the website. Otherwise, you’ll order at the front window and find a seat inside or outside on the patio surrounded by Tim’s planters full of seasonal flowers and lit by the festive lights strung across 29th Street.

The Lumbar is known, as Hightower wanted it to be known, as much for what you can experience as what you drink and eat. 

The Lumbar offers spirited celebrations of scientific feats like the historic Apollo 11 mission and meaningful science-focused events like Earth Day (coming up April 22). These science-centric events are “part of the whole driving factor behind inspiring the community,” Hightower says.

The 2019 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing was an initial jumping-off point. 

“It was a huge deal,” Hightower says. “We had astronomy groups come and set up telescopes out here in the parking lot. And so, people could grab a beer and check out the planets and their moons.”

Last April, they were celebrating Earth Month when the pandemic shut everything down. So, Hightower and her team pivoted to take-home cocktail kits with drinks like Bee’s Knees and a Queen Bee cocktail. Each cocktail kit also had a bag of potting soil and some seeds for pollinator plants so you could enjoy a drink and do something nice for the planet, too. 

Photo from The Lumbar

This May and June will see The Lumbar become The Lost World:  Jurassic Bar with dinosaur-themed everything.  Shark Week is so popular here that it will be the focus of two months—July and August—because “one week of Shark Week is not enough,” Hightower says. Look for signature cocktail menus, special beers on tap and themed dishes. 

Hightower is quick to say that all this is possible because of the team she has in place—from the young, professional women who make the drinks to Tim who runs the kitchen and is the general manager. “None of this would be possible without everybody pitching in, working doubles, working for me when I have to be at school. … Everyone’s learning on their own when I can’t provide training … attending virtual cocktail conferences so that they can learn more. Just the amount of dedicated effort from everyone who works here and how that effort has turned us into a family that does not function without each other is probably what I’m most proud of about The Lumbar.”

She’s going to need this family moving forward. 

Hightower has been a standout at UAB where she was awarded a F99/K00 grant from the National Institutes of Health, becoming the fifth student from UAB to be named a recipient of this predoctoral to postdoctoral transition award. The five-year grant funded a year of her Duchenne muscular dystrophy research and will continue to fund her postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Matthew Might, a computer scientist, biologist, educator and public health administrator, who is the director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute

“The Precision Medicine Institute here at UAB is incredible,” Hightower says. “It’s new. It’s only a few years old, and they have a team of clinicians and scientists and computer engineers who come together to try to solve undiagnosed health cases. It’s kind of like real-life House but a lot less dramatic and with no music. It’s really important work, and they take patients from all over and try to provide a genetic or a molecular diagnosis for patients who are really, really sick but they’ve never had an answer for why. So, I’ll be joining their team.”

Hightower will continue her day job and her bar job because both are fulfilling in similar ways. 

She says conversations with The Lumbar staff have led some customers to grad school, helped others learn the steps to buying a house or encouraged them to do something entirely different with their lives. “We empower the people who come in to follow their dreams and to do the things that they’ve always wanted to do,” Hightower says. “That’s what I want people to say about The Lumbar—that because I went there, I tried something I’ve always wanted to try, or I did something I’ve always wanted to do, or I learned something I’ve always wanted to learn … or I started moving in the steps of my dreams.”

The Lumbar

212 29th Street South at Pepper Place in Birmingham

https://www.lumbarbham.com

No business phone; you can send an email through the website

Hours

Tuesday-Thursday noon to 7 p.m.

Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m.

Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

Closed Mondays