Birmingham-area food businesses adjust for coronavirus

Birmingham-area food businesses adjust for coronavirus
Ashley Mac's already did a lot of take-home business, but it quickly added deliveries and started selling produce by the box when the COVID-19 coronavirus brought new restrictions for restaurants. (Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

Eateries and producers are making changes to serve customers and keep their doors open; you can help, too.

Social distancing has changed our food-centric state in ways we never imagined. Curbside service has become the new normal for many eateries. Others are relying heavily on delivery services. Still others are altering their business models in more significant ways.

While lives depend on safe interactions, livelihoods depend on businesses remaining in business. Here are some of the ways Alabama food- and drink-related establishments are addressing the coronavirus crisis.

Fresh veggies with your poppyseed chicken casserole

The dining rooms at all four Ashley Mac’s Birmingham-area stores are closed, but Ashley McMakin, who owns the company with her husband, Andy, is still making homestyle casseroles and salads for pick-up and limited delivery.

Now, the Ashley Mac’s team is offering something else.

“We were just trying to think of some things we could do for the community,” McMakin says, “and one thing we can get — that a lot of people cannot get at the grocery store — is produce.” So, they are packing boxes full of fresh fruits and vegetables. For $30, you can get a box of produce ranging from romaine, onions, broccoli and tomatoes to strawberries, cantaloupe and pineapple.

McMakin says they will offer the produce boxes, which will vary according to what’s available and fresh, as long as there’s a demand and they can get enough produce in. Meanwhile, a lot of what happens here is (almost) business as usual.

“Thank goodness, our business model didn’t have to change,” McMakin says. “Having a prepackaged product has saved us.” Ashley Mac’s has long been known for its Gourmet-to-Go entrees, sides, salads and desserts — some of them frozen, some fresh.

All this is available for careful walk-in pick-up (for the moment). Or you can call ahead or order online, and they will bring your items to your car. Home delivery is a new option. For a minimum $100 order, they will deliver within the Birmingham metro area.

“Our customers have been amazing,” McMakin says. “We always have had very good customers, but everyone has been extra gracious and patient. They are grateful to have what they can. … And in this time — who knows how long it will go on — having some sense of normalcy for people is comforting for them. Having something at home, something as simple as their favorite chicken salad, is comforting for them.

“I believe they are grateful to us for adapting to the times and being willing to develop new systems on the fly. We literally said, ‘We’re going to do deliveries tomorrow.’ Then we started delivering.”

These changes have allowed McMakin and her husband to keep some of their employees working.

“We’ve always been an employee-centric company, and we care for our employees a lot more than the bottom line,” she says. “My husband and I are not taking a salary right now and trying to keep as many people on board for as long as we can.”

McMakin says she’s thankful for her customers who are making this possible. “I’m grateful for their kindness and the grace they’ve shown to us and for being patient with us as we are adapting to things along with them. We’re really grateful for every person who chooses to support local and who is going out of their way to come here. Please support us for as long as you can.”

Be sure to check Ashley Mac’s social media outlets for availability of items and produce boxes. Call 205-822-4142 for free pickup or 205-968-4126 for delivery with a $100 order.

Become a co-founder, and keep a business going

Panache, Domestique Coffee’s charming little coffee shop down an alley off 20th Street in Five Points South, is closed for now. So is Domestique Coffee Café inside Saturn in Avondale, but the Birmingham-based, small-batch coffee importer and roaster that specializes in single-origin coffee beans is banking on a brighter future.

Domestique is a multifaceted business that buys coffee from specialty growers all over the world, including Haiti, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Mexico and elsewhere, so it’s not just local employees who count on this company.

So, CEO Nathan Pocus, who co-founded Domestique with his brother, Michael, says the company is inviting its customers to become co-founders, too.

They are offering a Founder’s Card for $100. Sales of the cards will help the business now and allow buyers to enjoy benefits later, including a free batch brew for a month when Domestique reopens (a $90 value), 10% off all purchases for life, free digital products for life, early access notifications for all special events, monthly discount codes to use on the company’s online platform,  a ticket to the fun Founder’s Day party and more. Go to www.domestique.com to learn more.

Birmingham’s Domestique makes coffee and other ready-to-drink beverages. (Domestique)

Domestique Coffee is in area Piggly Wiggly stores as well as in Whole Foods locations throughout Alabama. But the wholesale business to restaurants across the state and the company’s own two retail outlets account for more than half its revenue.

Proceeds from the cards will also help the company’s 12 retail employees who have been laid off. “We’ve been trying to provide for them in some ways,” Pocus says. “The plan is to provide a grocery stipend for them going forward.”

The money raised by the Founder’s Cards will also help employ these people again sooner rather than later. Many of them, Pocus points out, are photographers as well as baristas. Their skills can be used for the company’s digital platform.

Domestique began in 2014 with the brothers roasting coffee on a popcorn popper in a shed in Irondale, but the company has always been technologically savvy. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, they were ready to roll out a text-to-order app. The plan is to continue with that and make it available to their partners like Corey Hinkle, who provides breads and pastries for Domestique’s retail stores as well as other restaurants.

“As a business owner but also as a person who lives in the community, I’m torn,” Pocus says. “We want to keep everyone safe by isolating themselves and not spreading this virus. That really means total isolation for two weeks. That’s a tough ask on most people’s lives. But I think it’s necessary. Once that happens and we flatten the curve, we can get back to normal operations … and get people back to work.”

In the meantime, he says, “Order coffee online, and we’ll deliver it as long as we’re able to keep roasting.”

Then, when the world gets back to normal, you’ll want to visit Panache for a beautiful Golden Milk Latte made with ginger, black pepper and immune-boosting turmeric. It will be a welcome celebration of business as usual.

Sweet treats for sheltering in place

Big Spoon Creamery, the Birmingham-based small-batch, artisanal ice cream maker, has closed both its stores for now. But its handmade frozen treats (pint packs and sammie packs) are available for 24-hour delivery in the Birmingham area.

Ryan O’Hara, who owns Big Spoon with his wife, Geri-Martha, says everything is done online, and “it’s a great way for us to try to keep going and a great way to promote social distancing. People don’t have to leave their homes.”

He says the response has been great.

The parlor may be off-limits for a while, but Big Spoon Creamery is still selling its ice cream. (Dennis Washington / Alabama NewsCenter)

“It’s not like having our stores open, but it has been really positive. It’s a combination of a few things: (a) people just like our ice cream and want to have our ice cream, and (b) people in the community realize how difficult this is for businesses like ours, and they just want to support us.”

So every day, they deliver as much ice cream as they can. “We didn’t think there would be such a huge response,” O’Hara says. “We’ve only been doing it for three days now, but we’ve had to cut off deliveries for the day when we reach our capacity. … We’re going ‘round the clock. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re trying to do what we can to stay afloat.”

This home delivery allows Ryan and Geri-Martha to keep employing most of their full-time staff. Many of the part-time employees were college students who have since gone home. “We are prioritizing taking care of our people who rely on this job to support themselves,” he says.

“For Geri-Martha and I, we’ve always wanted to be a part of people’s lives — whatever that looks like. That really hasn’t changed.  We’re all going through a hard time right now. Nobody’s missing this. Getting to still be a part of their lives, that’s great for us. The response has been really cool to see. We appreciate how many people support us.”

But he’s all too aware of the perils restaurant owners face.

“We want people to know that, like most in this industry, we’re in the fight of our lives right now,” he says. “We’re doing all we can. Most of it is out of our control. It’s a scary time. Most people understand that. That’s why there’s so much support for businesses like ours. The reality is, if this situation sustains, people are going to lose their businesses. We — and every other business like ours — are fighting for our lives right now.”

To place your order, visit https://www.bigspooncreamery.com/shop.

Restaurant and grocery

Little Savannah Restaurant & Bar is a fine-dining establishment, although Chef Clif Holt likes to say when you’re there, you’re simply “dining fine.” His customers are still dining in fine style, but they’re doing it at home with takeaway dinners for two and four. And Holt has figured out another way to help his historic Forest Park neighborhood where he has operated his restaurant for 16 years:  He’s opening a neighborhood grocery.

Holt says he was at a grocery store last week and was shocked by the unbelievably bare shelves, “a line of nothingness.” So, he came up with a way to offset some of those shortages by partnering with Sysco, which sells to restaurants and has seen those sales plummet as restaurants close or cut back on orders.  “They have a warehouse full of product, and a lot of it is fresh, short-shelf-life product,” Holt says. “Seeing as how there was a shortage in some of the stores, we decided to get together.”

Chef Clif Holt of Little Savannah Restaurant & Bar is adapting his business to the realities of COVID-19 and staying hopeful. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

The grocery will stock raw protein by the pound (ground beef, rib eyes, chicken and fresh Gulf shrimp and snapper); dairy and French baguettes; fresh produce (oranges, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, bananas and apples); and even toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water and boxes of latex gloves.

All the necessities for right now. All at fair market prices.

“We’re not going to get rich off it,” he says of the grocery. “But it’s a service we can provide at a reasonable cost and keep our flow going.”

That flow involves his employees, whom he’s trying to keep at work, fish purveyors, truck drivers and even the folks who pick up the garbage.  “People don’t think about that,” he says. “We have a shortage of thought sometimes about how these things are going to go. For me, the main thing I’m trying to figure out is how we can retain as much normalcy as possible.”

Normalcy currently means dinners for two or family dinners for four with the kinds of foods Holt’s customers have come to expect from Little Savannah. Things like hand-rolled pasta Bolognese or beef Bourguignon with herbed rice, Caesar salads and homemade focaccia.

He does more, as he can.

Holt was standing outside the restaurant when he saw a couple from the neighborhood out for a walk. “You hungry?” he asked. “Of course,” they answered. “Go on your walk,” he told them. “Your dinner will be ready when you get back.” And he got to work preparing a to-go meal of fresh Gulf flounder with snap peas, potatoes and tomatoes.

“The response, the feedback,” he says, “has been really positive. People are thankful we’re doing what we’re doing. In this neighborhood, you have a community. Forest Park has always found a way to bind and make things happen. I’m just really impressed with the community at large — and by that, I mean the larger Birmingham community — and how they have been supportive. People in Birmingham really rally around their restaurants. It’s just overwhelming. I’m just continually blessed and fortunate to have the community we have behind us.

“I’m driving home at night and my daughter’s next to me, and I’m wondering how can I make it so she doesn’t know all of what’s going on? How can I lessen the impact for others? If someone asks for something, I’ll try my best to do it. As long as I can keep this going, I will,” he says.

“The reality is, you have no control over this. No one does. So stop trying to control it. Get some takeout. Check on your elderly neighbors,” he says. “This is not the worst thing we’ve faced that put us in an awkward position or affected us financially, and we’re still here.

“We’ll be able to hug people here again pretty soon.”

You can check Facebook for the daily meal specials and follow Little Savannah on Instagram for more information. Orders must be placed by 4 p.m. for pick-up or delivery the next day. Curbside pick-up hours are 4-6 p.m., and there is a $5 delivery fee. Call or text 205-616-0995 or go to [email protected] to place your order.

Neighbors serving neighbors

Kay Bruno Reed, owner of Everything IZ, which includes IZ Weddings & Events and IZ Café, is one of the state’s busiest caterers, easily handling parties for hundreds and even thousands. On a smaller, more local level, she has been part of the Rocky Ridge neighborhood of Vestavia Hills for more than 20 years. Now, with weddings and large events canceled, she’s working to feed her neighbors — one family at a time.

She says, “Our staff has been working nonstop to keep our freezer stocked for our customers. We have been offering curbside pick-up for years but are now offering free delivery.”

Iz Cafe can’t serve food in the cafe itself, but it’s still feeding people. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

She’s also stocking basic staple items like milk, bread and eggs. Reed says the response has been amazing. “Customers are thanking us for being open and feeding them.”

All of the company’s full-time employees who want to be there continue to work there. Those who have chosen to self-quarantine, she says, are taking a portion of their paid time off.

Reed approaches her work amid the COVID-19 pandemic in a positive way.

“My hope, first of all, is that it is over soon and with very few deaths.” She also says she hopes “parents will take this time to teach their children basic domestic skills while they are studying at home.

“My prayer is that this will bring our nation together for the good of all.”

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