Portrait photos by Paul Jones III
This is what progress looks like.
Unfolding since the late 1980s, the 13 buildings and more than 350,000 square feet of space of the Pepper Place Complex on the edge of the Lakeview district on Birmingham’s Southside have now become the blossoming heart of the city, bursting with creativity in design, food, and music—alive with the possibilities that Birmingham in the 21st century personifies.
It wasn’t always this way. When Cathy Sloss Jones and her father, A. Page (Pete) Sloss, took on the redevelopment of this corner of the city, there wasn’t much visible that pointed to a bright future. But it became a bright future nonetheless, creating in these beautiful city blocks the kind of walkable, vibrant, exciting neighborhood Jones always thought it could be.
Today, design firms, home and office furnishings retailers, magazines, public relations and advertising firms, law firms, galleries, and restaurants now occupy what was three decades earlier a desolate and depopulated space on the edge of a declining downtown. On these pages, we look at Pepper Place now and wonder how all of this happened and what is next.
“We’ve recently redeveloped Ridge Park for Baptist Health System and the historic Young and Vann Building for AL.com. But now we are interested in connecting Railroad Park to Pepper Place and Sloss Furnaces. Every great city has a feature that sparks interest and defines livability. Railroad Park from Regions Field to Sloss Furnaces is a new spine for the city. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years developing a master plan for Pepper Place, and we have many exciting new tenants joining us. In addition, the market at Pepper Place continues to grow and thrive. Our goal is to knit Pepper Place into the Railroad Park Corridor and Sloss Furnaces. Our work will be focused on the Lakeview District and Pepper Place for the foreseeable future,” Jones told the Birmingham Business Journal in 2014.
The Market at Pepper Place began 15 years ago when Jones enlisted the support of Birmingham chefs such as Frank Stitt and Franklin Biggs to develop a farmer’s market for Birmingham, the kind that had become very popular in other cities. “It began with seven farmers and a few tents in a single parking lot, open only during the summer months. And then it grew larger than we ever could have imagined,” Jones says.
“Fifteen years later, the market spreads over two city blocks in the Pepper Place Market District and is held on Saturdays, rain or shine, from April to December,” she continues. “Every week I see (and celebrate) the work of a lot of talented and dedicated people coming together to support the market. Over 125 farmers and small vendors sell Alabama produce, meats, and hand-crafted goods to more than 10,000 weekly visitors and shoppers. Local musicians play, chefs perform cooking demos, authors hold book signings, and community organizations share their message. There is a friendly, relaxed atmosphere at the market, and shoppers and farmers connect through genuine conversations that begin by discussing the best tomatoes or blueberries or mushrooms that week. The farmers tell us they love knowing the people who eat and enjoy their food. And as consumers, we love knowing the farmers who produce it.”
OvenBird rises from the very core of Chris Hastings’s love for food.
Photography by Beau Gustafson
If you can imagine Chef Chris Hastings as a young man—or better yet, as a kid—in the Carolina woods with family, you’d see him celebrating and cooking food to share over an open fire. The crackle and heat of the fire is mesmerizing, the smells that arise from the food intoxicating. A fish, mere moments before wriggling in the coolness of a Southern stream, is now being transformed by flame into a meal to be shared with family and captured in memory.
If you can imagine a scene like that, then you know why Hastings created OvenBird, his and his wife, Idie’s, new restaurant in Pepper Place. “I grew up cooking over an open fire. Some of my greatest memories are about that,” Hastings says.
Live fire is the dominant image of OvenBird; there is not even a gas line coming into the building. The concept of the restaurant is Southern-infused, locally sourced food served in a small-plate tapas format and influenced by the cooking traditions of Spain, Portugal, Uruguay, and Argentina. But the sense of the South rules the roost at this restaurant, a natural condition for a restaurant created by a man named Best Chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation in 2012.
Similarly, Pepper Place seems a natural location for Hastings’ second restaurant (his first, Hot and Hot Fish Club, turned 20 this year.) Built in the garden adjacent to Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery, the beautifully designed restaurant with inside and outside dining seems like it has been in this space a very long time. The garden is a beautiful outdoor dining environment with seasonal changes.
Named for the bird native to South America that builds a nest reminiscent of an oval oven, the concept behind OvenBird also speaks to the history of Birmingham, a city forged in the fires of the iron and steel industry that turned this intersection of 19th century railroads into the Magic City. In an even deeper connection, OvenBird’s location at Pepper Place lies in the shadows of Sloss Furnaces, built by the great-great-grandfather of Pepper Place founder Cathy Sloss Jones. The connections, which are reflected in the architecture of OvenBird, are palatable.
With a beehive oven and a giant cast-iron hearth, the fish, fowl, goat, and other meats and ingredients are seared, grilled, and otherwise cooked over the smoking wood fires.
The small plates created then become fodder for what is easily the most anticipated restaurant opening, noticed not just here at home, but nationally. With a total of 150 seats both indoors and out in the garden, the restaurant has been a strong new anchor for Pepper Place, a call to arms for the special quality of entertainment and food that has made this Lakeview area complex one of the city’s premier destinations.
The work of many people had to mesh to create OvenBird. The build was designed by lead architect Alex Krumdieck of Krumdieck A + I Design. Cindy Barr of Chelsea Antique Mall found the right furnishings, accessories, and accents to complete the look. Garlan Gudger of Southern Accents Architectural Antiques in Cullman provided the reclaimed wood that makes the restaurant look new and old simultaneously. Charlie Thigpen’s handiwork creates the restaurant’s unique garden setting with flowers, herbs, statues, furnishings, and fountains, all available for purchase, by the way.
The OvenBird menu is divided into sections: “shared snacks” (appetizers); “farms & fields” (vegetables and soups); “land & air” (beef, chicken, pork, and lamb); “tossed & composed” (salads); “oceans & estuaries” (seafood and fish); “orchards & dairies” (desserts); and “chef’s favorites.” The shared snacks are $5 each, and most of the small-plate dishes are $10 to $12. Chef de cuisine Barclay Stratton is a Texas native who has worked in New York and Nashville.
The inventiveness of the menu owes much to a certain restless courage that Hastings feels at this point in his life and career. “I wanted to do something very special,” he says. “I wanted to stretch myself and get out of my comfort zone.”
An excerpt from an upcoming book celebrating 15 years of the Market at Pepper Place
Photography by Paul Jones III
Earlier this year, photographer Paul Jones III traveled into the rural country of central Alabama expecting to shoot portraits of farmers for a Market at Pepper Place exhibit. He discovered a community of the most gracious, genuine, hard-working people he had ever met. These farming families welcomed Paul into their homes and shared their stories as well as their bounty. He experienced their lives from behind his camera and then at their tables.
The small exhibit quickly grew to dozens of portraits of Alabama farmers and artisans dedicated to producing quality food as well as chefs who share their philosophy and exalt local and seasonal ingredients. The collection naturally evolved into this book—Know Thy Farmer—which celebrates individuals ranging from seventh-generation growers to beginners just starting out with a few acres. The spectacular photo essays and stories here written by Tanner Latham take an in-depth look at what it means to grow, live and have fun on a 21st century Alabama farm.
The thread tying all of these individuals and families together is the Market at Pepper Place. Even when the market was just a few tents in a parking lot, its focus was community and growing connections between family farmers and the people of Birmingham, Alabama. Every Saturday morning, the heart of the city’s design district is transformed into a sensuous feast of locally grown vegetables, fruits, meats, herbs, homemade baked goods, artisanal cheeses, pickles, and jams. Live music brightens the atmosphere and the aromas of garlic and peppers waft from chef demonstrations.
Each week, more than 100 farmers and 10,000 urban dwellers gather to enrich and sustain each other’s way of life. At its heart, the Market at Pepper Place is not about the food. It is about community. In celebration of the market’s 15 years, Know Thy Farmer deepens these connections while recognizing the farmers, chefs and artisans who are the market’s heart and soul.