The Farm to City Incubator


The Market at Pepper Place has spawned dozens of success stories.

By Alec Harvey

When April McClung started selling her Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes in 2014, someone recommended that she try to get into the Market at Pepper Place.

“People said there would be a three-year wait, but that didn’t concern me, and I thought we would simply wait our turn,” she says. “So I contacted Pepper Place and told them our story.”

Put on the stand-by list, McClung was surprised to be called after a cancellation two weeks later. The 18 pound cakes she brought to the Market sold out in less than four hours. Now, three years later, she produces more than 500 pound cakes a week, shipping them to grocery stores, restaurants and pound cake lovers nationwide.

“Pepper Place was instrumental to us in creating awareness and getting our product out there,” McClung says. “We have customers all over the country now, specifically restaurants that now order our cakes to be shipped for consumption in their restaurants.”

Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes is not alone. Since its inception in 2000, the tables and tents at the Market at Pepper Place have spawned more than 60 brick-and-mortar and internet successes. After Midnight Salsa, Bare Naked Noodles, Big Spoon Creamery, Ice Box Coffee, McEwen & Sons Grits, Mook’s Cheese Straws, Steel City Pops and many more have all found a wider audience at the Market that helped them grow their businesses.

“Setting up at Pepper Place for 10 years made all the difference in our success because of the exposure,” says Frank McEwen, owner of McEwen & Sons Grits. “I call it our NPR moment, because we met so many interesting folks along the way and seemed to get new business every week.”

Honored by national organizations, regularly featured in major publications and highly rated by online travel and food sites, the Market has become a beacon for the growing food movement in Birmingham. Regulars do their weekly shopping here, foodies come to discover the latest trends, visitors come to taste and experience what’s regarded as the “best the state has to offer.”

“That was always our hope,” says Market founder Cathy Sloss Jones, whose original Pepper Place vision included helping to build local economies through urban/rural connections. “We love to see successes like that come out of selling at Pepper Place.”

Jimmy Brogden, owner of After Midnight Salsa, says they’re on the right track.

“Pepper Place Market is truly a small, local business incubator,” says Brogden, who began selling his salsa at the Market in 2012 and now has his products in seven grocery stores and a number of other retail locations. “Anyone with an idea, product, service or craft can test it at the Market to see how or if their ideas will gain traction with the public.”

Jones created the Market at Pepper Place in 2000. A member of the Federal Reserve Board, she’d often hear from fellow board member Larkin Martin, an Alabama farmer, about the demise of family farming.

“Larkin would always say if we didn’t do something, in a few years there would be no small family farms left in Alabama,” Jones recalls. “They were disappearing quickly … She’d ring the bell on that in our board meetings, so I started looking for an opportunity to start a market that would allow farmers to sell directly to consumers and increase their margins.”

Jones’ family business, Sloss Real Estate, owned property in and around Pepper Place, the former Dr Pepper building in Birmingham’s Lakeview district, and she decided that’s where she would establish Birmingham’s first tent market for farmers.

She enlisted the help of top Birmingham chefs, among them Franklin Biggs and James Beard Award-winner Frank Stitt, to help get the market started.

“As long-time market board members and regular patrons, Frank and Franklin have been great contributors to the market’s success,” Jones says. Others quickly joined in.

“Chefs in the city began to understand if they didn’t have a variety of high-quality, local, fresh produce to work with, they couldn’t be great chefs, and Birmingham chefs are all about excellence and building their craft”, Jones says.

“At first the farmers were skeptical that our market could help them, but they agreed to give it a try. And with the help of the culinary leaders in town, the community soon embraced it”

In the summer of 2000, the first Market at Pepper Place drew thousands to the Lakeview District, and it’s only grown from there. In its 17 years, the Market has expanded from seven farmers that first Saturday to over 100 today; what began as a limited season from Memorial Day to Labor Day has blossomed into an all-year market season. With a staff of three, led by Executive Director Leigh Sloss-Corra, it’s a major operation to produce this market successfully every week, rain or shine, but it works.

“Now, we’re year-round,” Jones says. “We’ve reached one of our major goals.”

That means more exposure for vendors, as well as an expanded product line.

“As the market has grown, a lot of the farmers have begun growing a wider variety of crops and making value-added products, like pies or jams and jellies, and some of those have evolved into little businesses too,” Jones says.

Add that to the produce they’re already selling, and the Market, which operates as a 501(c)3 non-profit, is achieving its initial objective to help struggling farmers. “Farmers can make an extra $30,000 to $35,000 a year coming to our market, and that’s enough to make all the difference in what they do,” Jones says.

Chef Frank Stitt uses Saturday mornings at Pepper Place to shop with his wife, Pardis, for their Birmingham restaurants – Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Café and Chez FonFon.

“I’ll see those farmers on Saturday, and we might buy some stuff for our house,” he says. “Then I’ll make arrangements and place larger orders for them to deliver to the restaurants later in the week.”

Like other chefs, Stitt is looking for produce and other items for his restaurants. Vendors like McEwen & Sons Grits and Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes have grown their businesses tremendously by getting their products into these restaurants.

“Look at Matthew Lawrence at Marble Creek Farmstead. He just built a processing plant for his chickens. It’s because of Pepper Place that someone like him is able to do the things he’s doing.”

It’s relationships like that – plus crowds that can reach 10,000 each week – that have helped brick-and-mortar operations come out of the tents at Pepper Place.

“Look at Helen and Frank McEwen,” Jones says. “Through the Market, they took their little boys and set them up in the chicken business. They would supply organic eggs to chefs like Frank Stitt and also bring them to the Market. When you’re dealing with farmers, you’re dealing with their entire family. It’s not uncommon to see parents and children working together.

“There are a million stories like that,” she says.

Jones says the Market at Pepper Place itself is growing and evolving too. She wants it to continue to be Birmingham’s “low-tech incubator” (as opposed to the high-tech incubator at UAB). And she sees a more permanent place in its future.

“Our dream and goal is to build a permanent home for the Market – to create a public pocket park with a pavilion that will house a winter market and be a focal point for the city,” she says. “We want to keep the Market at Pepper Place.”

After Midnight Salsa sees light of day at Market at Pepper Place

Jimmy Brogden knew he was on to something in 2012 when he made a batch of salsa for a potluck with co-workers.

“They enjoyed it so much, they asked me to make them a few pints to purchase,” he says.

A few pints became 20, then 30, then 60 pints. Finally, Margaret Gann, a good friend of Brogden’s, suggested he “go public” with it. And he did, at the Market at Pepper Place.

By his third week at the Market, Brogden was selling almost 75 pints of his After Midnight Salsa (“After Midnight” because he first made the salsa after a night of dancing and a little bit of drinking, he says).. “I realized Pepper Place Market was where I could build a business out of a hobby,” he says.

Brogden quit his corporate job, and over the past five years has only missed two Saturdays at Pepper Place. His award-winning gourmet, hand-crafted salsas and other specialty products can now be found in seven grocery stores, including Piggly Wiggly stores in the Birmingham area, Cowboy’s on U.S. 280 at Lee’s Branch and at his own Salsa Shoppe in Helena at the Coosa Mart.

“By fall we’ll be in as many as 13 retail locations, with a new Cowboy Caviar Salsa and a full line of diced vegetables,” he says. “We’re taking the work out of your meal preparation.”

The growth of his business is largely due to the Market at Pepper Place, Brogden says.

“The Market has allowed me to grow not only there, where we’re selling around 325-400 fresh, hand-poured pints every week, but it’s allowed us to launch our products into retail locations,” he says.

For more information about After Midnight Salsa, go to After Midnight Salsa Co. on Facebook.

Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes, from Pepper Place to country-wide

Sometimes necessity really is the mother of invention.

Several years ago, April and Lacy McClung decided to send their two sons overseas with a student ambassador program. One would go to Europe, the other to China, and the Pelham couple would be left with a $14,000 bill.

So April began baking to raise the money, using her husband’s grandmother’s pound cake recipe as a starting point.

By June 2014, thanks to donations, cake sales and farmers markets, the money was raised. But April didn’t stop baking. In July 2014, she contacted the Market at Pepper Place and, two weeks later, thanks to a cancellation, began selling Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes there. (Lacy’s grandmother, known affectionately as Big Mama, was Emily).

“We brought the most cakes we had ever taken to a farmers market, 18 round cakes and 100 slices,” April recalls. “We set up at 6:30am, and by 10:15, we didn’t have a crumb left.”

That day, Lisa Beasley, manager of the Market at Pepper Place, helped the McClungs find a commercial kitchen, and they never looked back.

Three years later, we’re producing more than 500 pound cakes a week,” April says. They’re shipped all over the country and are available in 28 Walgreens stores in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, as well as in Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, on Amazon.com, on food trucks and at three Western Supermarkets in the Birmingham area.

The Market at Pepper Place helped give the McClungs the capacity to go nationwide.

“We have customers all over the country now, specifically restaurants that now order our cakes to be shipped for consumption in their restaurants,” April says.

For more information about Emily’s Heirloom Pound Cakes, go to emilysheirloompoundcakes.com.

Big Spoon Creamery: Pepper Place a ‘launching pad’ for company

Ryan O’Hara and his wife, Geri-Martha, were both chefs working under Chef Frank Stitt in 2014 when they came up with a sweet idea.

Using local, seasonal and other high-quality ingredients, they started making ice cream from scratch. Big Spoon Creamery started selling their hand-made ice creams from an ice cream tricycle, then expanded to a truck and, finally, their own brick-and-mortar shop in Avondale.

“We started at the Market at Pepper Place in the spring of 2015. We knew it would really help springboard our ice cream business into other opportunities,” says Ryan O’Hara.

Two years later, in April 2017, the O’Haras – who had had this ice cream dream since working together at Bottega Restaurant, in Birmingham – opened their first brick-and-mortar Big Spoon Creamery in the MAKEbhm building in Avondale. They still sell at the Market at Pepper Place every Saturday, to reach new customers and to test out new flavors, but they are also very busy at their new store, which most of the summer has had lines of waiting customers out the door and into the parking lot.

Ryan calls Big Spoon’s Saturdays at Pepper Place “very significant” in the growth of the company.

“It’s been a launching pad to open other doors and opportunities that likely wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” he says. “The Market allows you to put your product in front of thousands of enthusiastic customers each week.”

Another thing it offers, O’Hara says, is its reputation.

“It brings legitimacy to a small, upstart business because people know that Pepper Place only accepts high-quality businesses and products,” he says.

For more information about Big Spoon Creamery, go to bigspooncreamery.com.

One Response to “The Farm to City Incubator”

  1. Mary Perko says:

    One thing that was not mentioned was all the farmers markets that this market has created in the suburbs and elsewhere. Such as Helena, Hoover, and even Alabaster.

Leave a Reply for Mary Perko