With new restaurants opening every month and a massive Time Inc. test kitchen on the way, Birmingham’s dynamic food scene is gaining national exposure and positioning the Alabama city as a premier culinary destination.
In the latest development, New York-based Time Inc. plans to make a multimillion-dollar investment to set up what’s being called its Food Studios, envisioned as a production center for food-related content for its stable of national magazines and websites.
Earlier this year, Zagat named Birmingham the no. 1 city in its list of “America’s Next Hot Food Cities,” but Birmingham’s culinary renaissance did not pop up overnight. It’s been years in the making thanks to passionate chefs and an enthusiastic consumer base.
“Business is coming here and believing in this community,” said Chef Brandon Cain, co-owner of Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Post Office Pies, a neighboring pizza restaurant that was featured in Zagat’s announcement.
Cain opened Saw’s Soul Kitchen in 2012 in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood when the area was starting a comeback. He witnessed the incredible growth first-hand as Avondale experienced an explosion of restaurants and businesses opening on its main street and surrounding areas.
“Word of mouth took off for us. There’s businessmen, politicians, cement truck workers, students, all crammed in this little spot eating our food. Better yet, they’re waiting in line. It was mind blowing,” Cain said. “And then to see how it trickled into everyone else coming. It just makes you think, Birmingham is here and it’s time for us to make a little noise.”
Time Inc. investment
But it’s not just restaurants adding to the city’s foodie reputation. In July, Time Inc., one of the world’s leading media companies, announced the major new investment in its Birmingham operation. With the creation of the Time Inc. Food Studios, all of the company’s editorial food content will be produced in Birmingham. This includes all recipe development, food photography and video.
Though Time Inc.’s Birmingham office already produces a large quantity of food content for the brands headquartered there, like Southern Living and Cooking Light, production will now increase to include all food content from Time Inc.’s 29 domestic brands, including People, Real Simple and Health.
“We are significantly ramping up the amount of recipe development, recipe testing, photography and video content done in Birmingham. This is really going to be a central resource for the company,” said Sid Evans, editor-in-chief of Southern Living and group editor for Cooking Light and Coastal Living.
Totaling 40,000 square feet, the food studios will include 12 natural light photo studios, seven test kitchens with 28 cooking stations, a showcase kitchen, private dining room and a state-of-the-art video studio. Time Inc. aims to have the food studios open by January 2016.
Along with content for its brands, Time Inc. wants the food studios to entice new business development with the production of food content for outside business partners. And with a private dining room and showcase kitchen, the studios are well suited for brand-based events.
“We have an amazing gathering place where we can host lots of different things, like cooking classes or chef demos,” Evans said. “We want it to be a destination, not just for Birmingham-based brands but for the brands throughout the company.”
New jobs for Birmingham’s culinary talent
Time Inc. will be hiring 45 new positions at the new studios, including positions for food photographers, test kitchen professionals, photo stylists and portfolio managers. Evans said as the food studios grow, so will job-creation potential.
“Not only does Birmingham provide us the luxury of an incredible space, but it also provides incredible talent,” Evans said.
Birmingham has benefited from this talent with many Time Inc. alumni like Jane Moon, owner of Dreamcakes Bakery, and Mike Wilson, owner of Saw’s BBQ in Homewood and Cain’s partner in the Avondale Saw’s location, using their time at Time Inc.’s test kitchen as a launching pad for their own local success.
With highly anticipated new restaurants expected to open this fall, like Ovenbird, Chris Hastings’ second restaurant, the city is proving that its growth is just beginning. Hastings, owner of the Hot & Hot Fish Club, is one of Birmingham’s most celebrated chefs, along with Frank Stitt, whose Highlands Bar and Grill is considered one of the nation’s best restaurants.
“Though I’ve been blown away with what’s been happening over the past three years, I’m even more excited about what the next three years are going to bring,” Cain said. “It’s not done. It’s just starting.”
Cain is currently in development of his next restaurant, Roots and Revelry, which will open next year in the renovated Thomas Jefferson building downtown. The Second Avenue North structure, also known as the Cabana Hotel, is being rejuvenated as an apartment tower in a $22 million project.
“The idea of being a part of the further renovation of our great city is a no brainer for me,” Cain said. “I’m really excited to be able to bookend the other side of Second Avenue. Starting with Carrigan’s and coming all the way down, it’s pretty awesome. Being so close to Regions Field, Good People and Innovation Depot, to me, it’s like ‘Why not?’ rather then ‘Why would I?’”