2 weeks ago

Alabama chef keeps rolling through pandemic with new food truck

On a Sunday in March 2019, chef Raquel Ervin gathered nearly 100 friends and family at Hoover Randle Home & Gardens knowing full well, at some point that evening, they would be disappointed.

They were there for a watch party – to see Ervin, her sister Regina and niece Alexandria compete on Food Network’s “Family Food Showdown” against two brothers and their dad.

Team Raquel did not win.

A brief moment of shocked dismay at the outcome ultimately did not spoil this party. In fact, the consensus in the room was that if those brothers hadn’t started crying – well, then, things would have turned out differently.

Ervin certainly didn’t cry.

Alabama chef driving new Eat at Panoptic food truck to a future past pandemic from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

This is a young woman who is more apt to raise up her church choir-trained voice in gratitude for her opportunities. This is a young woman who knows there’s always another challenge and, even if that challenge is a pandemic, she’s going to meet it head-on.

Ervin was just days away from signing a lease on a restaurant space when the state began to shut down businesses because of the coronavirus. She had two weddings scheduled that weekend, with another two prepped for the following week. She had a catering contract with the Southwestern Athletic Conference to feed players, coaches, officials and others during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Birmingham.

Then everything stopped.

“My plan was to do the brick and mortar first, which would allow me to have a steady clientele,” she said. “Then I was adding the truck the next year. So, I basically just flipped it and said, ‘Let’s do the truck now because this is what makes the most sense. This is where the demand is. People are at home, take it to them.’”

And with that Ervin rebranded her business and kept it moving forward. Literally.

For days before this executive chef and owner took her Eat at Panoptic truck on the road, she teased her fans with mouthwatering, close-up photos of her gourmet sliders. One day it was the PB&J burger with smoked bacon, creamy peanut butter and a housemade blackberry-habanero jam. Another day, she showcased the 2 a.m. burger topped with hash browns and a fried egg.

Then it was the Porky Pig with layers of smoked bacon, country ham and Conecuh sausage. Her crabcake sliders are pan-seared to order and topped with a house remoulade. There’s a barbecue chicken slider with a savory Alabama white sauce and another chicken option with homemade pesto aioli.

By the time she debuted her 12-hour beef brisket, artfully layered onto a Martin’s potato roll and topped with melted American cheese and a tangy-sweet horseradish and brown sugar glaze, people were making plans to attend the July 3 ribbon-cutting.

They gathered in an Avondale parking lot for her food and an impromptu block party. They held umbrellas against the hot sun as they stood in a long, socially distanced line. They watched the news crews. They did the Dougie and the Wobble to music from the DJ set up in a parking space. At noon, Ervin welcomed the crowd, suddenly singing a few lines from “Way Maker” because she felt moved. Then she cut the ribbon and got to work.

She and her team served 584 meals that day – there were nearly 140 orders in the first hour.

Ervin, 34, started Panoptic Catering in 2014. Today, her full-service catering company handles corporate conferences, weddings, baby showers and more. At her very first event, an anniversary party at a church, she set up all the food, proud of her shiny, new chafing dishes, and suddenly realized she had forgotten to hire servers. So, she quickly and quietly asked friends to help. They all happened to be wearing black, so it was almost like it was meant to be, she said. Those friends – all guests – who stepped up to work that party still work with her today. She currently employs 11 people.

Ervin’s food, “Southern soul with Cajun flair,” is influenced by the dishes her grandmother and mother cooked when she was growing up in Mobile.  “I had a lot of exposure at a young age to cooking,” she said. “My roots are Southern soul food.” Her catering menu features pulled chicken and pork barbecue, sautéed Cajun corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, and shrimp and grits. But she also offers Tuscan pesto pasta salad, homemade Swedish meatballs, wonton spinach dip cups, Buffalo smoked wings, grilled chicken with an Italian cream sauce, Philly steak and cheese sliders, and mini Nashville-style chicken and Belgian waffles.

She credits working in her sister’s restaurants with pointing her toward a career in food. Ervin was 12 when she started and did everything there, “including quit several times.”

“My sister let us do anything we said we could do. If we said we wanted to try it, she’d let us do it. I learned ‘back of the house,’ how to prepare big quantities of cornbread and chicken, whatever she had on the menu. One of her favorite items was meatloaf and, you know, that’s work. So, she would let us stand on a stool. I was back there standing on a stool figuring it out.

“Then she would send me up front. Tell me, ‘You’ve got to fix the plate, ring the customer up.’ We were taught money, how to handle a customer, things like that. She’d send me out there to bus a table. … We literally could open the store, as teenagers, me and my niece, without her. I had to be no more than 16, and she was letting me run it.”

Time spent in corporate kitchens taught Ervin more about management and profit and loss. “I pulled little bits by little bits from each experience,” she said, “and took it and made it my own.”

Ervin has an innate sense of practicality. She knew that soul food was not feasible on a food truck, so she looked for a niche that was missing in the Birmingham market and decided on specialty sliders. She based the variety on what proved popular with her regular catering clients the past six years. The 12-hour brisket and the crab cakes are the most popular sliders on her truck.

“One of the things that would set my food apart is everything’s scratch – homemade,” she said. “I make all of the sauces from scratch. Everything on the catering side, my recipes are all scratch. I don’t have anything processed.”

Ervin has made Birmingham her own, even as she’s expanding her brand nationally. (In addition to “Family Food Showdown,” she competed on the debut episode of Cooking Channel’s “Snack Attack,” where she had to improvise with Moon Pies.)

Her five-cheese baked mac and cheese took first place at the Magic City Mac + Cheese Festival in 2018. She won “Best Bite” at the 2019 Taste of Pelham. She was one of the “sheroes” celebrated during the city of Birmingham’s StrongHER campaign launched by Mayor Randall Woodfin in 2019 for Women’s History Month. She participated in the inaugural Le Diner en Blanc International-Birmingham and judged Birmingham’s first nationally recognized Culinary Fight Club-Street Food Showdown. She’s a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and is president of the Birmingham chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

Steering her business hasn’t always been easy, and she’s proud of overcoming obstacles. “Just being able to do that … having the tools and the skills and the willpower to just keep pushing,” she said. “It may be the competitive spirit, but I think it’s just drive. It’s my nature. My whole family’s wired like that. We’re a bunch of push-forward, maximum-drive individuals.”

She believes if you “stick to a plan, execute your plan and don’t give up along the way, no matter what comes in the middle of it, you’ll find the light if you just stay the path. A lot of times we give up because it’s not easy. If you really want to see things go a certain way, and you have that passion for it, you’ve got to stick to it.”

Even during a pandemic.

“In my life, I’ve noticed that everything that has happened to me or through me … I always see things come full circle. It never fails,” she said. “No matter how ugly stuff looks, it always comes back some kind of way. It may be a different way, but it’s the best way. … I live by that. This is clearly where I’m supposed to be.”

Eat at Panoptic




Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the Eat at Panoptic food truck will be parked at 2627 Crestwood Blvd. in Birmingham. Locations vary for dinners from 4-8 p.m. and Saturday lunches. Follow the truck on FacebookInstagram and Twitter for specific location information.

Access the food truck menu here:  https://eatatpanoptic.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/TRUCKPAN_Menu.pdf

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

41 mins ago

Black Alabama Sons of Confederate Veterans member opposes monument, flag removal

Daniel Sims, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has added a unique perspective to the debate over removing Confederate monuments and flags from public display.

Sims, who is black, interviewed with Huntsville-area WHNT about the subject this week.

Wearing both a hat and shirt depicting the Confederate flag, while also holding a full-size Confederate flag on a staff, Sims told WHNT, “Regardless [of] how the next person feels, I’m not going to take my flag down.”


“If I’ve got anything to do with it, ain’t no monument going to come down,” he added.

Sims was reportedly adopted as a child and now holds his adopted family’s heritage as his own.

“My whole family’s white,” Sims explained. “[I] went to an all-white school, grew up in an all-white neighborhood. My grandfather was white, and he was the main one who fought in this war here (the Civil War). And he’s taught me everything I know.”

WHNT reported that the interview took place in Albertville, which is located in Marshall County. According to the most recent data published by the Census Bureau, the county’s population is 79.8% white, 14.7% Hispanic or Latino and 3.2% black.

About the push to take down a confederate monument and flag specifically outside the Albertville courthouse, Sims added, “It may make my blood boil if they just come up here and feel like they could just tear it down. I don’t see me still living if they do that right there. That monument ain’t hurting nobody. That monument ain’t killing a soul. It ain’t talking bad to nobody. It ain’t even racist.”


The clip has gone viral, garnering about 400,000 views in 12 hours. The WHNT reporter who conducted the interview noted in a tweet that Sims has reminded some viewers of an old “Chapelle Show” character, Clayton Bigsby.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

Byrne thanks Trump admin for ‘continuing to put American workers first’ by holding off on adding component parts to Airbus tariffs

U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) praised the Trump administration’s decision this week to hold off on implementing new tariffs on component parts used in Airbus’ Mobile assembly plant.

Airbus, headquartered in Europe, has been in the middle of a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union since 2004.

The company has an assembly plant in Mobile that employs 1,100 employees, and business groups in the area have long sought to keep the imported component parts that are fashioned into aircraft at the plant from being added to the list of products subject to a tariff by the U.S. government.

“I thank the Trump Administration for this decision and continuing to put American workers first,” Byrne said in a statement on Thursday after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer decided against placing tariffs on the component parts.


The United States kept in place tariffs on $7.5 billion worth of goods from several European countries as part of the ongoing dispute. Many of the goods remaining under tariff are consumer products like food and beverage products.

The ongoing dispute was heightened in October 2019 after the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a ruling in the United States’ favor, saying that many European nations had never ended their improper subsidies for Airbus that have long been at the heart of the issue.

The Trump administration first decided not to impose tariffs on the imported components shortly after the October decision by the WTO, a choice met at the time by the City of Mobile with “a great sense of relief and gratitude.”

In further praise of the extension of that decision, Byrne said on Thursday, “I have no doubt we will see the fruits of this decision as Mobile continues on the path to being a worldwide center of aviation excellence.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

5 hours ago

7 Things: Alabama passes a grim coronavirus milestone, Biden and Harris make their debut, Doug Jones raising money off Harris and more …

7. No surprise: People are losing faith in elections

  • After years of the media and their Democrats declaring the current President of the United States a treasonous fraud and fake calls of voter suppression and attempts at creating vote-by-mail requirement because they cannot get over the fact that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, a majority of the American people now lack confidence in the presidential election process.
  • When voters were asked, “How confident are you that the November election will be conducted in a fair and equal way?” 56% responded that they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident.” The promises of delayed and contested results around the country should only make this worse.

6. Small business outlook not optimistic


  • The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) conducted a study that shows small businesses have seen a 14% month over month drop in expecting the economy to improve, but while there’s been a drop in optimism with small businesses, there are still jobs available.
  • According to the survey, 27% of businesses are still looking for skilled workers and have been unable to fill those positions, but in Alabama, there have been improvements with NFIB State of Alabama director Rosemary Elebash saying unemployment was down “to 7.5 percent in June, a big improvement from April’s high of 13.8 percent.” She added that in July, “tax revenues grew by 4.27 percent after two months of declines.”

5. America’s confidence in police officers has fallen

  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 48% of American’s have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, compared to last year at 53%. This poll was taken not long after George Floyd died in police custody.
  • This year, 19% of black respondents to the survey said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, but 56% of white people had the same confidence. This is the largest gap seen between these groups since Gallup has been conducting this annual poll.

4. Cases are appearing at universities and high schools

  • At Troy University, a student living in the dorms has tested positive for the coronavirus and there are three other students who are quarantined that live in the same suite. All three students already have plans to be tested and the university is encouraging all “students to take advantage of free COVID-19 testing available to all college students in Alabama through the GuideSafe program” and to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing.
  • A Georgia high school that did not require masks has gone to virtual learning after 14 coronavirus cases with 15 other tests have been done and now has over 1,100 students and staff in quarantine.

3. Doug Jones is fundraising off Kamala Harris

  • In a recent email sent out to all of U.S. Senator Doug Jones’ (D-AL) supporters, Jones again voices his support for his “friend” U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), advocating for the “unity” that former Vice President Joe Biden and Harris bring as running mates.
  • Jones continues on in the email to say that the current “election is going to come down to the contrast between unity and division” and that “we also have to energize traditionally underrepresented communities like Black and Latinx voters, and makes sure to add a fundraising link at the end of the message.”

2. Biden and Harris have made their debut with lies

  • Together in Delaware, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) took the stage together for the first time to debut as running mates on the 2020 Democratic ticket, with Biden saying there is “no doubt I picked the right person to join me as the next vice president of the United States of America.” He then lied about President Donald Trump’s record on Charlottesville, social security and national security.
  • Harris wasted no time to take shots at Trump, saying, “America is crying out for leadership, yet we have a president who cares more about himself than the people who elected him.” She also took time to compare the handling of the coronavirus to the way President Barack Obama handled the Ebola crisis, saying that Obama and Biden “did their job.”

1. Alabama surpasses 100,000 coronavirus cases

  • The spread of the coronavirus definitely appears to be slowing in the state of Alabama and around the country with two straight days of sub-1,000 cases in the state. The retransmission rate is below the number that shows exponential growth, and it will now take 51 days for the new case number to double.
  • While Alabama’s mask mandate may or may not be responsible for the slowing numbers, states like Illinois are so concerned about the lack of masks they are now actively fining businesses and have made assaulting a retail employee over masks a felony.

5 hours ago

College football already has a leader and he’s in Alabama

As two college football conferences muddled their way through season cancellations this week, loud cries rang out for a centralized leader of the sport.

The poor decision-making in those conferences could have been prevented by a single, national voice coordinating the process, they say. Without a doubt, the players, coaches and universities in the Big Ten and the Pac-12 have been failed by their leadership. There’s no need, though, to make this more complicated than it needs to be.

Contrary to what you may have heard the past week, college football does have a leader.

And he’s right here in Alabama.


Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, has navigated the most challenging year in college football history with a steadiness envied by other programs not fortunate enough to be part of the nation’s reigning conference.

Had other conference commissioners followed Sankey’s leadership model, they would not be in such a self-inflicted mess.

Sankey’s approach has been methodical. He and the conference’s member institutions have been steadfast in their reliance upon medical professionals in assessing player safety and establishing essential protocols. Some of the world’s most renowned physicians and researchers reside within the SEC’s footprint, and Sankey and his university leaders have counted on their input from the beginning of the pandemic.

In addition, Sankey has displayed a thoughtfulness throughout the process. There has not been a day when the SEC appeared not to have a plan.

Perhaps the least thoughtful people in all this have been the national sports media. Listening to them, one would believe blame for the current state of the season should fall on nearly everyone except the virus itself. A popular target is the NCAA. Sports media hysteria at one point reached such a fevered pitch that Dabo Swinney and Danny Kannell found themselves in the crosshairs. Columnist Pat Forde went on a wild rant blaming President Donald Trump for the cancellation of football games.

The unhinged nature of sports media comes from its view of the college sports world. No one really thinks sports media wants to kill the season and risk losing their jobs. But they are in conflict. They believe college football players are exploited and, in their view, chaos will topple the power structure for which they have so much disdain.

That notion demonstrates the complete lack of thought on the part of sports media, and it is where the conflict comes in. Sports media wants to punish the power structure of college football but in doing so the season may get blown up and players, coaches and college communities become collateral damage.

Not to be outdone by sports media, the appointed authorities of the Big Ten turned their process into a complete debacle, leaving behind scant evidence of any thought whatsoever.

Almost immediately after announcing its schedule, the Big Ten decided to cancel the season. Its leaders leaked the news out as a trial balloon.

When that did not go well, the Big Ten gave the go-ahead to reporters on a scary health report it had already leaked out. Astonished that other conferences not named the Pac-12 had failed to bend at the knee to its decision, the Big Ten backtracked until it ultimately announced it would pursue an unrealistic spring football season.

There are a few reasons why the Big Ten plan is so bad. Chief among them is that nothing changes except Saturdays. Teams are allowed to continue to practice and meet 20 hours per week, and players will continue normal campus activities with tens of thousands of other students. But simply playing on Saturdays was deemed too dangerous.

Then there are the unintended consequences. Noted quarterback guru and private coach Quincy Avery has already said he will help organize national 7-on-7 leagues for players unable to showcase their skills this fall. Do not expect those players to receive anything close to the carefully monitored care they would receive in-season as part of a college football program.

Unsurprisingly, national sports media has failed to scrutinize any of the holes in the Big Ten plan and its unintended consequences. Media member Stewart Mandel said that players in conferences still playing should demand some sort of an accounting of medical advice received by those conferences. Fox analyst and former college quarterback Joel Klatt smartly pointed out that it is the players being denied the opportunity to play that deserve an explanation.

Sankey’s methodical and thoughtful leadership was on full display Monday while chaos and misinformation erupted in other conferences.

In a timely social media post he wrote:

Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: “Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day.” [The SEC] has been deliberate at each step since March…slowed return to practice…delayed 1st game to respect start of fall semester… Deveoped [sic] testing protocols…We know concerns remain. We have never had a FB season in a COVID-19 environment. Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so…every day.

Numerous players and coaches in the Big Ten have complained about a lack of communication coming from conference leadership. The absence of similar complaints in the SEC is notable. Integral to Sankey’s leadership model has been a commitment to communication.

Under Sankey, the SEC has gathered information, set benchmarks, met benchmarks and explained its process along the way. “One step at a time,” he cautioned.

As the opening week of college football season nears, no one really knows whether the season will get started, much less completed. But Sankey has put his conference in the best position possible to handle these extraordinary circumstances.

In the aftermath of whatever happens, the lesson is not to create a king of college football. The lesson is for conference commissioners to do their homework, stick to their plan and keep the lines of communication open in all that they do.

College football does not need a czar. It needs its leaders to simply be like Sankey.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

18 hours ago

South Alabama steelmaker announces $500M expansion, creating 300 more jobs

Alabama’s AM/NS Calvert on Wednesday announced a $500 million expansion project that will create 300 jobs in the Yellowhammer State.

A 50/50 joint venture between ArcelorMittal and Nippon Steel Corp., the cutting-edge steel processing plant is located in Calvert, which is about 35 miles north of Mobile.

A release announced that an electric arc furnace (EAF) steel making facility will be added to the plant as part of the new expansion.

Once completed, the facility will reportedly be capable of producing 1.5 million metric tons of steel slabs for the on-site Hot Strip Mill and a broad spectrum of steel grades required for Calvert’s end user markets. The slabs are currently shipped from Brazil.


The facility serves the automotive, construction, pipe and tube, service center, and appliance/ HVAC industries.

ArcelorMittal executives stated that the AM/NS Calvert expansion plans make “strategic sense,” specifically mentioning the historic United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which recently went into effect. This historic trade deal calls for the auto industry to use more steel produced in North America, which plays into this Alabama expansion.

“An electric arc furnace at Calvert makes strategic sense as it allows our asset to be more reactive to the local market as well as being in line with the USMCA. Furthermore, it aligns with our ambition of producing smarter steels for a better world,” said Lakshmi Mittal, chairman and CEO of ArcelorMittal.

The Alabama Department of Commerce advised that construction on the facility is expected to take two years. The completed facility is slated to create 200 direct jobs plus 100 indirect jobs in the local community. Additionally, the project is expected to support 500 construction jobs.

In addition to meeting emerging auto industry demands, ArcelorMittal advised that the expansion is aimed at the future of the energy market, as well.

Brad Davey, CEO of ArcelorMittal North America, said in a statement,“The addition of an EAF at AM/NS Calvert presents a transformational opportunity for what is already widely considered to be the world’s most advanced steel finishing facility.”

“This is a logical next step in optimizing AM/NS Calvert’s supply chain,” he outlined. “Enhancing our already highly competitive lead times with short lead-time flexibility, combined with our existing world class facilities will give AM/NS Calvert a decisive competitive advantage. In addition, the USMCA trade agreement is a ‘game changer’ … and as a result, future steel supply chains for the automotive markets will be required to use steel that was created within North America. A new EAF at AM/NS Calvert will further secure ArcelorMittal’s leadership in the North American Automotive market.”

AM/NS Calvert was originally built by Thyssenkrupp, with a total investment cost of about $4 billion. After acquiring the plant in 2014, the current joint venture ownership team invested more than $200 million in strategic projects at Calvert before Wednesday’s announcement. Approximately 1,600 employees already work at AM/NS Calvert.

“Alabama has a long heritage in steelmaking, and the decision by AM/NS Calvert to invest more than $500 million at its Mobile County mill represents another important development in the history of the industry in the state,” Governor Kay Ivey stated.

“The growth will help the company serve customers in industries such as automotive with great ‘Made in Alabama’ steel,” she added.

The expansion comes after the Public Service Commission in recent months green-lighted Alabama Power adding significant capacity to the company’s grid in a reliable and dispatchable manner. AM/NS Calvert, a member of Manufacture Alabama, is one of many large industrial customers that utilize Alabama Power’s grid.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News when the PSC made their recent decision, Manufacture Alabama president George Clark said it would be a win for the state’s growing manufacturing industry. Wednesday’s announcement would seem to vindicate Clark’s prediction.

“We have been pleased to work alongside ArcelorMittal since 2013 and will continue to work to provide clean, safe and reliable energy solutions to power their Mobile County expansion,” commented Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite.

Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield emphasized that the expansion will deliver “a massive economic impact on Alabama.”

“This investment strengthens an already great partnership and demonstrates to the world that the Mobile area is open for business,” added Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn