The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather


    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower


    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships


    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 week ago

Wetumpka readying for impact HGTV’s ‘Home Town Takeover’ will bring

(Brittany Dunn/Alabama NewsCenter)

When Freddie Lynn and Webb Smith met at church, they quickly became friends, thanks in part to complementary careers; Lynn is an architect with Goodwyn Mills Cawood and Smith owns a contracting firm.

They started looking for a way to collaborate and recently partnered to form Bridge & Hill Holdings and launch the company’s first project: transforming a 1950s-era corner building in downtown Wetumpka into seven short-term rental units (like Airbnb properties) with a restaurant and retail space on the ground floor. The duo knew from the beginning they wanted to play a part in the continuing revitalization of Wetumpka’s city center.

And then HGTV came to town.


The network arrived late summer 2020 to film six episodes of a new series called “Home Town Takeover,” which features renovation experts and small-town enthusiasts Ben and Erin Napier giving Wetumpka’s downtown area a face-lift. HGTV announced this week that the show will premiere May 2. Thanks to the city’s starring role in the show, city leaders anticipate a meteoric rise in lodging demand in the near future.

“There should be a big uptick in visitors when the show airs,” says Jenny Stubbs, executive director of Main Street Wetumpka.

“We’ve already seen a rise in tourists, and we’re expecting a flood,” Mayor Jerry Willis adds.

Smith and Lynn believe Stubbs and Willis are both right; it’s why they tweaked their original plans. “We’d been thinking of loft apartments for the space, but the city and Chamber gave us the idea of doing lodging instead,” Lynn says. “There’s a need for more accommodation options now, but we all believe it is only going to increase due to the show.”

That’s good for their project, but their project is also good for the city if it keeps more people staying downtown, people who’ll walk to nearby restaurants and shops and add lodging taxes to the city’s bottom line.

These thoughts of an expanding tourism industry are not wishful thinking; to get a more concrete idea of what’s coming, Stubbs recently visited with her counterparts at Main Street in Laurel, Mississippi, site of “Home Town,” the highly rated HGTV show that has spun off “Home Town Takeover.” “They seem to believe we can expect an overwhelming amount of foot traffic when the show premieres,” she says.

To be ready, Wetumpka leaders have been preparing for months, creating new signs, visitor guides, maps and digital enhancements to ensure visitors can easily make their way around downtown. They’re serious about welcoming the possible torrent of first-time guests, but they’re not taking themselves too seriously, as Stubbs explains.

“We have this really fun project called ‘The Tourist Trap’ that we’re hosting in the small shop Main Street Alabama gifted us in late 2019,” she says. “We plan to use it as an information hub and gateway to the downtown experience.”

Wetumpka is getting ready for its HGTV closeup from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Tidal wave

The tidal wave of travelers that’s likely on its way will be a boon for area businesses. Some downtown establishments have already experienced increased traffic, according to Lynn Weldon, Wetumpka’s economic development director, as people, particularly those from out of town, came hoping to get a glimpse of the Napiers and the HGTV crews when the show was filming from August 2020 through January 2021.

“This has translated to increased sales and revenue,” Weldon says. “And this activity really gave our businesses a boost, even in the midst of the pandemic.”

Pam Martin owns Market Shoppes downtown, a store housing more than 30 vendors featuring local art, gifts, women’s fashion and home décor. She backed up Weldon, noting she saw more interest and more customers last fall.

“There have been more people and more tourists downtown lately,” she says. “And I think what’s still to come is going to be huge for businesses like mine.”

Martin’s success and that of other downtown businesses has driven up demand, making space in downtown a rare commodity. “Right now, it’s really hard to find an empty building downtown,” Weldon says. “Our vacancy rate is currently only around 10-15 percent.”

While “Home Town Takeover’s” positive effects are evident, according to Stubbs, they aren’t and won’t be limited to downtown. “We’re working closely with other entities and experiences in town and have included everything there is to know about Wetumpka in our visitor guide and other promotion elements, listing all of our locally owned and operated retail and dining businesses in the guide.”

Once the initial wave has crested, smaller swells will keep rolling in and spreading out, according to Stubbs. “Tourism can make such a big difference in a small town like Wetumpka,” she says. “We expect to see its benefits most directly for our small businesses, but for our supportive larger businesses as well, like Hampton Inn or Wind Creek Wetumpka. One thing affects another, and if our businesses are experiencing success, that helps the owners, employees, their families and so on.”

Shellie Whitfield, president of the Wetumpka Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Stubbs on the powerful effects of tourism. “Tourism increases quality of life across the board and brings in revenue without totally changing a city’s character, and knowing that, we were focused on tourism dollars even before the show,” she says. “But now, the show will serve as a real catalyst for continued efforts.”

An influx of visitors is exciting, but “Home Town Takeover” was not the beginning of good things in downtown Wetumpka. In 2017, Main Street Wetumpka, in coordination with the city and the Chamber, started work on a multiphase plan to reinvigorate downtown.

‘Total transformation’

Grumpy Dog has been serving its traditional and eclectic takes on the classic hot dog for six years, and owner Will Lanum described the impact of not just the show but these initial phases of revitalization.

“I’ve watched a total transformation from when I opened,” he says. “We were already drawing tons of new people downtown, and that just keeps going up. I expect a big bump from the show, and that makes me happy not just for more business, but because I love getting to share my food with more people.”

When the credits roll on ‘Home Town Takeover’s’ last episode, the work in Wetumpka will continue. Willis listed additional streetscape work, like sidewalks, lighting and a roundabout, as pieces of the next phase of downtown redevelopment, plus a new parking plan to make the best use of limited space.

“We’re also going to get public input on how to utilize 40 acres right across the river from downtown,” he says. “What we’ve done, what we’re doing, what the show brought and what we’ll tackle next, it all goes hand in hand.”

Weldon cited the trust that’s been built between business owners and municipal government, stressing the willingness to get creative to help businesses with funding and incentives. “We do our best to not say ‘no,’” she says.

“Our merchants know that we care,” Willis continued. “They know the city, the Chamber, Main Street will all help them be the best they can be. We know if we invest in them, they invest in us.”

Past progress has spurred additional private development, like that of Smith and Lynn, who say their first project will not be the last. “We’re already looking forward to doing more,” Smith says. “The city has been so supportive; they wanted locals doing this. And the community has been very enthusiastic.”

Smith’s sentiments are more evidence of Wetumpka’s ample supply of the characteristic Willis deems essential to the city’s previous, present and future success.

“We have built this team of the city, the Chamber, Main Street Wetumpka and the Downtown Development Authority,” he says. “We made a plan and worked the plan.” He has been asked the same question from multiple leaders in other cities throughout Alabama: “How did you do this?” His reply: “It’s not me. It’s not any one person. It’s the teamwork.”

The impacts of the teamwork Willis touts may be most obvious in the economy, but while money certainly matters, the benefits of the show aren’t all so quantifiable. “I believe the show has helped to instill a pride and hope that was not necessarily felt quite as keenly before the announcement,” Stubbs says. “It’s helped us all to take a step back and realize what an incredible place we live in.”

Martin has experienced what Stubbs describes firsthand. “My 34-year-old daughter is my business partner, and this is the only home she’s ever had,” she says.

“Everything that’s been happening, and just top it off with the show, means so much to her. I think it’s the same for other younger people, and I hope it keeps more of them here,” Martin says. “We’re all seeing and feeling this amazing unity, and that’s the best part.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 month ago

HGTV’s ‘Home Town Takeover’ crew enjoyed their stay in Wetumpka, Alabama

(Carissa Sison/Contributed)

It was almost quitting time on a Friday, and Josie Russell Young was looking forward to her weekend when the phone at Russell Construction of Alabama’s Montgomery office rang. She saw it was a California phone number and almost didn’t answer.

“It was 4:45, and I really thought it was spam,” she said, “but I picked up anyway. What a surprise.”

A representative from RTR Media, a production company working with HGTV, was on the other end of the line asking questions about the construction company’s possible involvement in the new show “Home Town Takeover,” which would be filming in nearby Wetumpka. As a spinoff of the network’s popular home renovation show “Home Town,” which features Ben and Erin Napier renovating structures in Laurel, Mississippi, “Takeover” is also focused on renovations, but this time, the Napiers are revamping a city.


When it airs later this spring, “Home Town Takeover” will showcase 12 renovation and upgrade projects in and around Wetumpka’s downtown and historic district. Russell Construction’s team of contractors and subcontractors worked with the Napiers to give makeovers to six commercial structures, six homes and several public spaces. It was a big job, but Young said the company her father, Steve Russell, founded in 1983 was up to the task.

“We’ve been doing residential and commercial work since it started,” she said. While she grew up around the business, she’s been working as marketing director with her dad at Russell Construction the past four years.

Getting the HGTV call was a marketer’s dream, but she tried not to get carried away. “I didn’t let myself get too excited,” Young said, “but it hit me the night before demolition Day One. The next morning, we were getting going, and I thought, ‘This is real.’”

Things got surreal when cameras began showing up. “To know our hard work was really going to be on TV for everyone to see was so awesome and so special. I believe it will boost our business, but it’s not just good for us. It’s such a win for everyone in Wetumpka,” she said.

The experience was special for the film crew, too. Producers, directors, camera operators, audio and lighting specialists and others spent six months in Wetumpka, not just working but living there from August 2020 through January. Months on-site is nothing new for them, but like Young’s shock at that initial phone call, many were surprised by what they found when they arrived in Wetumpka.

“You never know what to expect, but right when I got to town, it was so pretty,” said Carissa Sison, line producer for the show. “Our offices had the Coosa River right behind them, and it was such a tranquil setting. But the best thing was the people. They were so happy to meet us. I’ve never experienced that kind of friendliness in my life and definitely not in my career.”

She recalls the hospitality as a “breath of fresh air,” particularly compared to her hometown of Los Angeles. “I really love LA, but you just don’t get that level of friendly there,” she said.

Liz Kerrigan, the show’s executive producer, agrees, saying the residents’ convivial community spirit added an extra layer of charm to a city that had already impressed her.

“Looking at photos, I knew the town was adorable,” she said. “But a city can look one way and then feel different. Not here. The good vibes just make Wetumpka even cuter.”

Kerrigan was taken aback by leaders’ open arms and residents’ desire to pitch in. “I just didn’t expect people to be so grateful and so willing to help,” she said. “It was actually an emotional experience. Everyone was thrilled to work with us.”

That energy buoyed both the Russell Construction and filming teams, but there was still a lot of work to be done, and COVID-19 restrictions didn’t make things any easier. Despite the hurdles, Young is ready for the world to see what her company accomplished.

“The level and quality of craftsmanship required for this was so high. We had to be at our best, and the really tight timeline was a challenge,” she said. “There were many late, late nights and early mornings, but I’m very proud of what we did.”

Doing it all on camera brought an additional dynamic to an already tough project and, at first, Young wasn’t sure how it would go. She said not knowing in the beginning was a blessing.

“None of us understood how the TV part was going to affect things, which is probably best because it kept us from getting too nervous,” she said. The Russell team stood still to get microphones attached, take direction and remain patient throughout the process. “They all rose to that part of the challenge with grace,” Young said, “and I’m so appreciative of that.”

So are the producers, and Kerrigan believes things went as smoothly as they did thanks to the bonds they built together, ties with their foundation in that first warm welcome. “We could not have done the work we did without the connections made and without the level of welcome we continually felt,” she said.

Sison stressed that the city’s reaction inspired her and the rest of the show’s team to get more invested than normal. “Their outpouring of love motivated us to really want to help this town,” she said. “We’re always passionate about our work, but this was different. I don’t think I speak for just myself when I say we felt like we were a part of Wetumpka.”

As shooting moved ahead, those feelings grew deeper and got more meaningful. “We ended up with real friendships,” Kerrigan said. “On our last day shooting, our director of photography looked over at me and had tears in his eyes. I had tears in mine. We don’t normally cry on the last day.”

Kerrigan and Sison hope the emotion evoked in the show’s creation comes through TV screens, and that viewers get a sense of the Wetumpka they came to know and that interest in the city keeps rising. “I loved seeing the uptick of visitors with my own eyes, seeing others discover this kinda sleepy little town,” Sison said, “and it’s going to be great when the show airs. I hope even more people fall in love with Wetumpka.”

This aspiration has dual motivations. It’s rooted in the relationships formed – both producers wish their new friends success. But it’s also part of the show’s wider vision, Kerrigan said.

“The entire intention behind this series was to create forward momentum for change, to be a catalyst for an even bigger transition,” she said. “The desire was that the city would take this ball and run with it. What’s so awesome, is after being there, we know that Wetumpka will do just that. They will build on this and take it 1 million steps farther. Seeing what we imagined fulfilled is really rewarding.”

And if watching Wetumpka’s journey on “Home Town Takeover” spurs other small towns to pursue their own progress, that’s the ultimate prize. “We’re showing how positive change in small towns everywhere is possible,” Kerrigan said. “We hope this causes a national movement for small towns across America to come together and do the same thing, even if it’s on a smaller scale.”

Young echoed Kerrigan on the message “Home Town Takeover” wants to spread, noting her belief that the show presents a model that other small towns can replicate.

But this spring, eyes will be focused on one specific small town, and while Wetumpka leaders and residents have made their enthusiasm obvious, the show’s team seems every bit as excited as the city.

“We just feel so lucky to be able to shine a light on the people and the places of Wetumpka,” Kerrigan said. “We want a huge spotlight on them.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama town is ready for its HGTV ‘Home Town Takeover’ spotlight

(Jennifer Kornegay/Alabama NewsCenter)

The notion of hometown pride may seem a quaint, old-fashioned sentiment in our modern – and increasingly cynical – era. But it’s real, and it can be powerful. For proof, look to Wetumpka, sitting on the soft bluffs rising above the Coosa River about 25 miles north of Montgomery.

The strength of the hometown pride bursting at this small city’s borders will soon be playing out on national television, as popular renovation experts Ben and Erin Napier shine a spotlight on Wetumpka, chronicling a makeover focused on its downtown and historic district in “Home Town Takeover,” a spinoff of their hit HGTV show “Home Town,” scheduled to air late spring or early summer 2021.

The six-episode series is a huge undertaking for the couple and HGTV, but an even bigger win for the small city (population 8,300), which stood out from a very crowded field. In early 2019, the Napiers put out a call on social media, asking cities with fewer than 40,000 residents to tell them why they should be the spot transformed in “Takeover’s” first season. In response, more than 500,000 submission videos representing 2,600 other small towns across the United States were sent in.


Wetumpka: Alabama town experiencing HGTV “Home Town Takeover” from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Shellie Whitfield, executive director of the Wetumpka Area Chamber of Commerce, and Jenny Stubbs, executive director of Main Street Wetumpka (a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the city’s historic business district), both had the same thought when they heard that “Home Town” was going on the road. “We knew we needed to apply, so we did,” the two say, almost in unison. They then recruited Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis, Lynn Weldon, the city’s economic development director, and City Clerk Tiffany Robinson for the “team Wetumpka” roster, and the group created a 2-minute video to make the city’s case.

On July 2, 2020, it was announced that Wetumpka had been selected, and work on and filming of the multiple renovation and restoration projects (six residential, six commercial, plus several public spaces) began in early September. The news was thrilling, but for many, it was also a long-overdue validation.

“I grew up here, but I lived a lot of places before coming back, and I’ve always felt my city was a hidden gem. Now, others agree we’re worth the effort,” Stubbs says, adding she’s not alone in these feelings. “The people here are loyal to their home and so proud of it. The entire community has been supportive of the progress downtown, but we needed some direction and some help to keep going.”

The most recent efforts to reinvigorate downtown, spearheaded by Main Street Wetumpka in coordination with the city and the chamber, began in 2017 after decades of reaching for the sky but never getting off the ground. “There have been several previous downtown revitalization plans that just stuttered and stopped,” Whitfield says. To get past those stalls, Stubbs felt they needed to make something tangible happen and happen quickly.

While the first project of the new plan sure didn’t sound speedy, it showed residents that things were finally moving forward. “We started with the Tulotoma Snail Trail,” Stubbs says. Named for a river snail (tulotoma magnifica) indigenous to the Coosa River flowing alongside downtown, the project uses murals and sculptures to communicate aspects of the community’s history. Whitfield, who had just moved to Wetumpka from Denver, was commissioned to paint one of the murals. “I wasn’t yet in my chamber position,” she says, “but I’d been so embraced here, and I wanted to be involved. I am a former art teacher, so pitching in to paint was natural.”

Whitfield remembers the moment she knew the trail plan was having the desired effect. She was perched on scaffolding, working on the exterior wall of an old hotel where people driving across the Bibb Graves Bridge straddling the Coosa could easily see her. “Every car was honking. It sounded celebratory, and I felt it right then,” Whitfield says. “The pent-up excitement; people were so ready for this, but they needed to see something, even if it was just paint on a wall.”

The public art lit the fuse, but in early 2019, a tornado threatened to snuff it out; the storm damaged multiple structures and businesses, destroying a handful and partially reversing the progress. Despite this tough, but temporary, setback, the residents rallied and the spark remained. Today, the positive buzz surrounding the city’s future is reaching the explosive stage of liftoff. “Watching what Erin and Ben have done in Laurel (the Mississippi town where “Home Town” is set) makes this so exciting,” Willis says. “It’s really a tremendous honor when you realize how many other cities wanted this, too.”

The excitement is most evident in the faces and voices of Wetumpka’s residents, folks like Joan McDonald, who’s ebullient recalling her reaction. “When I heard, I thought it was truly the most incredible news ever, absolutely amazing,” she says. “I’ve watched the city just get better and better over the last few years, and this jolt of energy and resources will take us even further.” And others like Janice Whorton, who works at the chamber and tears up when she talks about the transformation she’s watching outside her office window. “I was born and raised here and retired as the city clerk before I came to the chamber,” she says. “I have loved seeing downtown come back to life, to what it was when I was younger. We had it going good ourselves, but ‘Home Town’ helping us is just the icing on the cake. And it’s so fun!”

Fun is the right word to describe Stubbs and Whitfield when they’re sharing this chapter of Wetumpka’s story. Stubbs, the determined and knowledgeable native, and Whitfield the spunky, sunny newcomer, give off a palpable enthusiasm any time the topic comes up. Other members of the team are equally passionate about the possibilities.

“The ultimate goal of municipal governing is to increase the quality of life in your city, and this is a way to do just that; it puts us on the map and will bring us so many opportunities,” Willis says. “And the camaraderie between all of us and the entire community has been amazing.”

Robinson agrees. “We’ve suffered through some division before, so it’s so great how we’re all so unified, working toward the same goal,” she says. Whitfield echoes them both. “We have such a great, like-minded group,” she says. “Everyone is acting in the interest of Wetumpka, not ego. No one cares about getting credit for this or that.”

This committed collaboration among elected officials, business owners and everyday people has been key and is why the city’s new motto focusing on the first two letters of Wetumpka’s name, rings true.

“Our motto is, ‘We can together!’ with the emphasis on ‘we.’ It’s something we’ve been really intentional about because it hasn’t always been that way here,” Stubbs says.

This new mindset among city leadership is reflective of a spirit residents have long radiated to visitors and newcomers. “I think Wetumpka stands out, even among the hospitality of the South, for its inclusivity,” Whitfield says. “I should know, just showing up here from across the country and being so welcomed.”

Stubbs picked up on Whitfield’s thought. “The way our community is so connected, our willingness to work together, and what we’d already shown we could accomplish together, I think that’s what Ben and Erin saw,” she says. “We told them in the submission video that we’d gotten started ourselves but that we now needed the boost from their help.”

A boost is exactly what Wetumpka is getting. But when the designing, sawing, hammering, painting, filming and editing is all done, and the show airs in 2021, “boom” may be a more accurate characterization of the impact, one that could likely rival the mark made by the massive meteor that struck the earth in Wetumpka eons ago and left a still-visible crater. Stubbs says the city has always had a unique energy, and it’s just another reason why her hometown was – and deserves to have been – picked by the Napiers.

“It’s just special here,” she says, “and I’ve always said it’s the stardust still in the air.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

The Hummingbird Way apt name for Mobile restaurant of former chef to Alabama governors

(Jennifer Kornegay/Alabama NewsCenter)

When the former state of Alabama executive chef Jim Smith was thinking up a name for his new Mobile restaurant that opened in January 2020, he wanted something whimsical but also relevant, so he drew on his fascination with the world’s tiniest bird.

“I’ve always thought hummingbirds were kind of like chefs,” he says. “Flying around so fast, but with intention, looking for the sweetest nectar.”

Thus, he dubbed his eatery The Hummingbird Way. It made good sense when he chose it, but today, it’s perhaps more apt than he could have imagined a year ago. Hummingbirds are small but mighty, and they’re amazingly adaptable and resilient. To survive a pandemic within months of opening, The Hummingbird Way has channeled its namesake’s spirit.

Described by Smith as Southern-inspired and upscale, yet approachable, the restaurant is taking advantage of its coastal locale, making delicious use of fresh Gulf seafood and also putting an emphasis on oysters with a raw bar. According to Smith, the concept was enjoying initial success. “The restaurant business is hard to sustain; our margins on food are so small,” he says. “But in January and February, we did what we wanted to do; the numbers worked.”

Then COVID-19 hit.


“We’ve now seen a 70 percent drop in revenue from the first two months,” he says. Last spring, when the doors were closed for in-person dining, Smith and his wife pulled long days, doing as much takeout and delivery business as they could to stay afloat. When the state allowed restaurants to re-open with COVID-19 restrictions in place, Smith and his team were ready and diligent.

The Hummingbird Way restaurant generating buzz in Mobile from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“We put a premium on safety and on ensuring guests saw and felt that,” he says. They did, judging by how often the restaurant has been filled to the 50-percent capacity allowed. “Even full, we obviously have fewer guests than pre-pandemic, but those who are here say they’re so happy to be out and to know they’re having a safe experience, so I think we’ve won some loyalty with that,” he says.

The Hummingbird Way’s inviting atmosphere, stemming in part from its environs, has earned admirers, too. It’s housed in two connected buildings on the corner of a quiet residential area. One had originally been a small neighborhood grocery store in the 1940s, but most recently had been another restaurant; the other building is an 1870s-era home.

Walking around the sleek, sophisticated dining room in the main space, Smith points to prints, paintings and other depictions of hummingbirds on the walls and discusses the trying times his fledgling business has survived. He does it with a solid grin and a bit of grit underpinning his mellow voice, making it clear he’s proud of the way he and his team have faced the challenges.

“I am pleased with how we’ve weathered this storm,” he says. Even if more turbulence is ahead, he believes it won’t be insurmountable either. “I’m optimistic, and I actually think we are faring pretty well compared to many other restaurants,” he says.

His devotion to his profession is equally evident, despite “chef” being a later-in-life career choice.

“I didn’t learn to cook tugging on grandma’s apron,” he says. “I was the kid out fishing and then bringing my catch in to grandma to cook.”

In middle and high school in Troy, he excelled in debate and ended up at Samford University in Birmingham on a debate scholarship, where he remained passionate about the activity. While at Samford, he needed a job, and noticed a restaurant hiring busboys. He was soon working at Bottega, one of the eateries owned by renowned and pioneering chef Frank Stitt, and his affections quickly shifted.

“I just fell in love with food and wine and the whole culture of it all,” he says. “What I wanted for my future completely changed.” He kept working and learning in Birmingham restaurants in multiple positions (bartender, server), and then made the switch official, enrolling in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University.

Following graduation, Smith was back in Birmingham as chef de cuisine at Dyron’s Lowcountry, where turning some regulars into avid fans led to his state executive chef title.

“Robert Bentley and his wife came in a lot right before the gubernatorial election that he won, and we struck up a friendship,” he says. “Mrs. Bentley was asking my advice on handling food for state functions and such.” In the past, Alabama’s executive branch simply catered events and other occasions, but First Lady Bentley decided to create a state chef position. She encouraged Smith to apply, and he got the job, keeping it a little over eight years.

Smith says he has no complaints about the time spent as state chef, which included serving Gov. Kay Ivey, too. He knows it was a contributing factor in him being chosen to compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef” television show for two seasons, where his updated-classics cooking style and likable personality made him popular with viewers. But near the end of his tenure, he felt something missing.

“It was rewarding, and I was making great food, but I felt like not that many people were getting to experience it,” he says. “I wanted to share my food with a wider audience.”

That meant a restaurant of his own, and when he wondered where, Mobile seemed a natural fit, thanks to his four years as chair of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. “I had this great base of seafood knowledge, so I knew that would be a focus,” he says. “And I got to know and really like Mobile; it’s a cool town with great people and a good vibe.” He also felt Mobile needed The Hummingbird Way. “I believe it can be one of the great food cities of the South, but it needs more restaurants,” he says.

It needed Smith’s biscuits, too, evidenced by their secure and constant spot on a menu that changes often in response to seasons and product availability. Airy and soft, they’re embellished with condiments both familiar and unexpected: whipped butter, dark cane syrup and smoked sea salt. But the biscuits are the stars; Smith is zealous in his quest to bake the “best” possible.

This pledge to quality is already a hallmark of the young restaurant. “I’m committed to finding the best ingredients, and that means local and fresh,” Smith says. “When that’s your foundation, you can keep things simple.”

Yet Smith’s creative applications and expert techniques that highlight every flavor ensure simple is never synonymous with boring. “I want my dishes interesting too, innovative but not overdone,” he says. Bacon-poached swordfish resting on a silky and vanilla-scented puree of pattypan squash and ringed in mushrooms and tender pink eye peas exemplifies this philosophy.

Smith’s personal favorite dish (not on the menu), a holdover from childhood, sheds some light on his allegiance to using restraint. “I still love a big bowl of black-eyed peas with their potliker, some cornbread on the side and a few vinegary pickled peppers for heat,” he says.

He also expresses a love of oysters, so it’s no surprise the beloved bivalve occupies a place of prominence at the restaurant, with three or four selections from various waters on offer and always at least one from Alabama. “There’s something special about oysters, and especially the ones from right here,” he says.

His description of the alchemy inherent in his occupation qualifies it as “something special,” too. “When you put thought into something, effort into making it and serve it to others, and then see them enjoy that work, it becomes something more than sustenance; it’s more like art,” he says. “And seeing someone’s eyes light up in response? That’s why I’m not knocked down by the tough stuff. It’s why I pour myself into every dish.”

The Hummingbird Way Oyster Bar

351 George St., Mobile, Alabama 36604

Open Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Closed Mondays.

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(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Once a pioneer staple, Alabama jerky now a popular nutritional snack

(Contributed/Alabama NewsCenter)

While some national brands use humorous commercials to promote their products, jerky is no joke; it’s big business.

Jerky is essentially dried meat; the removal of water and, usually, addition of salt preserves, extending its shelf life. Even though no one knows when the first jerky appeared, most sources believe it has been made and consumed on a large scale for more than 500 years, originating with the Incas in South America as early as the 1500s and traveling up to the culture and customs of North America’s indigenous peoples.


When Europeans came to the New World, they discovered what Native Americans (of both continents) had long known: jerky’s value as a highly nutritious food that is lightweight, doesn’t take up much space, won’t spoil and is therefore perfect for long journeys. It traveled west with pioneers; it gave cowboys energy for wrangling; and it has sustained U.S. soldiers as a part of military rations.

The jerky from centuries ago was made from whatever meat was around and, most often, seasoned with salt only. Through the decades, it has changed to meet increasing consumer demand for a wider range of seasonings to create diverse flavors, and it’s no longer limited to just a few forms of meat.

Today, what was once an important form of sustenance has evolved into a favorite snack as readily available as the nearest convenience store. It’s become so sought after, there are stores selling nothing but jerky. A few of them are in Alabama, including Gulf Coast House of Jerky in Orange Beach, owned by Johnny Wiggins and his wife, Phyllis. When he was introduced to the jerky store idea, he wasn’t a fan of the treat. “It was the business model and how well these stores were doing that sold me,” he said. “We’ve been very successful with lots of repeat clientele.”

Wiggins opened in 2015, has moved to a bigger space and is considering a second store in Chattanooga. He’s surfing the swelling wave of jerky popularity, which itself is being fed by our snack-obsessed society. But even diehard snackers are becoming increasingly health conscious now, and according to Wiggins, his jerky is still a great fit.

“Many jerkies have loads of chemicals in them to preserve them, but not ours,” Wiggins said. His  are not made at the store, but at the parent company’s facility in California. “Everyone is so concerned about health out there, and we are finding more and more health-conscious customers here, too,” he said.

The products Wiggins sells have no nitrates, MSG or artificial colors and are low in sodium, using only natural pineapple juice sugar to help maintain freshness. “We are putting out some of the healthiest jerky around,” Wiggins said.

After one bite, they wanted more

You don’t have to rely on the West Coast to create a good-for-you jerky. Russ Robbins is doing it in Eufaula at his Hickory Hollow Jerky company, founded in 2008. “All jerky is high in protein, low in fat, so that’s good,” he said. “And our jerkies don’t contain any artificial flavors or chemicals, no MSG, no sodium nitrate. We are all-natural.”

Hickory Hollow has also enjoyed success, and it came quickly. It was Robbins’ family and friends begging for his homemade jerky that spurred the full-time minister at Eufaula’s First Baptist Church to go commercial. “I’ve always loved jerky and started making it in Boy Scouts and experimented with different spices,” he said. “Those first few batches were not very good.”

He finally found the right recipe, and made it to take on youth mission trips and to give out as gifts. Once people had a bite, they wanted more. “I realized there was a market for it, and with three kids in college, I liked the idea of extra income,” he said. His first month in business he sold 250 bags of jerky; by 2017, that number climbed to 53,381 bags. Sales in 2018 were up by about 10 percent.

Being healthy is not enough to propel a food item to the heights jerky has hit. It must taste good. For jerky, that means strong, concentrated flavor with a chewy, yet not stringy, texture. Judging by sales at House of Jerky and Hickory Hollow, theirs has this aspect in the bag, too.

At Gulf Coast House of Jerky, there’s something for everyone (pet jerky treats, vegan jerky) but the real appeal is the exotic, with jerky offerings running the gamut from python, snapping turtle, camel, wild boar, mako shark, trout, elk, buffalo, salmon and tuna. “It’s so different, and people really like the diversity and, of course, the flavors,” Wiggins said. His store has classic beef jerky, but not just any beef will do. It’s made from three different cuts of grass-fed beef: brisket, top round and tri-tip.

Hickory Hollow stays more traditional with its original version, a hickory-smoked, black-pepper beef jerky that is by far its best-seller. It offers five other beef jerky varieties: Teriyaki, Hot Shot (spicy), Sweet Heat BBQ, Jamaican Jerk and Macho Nacho, which incorporates notes of jalapeno and cheese.

And it’s all about the right ingredients for Robbins, too, plus a time-tested method. “We don’t cut corners and we use American beef, and all of our jerky is hand-sliced with knives, not on equipment,” Robbins said.

Hickory Hollow employees cut about 1,000 pounds of meat a week. After it’s sliced, it gets marinated for 10 to 12 hours and then goes into dehydrators for nine to 12 hours before being bagged to distribute.

For both Wiggins and Robbins, relishing the smiles the jerky puts on others’ faces is as satisfying as anything they sell. “We want to please our customers and try to make the whole experience in the store fun for them,” Wiggins said.

“I love the taste, but I believe whatever you do, do it heartily unto the Lord, so I strive to do this well and love that others get benefit from it,” Robbins said.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)