The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

    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

    Excerpt:

    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

    Excerpt:

    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.

Red Land Cotton works from field to fabric to produce an Alabama farm-to-home luxury brand

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

After growing up the daughter of a cotton farmer, Anna Yeager Brakefield’s plans involved anything but returning to the family farm. Upon graduation from Auburn University with a degree in graphic design, she got a job with an advertising agency in New York City, where she put her love of art and design to work.

A few years later, in 2014, her soon-to-be-husband’s career path brought her back South. She began a new job, still as a designer, but she wasn’t particularly happy with it. When her dad approached her with a business idea, it seemed like a good time to change her own path.

“Let’s build a direct-to-consumer retail business using our cotton,” he told her. “So, I told him, ‘Sure!’”

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Farming frustration

Mark Yeager, Brakefield’s father, had been farming cotton on his farm in Moulton since the 1980s, but in recent years, he’d become frustrated.

“He was working so hard and selling his cotton for so little,” Brakefield said. “He knew there had to be another way.”

The father-daughter duo combined their talents and began brainstorming what they could produce with their cotton. They landed on bedding and spent the next few months building a supply chain.

“It was really important for us to have 100% American-made products. The South has a rich textile tradition, and we felt strongly about telling the story from the seed in the ground to the final product,” Brakefield explained.

By October 2016, they had their first set of sheets ready to sell, and they named their company after its roots in the rich, red soil of North Alabama – Red Land Cotton. Brakefield created an online store and they began selling, packing and shipping out of her dad’s cotton gin office.

Timing was right, with the holiday shopping season ramping up, and in their first three months of business, Red Land Cotton had more than $100,000 in sales.

“That was some great affirmation for us that we had something good, and that we should continue,” Brakefield said.

Growing and sewing a worldwide following

Today, Red Land Cotton sells its farm-to-home luxury linens to customers worldwide through its online store and locally in a retail shop in downtown Moulton. Since the family launched their first sheet set, they have expanded their offerings to include five different design styles. They also partner with a mill in Georgia to create bath towels and, last year, created a new line of quilts, made with batting from their cotton.

The whole family is involved in the business, not just Brakefield and Yeager. Brakefield’s two brothers farm with her father. Her sister-in-law works in the store and so does her mom, “when she’s not watching my daughter,” Brakefield laughed.

While Brakefield lives in Nashville, she spends several days a week in Moulton working on the retail side of the business, and she spends a large portion of her time telling the Red Land Cotton story.

“Almost every week, I am in a different city around Alabama sharing about our business and our products. We have shipped to every state in the United States, including Hawaii, and as far away as France, Norway and Canada, but I still find that there are people in Alabama who don’t know about us,” Brakefield said.

Even so, Red Land Cotton has made its mark. Southern Living came to Moulton to write about the family business and ABC’s World News Tonight featured Red Land Cotton in its “Made in America” series last Christmas.

The pinnacle of exposure, however, was an invitation from the White House. Last July, Red Land Cotton was asked to represent Alabama in the “Made in America” showcase.

“That was such an honor to set up in the White House and show our products to the president, members of the press and Congress,” Brakefield said.

While Brakefield, Yeager and the rest of the family have plans to continue growing, their heart remains in Moulton. What makes them most proud, they say, is bringing awareness to their hometown as well as the important work of farming.

“We love showing how agriculture can be made into something profitable and consumer-facing. That has been a really cool story to tell as well,” Brakefield said.

This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retailer published by the Alabama Retail Association.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

State Traditions is inspired apparel based in Alabama

(Brandon Robbins/Alabama Retailer)

In 2012, John McElrath decided it was time to take a leap.

He looked at his wife, who was holding their newborn baby, and said, “I think it’s time for me to quit my job and really do this.”

He was talking about jumping full time into State Traditions, a state-themed apparel and accessory line that he and two friends had created and launched in Birmingham five years prior.

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Until that point, the men had been running the business part time, first out of the trunks of their cars and then out of McElrath’s dining room, selling both online and wholesale to high-end men’s clothing stores throughout the Southeast.

“At that point, the wheels had started spinning pretty quickly,” he remembered. “It was sink or swim.”

How it all started

State Traditions was born out of a simple observation. McElrath remembers he and friend Keith Brown, his co-founding partner, started noticing the rise in popularity of something they referred to as “critter brands.”

“People were wearing shirts with whales, fish or some other type of animal. We thought, ‘What does that symbol actually mean to the people wearing it?’ That gave us the desire to create a brand that really meant something to the person wearing it,” McElrath said.

The friends started with the idea that everyone is from somewhere and had special traditions created in the places they consider home. McElrath, Brown and another friend, Marty Lyons, officially incorporated State Traditions in 2007, with their first product being a cotton polo shirt.

“We started an online site, which was much different than it is now, and our first retail customer was The Locker Room in Tuscaloosa,” McElrath recalled.

In the beginning, they were embroidering and putting private labels on the shirts themselves. McElrath said the brand was more of a creative outlet for them until they went to their first men’s apparel market. That’s when the orders started flooding in, and so did the demand for products other than polo shirts. Soon after, they rolled out state-themed belts and hats followed by T-shirts and other men’s accessories.

“Once we figured it out, we allowed ourselves to continue to grow. We found that you must recreate yourselves every six months or so. You can carry items through, but you always have to have something fresh,” McElrath said.

Keeping the brand fresh

The company has long outgrown McElrath’s dining room. After first occupying a 600-square-foot office space in Pepper Place, they moved to a 4,000-square-foot space near Regions Field in downtown Birmingham before the most recent move into a facility with room to grow. The current 43,000-square-foot office and warehouse in Avondale, a revitalized and booming neighborhood and business district on the east side of Birmingham, is large enough to allow the company to remain there for some time.

“We believe Birmingham fosters new businesses very well, and we especially love being here in the Avondale district. We regularly get together with our neighbors; it’s very much a creative hub,” he said.

McElrath continues at the helm of the company as president and chief executive officer with six full-time employees. Their products now feature all 50 states and can be found in hundreds of fine men’s stores, outdoor specialty stores, golf shops and even children’s boutiques throughout the country.

“We now say we can fit a gentleman from head to knee, we just don’t do socks, shoes or pants,” McElrath said.

The experience of shopping

While online sales make up nearly 30 percent of State Traditions’ sales, the largest portion of its business comes from retail stores that carry its product lines.

“We believe that, in order to be successful in today’s retail climate, you have to have both a retail location and a website. Both drive traffic to each other,” McElrath said.

McElrath said online shoppers expect a sizing chart, a good description and real reviews. He said their brand ensures sizing and quality remain the same, even as they launch new and different lines.

“You have to be reliable and not change it up too much. When people come back, they’ll know what they’re getting,” he said. “Even so, it is hard to replace the in-person shopping experience.”

The State Traditions team plans to continue blazing a new trail in apparel inspired by a connection. They believe the company’s core mission – spreading hometown pride, cherished memories and favorite pastimes – especially resonates in today’s consumer landscape.

“Today’s shoppers make decisions based on how it makes them feel, and we think our products make people feel good,” he said.


The essentials

Founded: June 2007

Number of employees: 6

Smart move: Bringing our inventory and distribution in-house to our Avondale location.

Learning moment: Too many to count. Learning moments happen often.  We must be aware of them, so the lessons are not lost.

Wisdom shared: Trust but verify.

Showroom: The Avondale warehouse that houses State Traditions includes a showroom with some of its signature products displayed. Those products include polos, T-shirts, shorts, hats, belts, koozies, keychains, stickers, cuff links, flasks, money clips and ties.

Online: statetraditions.com

This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retailer, published by the Alabama Retail Association.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Couple creates restaurant-retail campus on Alabama Gulf Coast

(Melissa Johnson Warnke/Alabama Retailer)

It’s been 35 years since Brian Harsany got his first job in the restaurant industry, and he never looked back. Brian started busing tables and washing dishes in 1983 while in high school, and later went on to major in hotel and restaurant management at Florida State University. His degree and experience took him into management roles at various restaurants, both family and corporately owned businesses.

Then, in early 2006, everything started going to the dogs – and cats, in his case.

Several months prior to that, he’d begun developing a concept for his own restaurant. After he and his wife, Jodi, heard about a piece of property from three different friends – three days in a row – the two finally got in the car to check it out. They immediately saw potential.

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The property was on Canal Road in Orange Beach, and the Harsanys planned to open just one restaurant, which they would name after their rescue dog, Cosmo.

“We know that everyone loves their dogs,” said Brian. “Also, the name allowed us to have any cuisine we wanted. If we had given the restaurant an Italian, French or Greek name, everything wouldn’t have jelled.”

Cosmo’s Restaurant and Bar opened in May 2006. The colorful and casual setting paired well with its large and eclectic menu, which could satisfy the palates of foodies to the pickiest of eaters.

It wasn’t long before Brian’s and Jodi’s business plans started growing along with their crew of four-legged family members. Luckily, the property around Cosmo’s afforded them plenty of space to expand.

By 2010, Cosmo’s retail selection had outgrown the space in the restaurant. That year, the Harsanys opened Maggie’s Bottle and ‘Tail, named after Maggie, another adopted dog. The gift and bottle shop is attached to Cosmo’s and sells T-shirts, jewelry, local artwork and merchandise for dog lovers. There’s also an extensive selection of wine and beer, which is available for sampling. They had a need for a venue where guests could hang out and have a drink prior to sitting down for a meal, so they added Maggie’s Parlor as neighboring tenants moved out.

In 2016 came Luna’s Eat & Drink, named after another dog, Luna, followed by Buzzcatz Coffee and Sweets. The original legal name was “Three Angry Cats,” because the Harsanys thought their cats might be angry that no businesses were named after them. However, they decided to make their “doing business as” name Buzzcatz, since “it’s catchy, fun and marketable,” added Jodi.

Jodi serves on the board of a local organization dedicated to improving the lives of animals – Orange Beach Animal Care and Control Program. She and Brian often host events at their businesses to support the group’s mission.

Jodi’s work with the animal program is just one of many community and environmental service groups in which the couple is involved.

Orange Beach City Councilman Jerry Johnson said, “No matter what it is, even if it’s the last minute – if we need catering or people to participate in cleaning an island, Brian and his team are always there. It’s really the culture they have created within their company.”

Brian agreed. “We do a lot of things with our employees in the community, so we can get them involved and they can get a good grasp on what it means to be part of a community,” he said.

They also focus on serving their employees, offering insurance, 401K plans and free exercise boot camps.

“We put ourselves in their shoes and offer them what we’d want to have,” Brian explained, adding that by taking care of their employees, they in turn take good care of their customers.

“It is vitally important that we always execute and give the experience that the guest is expecting when they step foot on our property,” Brian said.

Outside of the restaurants and businesses at the Canal Road campus, the Harsanys also own GTs on the Bay, a family-friendly restaurant and hangout on Wolf Bay, as well as Cobalt The Restaurant, which is nestled under the Perdido Bay Bridge.

“When we first opened Cosmo’s,” said Jodi, “I never imagined all of the opportunities we would have.”

Brian added, “It is our pleasure to be business owners here and to be so involved in our community.”

You can visit Cosmo’s Restaurant and Bar, Maggie’s Bottle and ‘Tail, Luna’s Eat & Drink and Buzzcatz Coffee and Sweets at 25753 Canal Road in Orange Beach; GTs on the Bay at 26189 Canal Road; and Cobalt the Restaurant at 28099 Perdido Beach Boulevard.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Pitcher throws changeup, hits homerun with Birmingham’s oldest independent bookstore

(Melissa Johnson Warnke/Alabama Retailer)

Baseball is what first brought Paul Seitz to Alabama. In fact, he owns a special piece of Birmingham’s baseball history.

A native of Ohio, he was a pitcher for Ohio State University before coming down South to play professionally. In the early 1960s, he moved to Birmingham to pitch for the Barons, and Seitz was the starting pitcher on Opening Day 1964 – the first integrated ballgame in the team’s history.

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The next year, he was promoted to play AAA in Vancouver with the Mounties. But in 1968, Alabama came calling again, and Seitz returned to Rickwood Field to play for the Birmingham A’s. By 1969, he was ready to retire from the game. He was 28 at the time and began looking for his next changeup.

While browsing through a local newspaper, a small advertisement caught his attention – an opportunity to buy a franchise of a store called Little Professor Book Center.

Thanks to the franchise’s popularity in his home state of Ohio, Seitz was familiar with the store. To him, that sounded like a good plan, and he never looked back.

In 1973, he officially opened Little Professor Book Center in downtown Homewood, in “The Curve” on 18th Street South. He spent more than 20 years at that location before moving down the street, remaining in that location until last year, when the developer sold the space.

Now, he’s moved back to the heart of Homewood, directly across the street from his original location. Since the recent move, he’s enjoyed seeing his longtime customers return, as well many new faces that have found their way through the doors.

“We get customers from as far as 50 miles away. They are book lovers, and they are what have made us be able to survive for this long period of time,” Seitz said. “We offer a good inventory and excellent book people, but what makes us successful is our readers.”

Children make up a big portion of his readership. Whether it’s required reading or for enjoyment, Seitz gives those children a lot of credit toward his business’ survival.

“In 1973, my first two customers were high schoolers. In the past 45 years, we have dealt with hundreds of schools and their students. Without those schools, we wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

Little Professor Book Center in Homewood is Birmingham’s oldest independent bookstore; independent now since the Little Professor franchise sold out in 1998. Seitz’s store is one of only three Little Professors left in the United States that are carrying on the name. With frequent events in the store, like book signings and meet-the-author nights, its popularity is holding strong, despite ever-present competition from online sellers and chain bookstores. From new releases to timeless classics, best-sellers to would-be hits, the store’s selection and employee expertise sets it apart.

“In our 45 years in business, I’ve had some of the most amazing, wonderful employees. Doctors, judges, a soprano singer, playwrights and now we have a full-fledged author on our staff. He just signed a three-book contract with Macmillan,” said Seitz.

While Seitz has slowed down in the past few years, he’s not closing the book on working in his business anytime soon.

“What’s great about having a bookstore is you never have any complaints,” Seitz said with a big smile.

“When people get a car fixed, they grimace when they hand over that money. When people buy a book, they’re always smiling. They say, ‘Thank you very much!’ So, it’s been an easy, easy job.”


Little Professor Book Center at 2844 18th St. S. in Homewood is open seven days a week – 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Visit online at littleprofessorhomewood.com.

Follow Little Professor on Facebook.

This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retail Association‘s Alabama Retailer magazine.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Sweet life: Chocoholic banker saves Alabama candy store

Melissa Johnson Warnke / Alabama Retail Association

As the owner of Decatur’s Morgan Price Candy Company, Nancy Curl is a self-proclaimed chocoholic.

“We are all very much addicted to chocolate,” Curl said as she motioned toward the beautifully wrapped gourmet candies on the table next to her.

Curl shares another connection to the confection on which she’s built her business – an unlikely journey.

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Most customers never consider that their piece of chocolate candy began as a bean on a tree. And Curl never dreamed her banking career would lead her to owning and operating a candy store.

“I’d always thought, if I were to open my own business, it would be in fashion, not candy. But I love this. It just fits,” she said.

Curl graduated from the University of Alabama in 1972, and at the time, was one of the few women in the College of Commerce and Business Administration. With a degree in marketing and a concentration in retailing, she studied under the renowned UA professor and icon in the retail industry, Morris Mayer.

“Even though I left school and went into banking, I am glad I picked that major. The mentors I had, especially Dr. Mayer, were instrumental in my professional life,” Curl said.

After decades of a successful career in the banking industry, Curl retired in 2006.

With her daughter nearing high school graduation, Curl found herself with extra time on her hands. Curl started working part time and holidays for Mary Morgan at Morgan Price Candy Company – a store she frequented for chocolate and gifts.

Opportunity crops up

Sisters Mary Morgan and Margaret Price founded the business in 1987, making candy at Morgan’s home and selling via mail order. While Price left the business soon after, Morgan went on to grow it into a successful local candy store and gift shop.

Armed with their father’s praline recipe, Morgan made her mark in Decatur selling those famous pralines, as well as peanut brittle and English toffee for nearly 23 years.

When Morgan was ready to retire, Curl couldn’t stand the thought of losing the hometown treasure.

“Small businesses were so important to me, especially this one. It was just such a huge part of Decatur,” Curl said. “People here were proud to purchase something made in their community. Someone had to step up and save it, and I knew that person was me.”

Changes yield success

In July 2010, Curl bought the business, as well as an existing building on Sixth Avenue in Decatur. After three months of remodeling and renovating the space, Curl moved Morgan Price Candy Company there and opened on Oct. 25 of the same year.

That new location, she said, offered greater visibility and helped expand her customer base and grow her business.

This marks Curl’s eighth year as the owner of Morgan Price. While the original chocolate recipes, including the still popular English toffee, haven’t changed since she took over, she has added more than 30 types of candies – including two of her best-sellers – Angel Bites and Heavenly Bits.

Curl also extended the hours, staying open later and opening on Saturdays, as well, to accommodate those who work. The store’s open footprint allows for a large gift shop selection, as well as the chance for customers to watch the gourmet candies being made in the kitchen.

The future is sweet

Today, Morgan Price Candy has customers nationwide and provides a fun place to visit and shop when visiting North Alabama. The store’s English toffee is on the list of “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.”

While Curl’s journey to candy store owner was somewhat unlikely, it also makes perfect sense. Owning the business has allowed her to combine her retailing education, banking expertise and love for people and her community.

“I love spending my days here. We all say, we love working here because we feel like everyone leaves happy. And not just that … happy with chocolate!” she said.

(Courtesy of Alabama Retail Association.)