Bizarre: The Coffee Bar is a coffee bar by day and a bar bar at night, but this unusual place also is an all-day incubator for several minority-owned local businesses. The café, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (most nights), has become a hub in Birmingham’s Black business community, offering space for multiple vendors to attract attention and, in turn, build their own businesses.
Bizarre was started in 2018 by Jennifer Butler and Mia Perryman, friends who met 15 years earlier at Jefferson State Community College. In October 2019, they partnered with Will Harvill, who has since become the face of the business as well as “the general manager, head bartender, custodian, party promoter, DJ, and everything else involved with Bizarre: The Coffee Bar.”
How Harvill pivoted during the pandemic made Bizarre what it is today.
“When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves as a coffee bar in the middle of a city where people weren’t drinking coffee, where people weren’t going to work, where nobody was out,” Harvill says. “We choose not to shut down … Bizarre has never been closed one day since the pandemic started. … Pretty much, I ran the place by myself for almost four or five months.
“Because we sold food, that made us essential; because we sold alcohol, that made us popular. We were probably one of the only bars open in downtown Birmingham for almost four or five months. … We literally, overnight, became a coffee bar that sold a little bit of liquor to a bar bar that sells a little bit of coffee.”
But that’s only a piece of it.
To increase foot traffic – and get people back downtown – Harvill partnered with other Black-owned businesses to expand the offerings at Bizarre.
“We weren’t a major destination place, so we started reaching out to local brands – people I knew on Facebook who had products that I just thought were awesome,” he says. “My Sweetheart Bakery is a cake company that we reached out to, and, oh my God, between their cake and chicken salad – some of the best you could ever get – we sold a ton of it. I mean, we pushed both our brands to higher heights just by partnering together.” That translates to a lot of money. “Last year,” Harvill says, “we sold $72,000 worth of cake and chicken salad.”
There’s a turmeric lemonade with burdock and ginger root made by a local company called Lively & Fit. “We sell 20 gallons a week of this stuff,” he says. “It’s crazy.” It’s also delicious. In the morning, the juicy drink is a healthy way to start the day; at night, Harvill mixes it with Dickel No. 8 and a house-made sour mix for The Roots, the bar’s most popular cocktail.
“We’ve got special ingredients you can’t buy anywhere else,” he says. One of these is a lavender syrup made by local businesswoman Amie Scott Ceo. Harvill mixes that concoction into cocktails, too. “We have a Black-owned coffee brand (Beanalli Coffee). These are Kenyon and Somalian beans that we get shipped from Africa. They’re roasted here in Alabama, and we grind the beans fresh.”
On the counter next to a stack of My Sweetheart Bakery’s enticing sweet potato cakes, you’ll find Will’s mama’s whipped shea butter and Tae Lee’s financial literacy board game called Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt! Lee, a frequent customer, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker behind the financial literacy company Never Go Broke Inc. She test-marketed her Game of Fortune at Bizarre during a game night.
Even the art on the walls illustrates a partnership.
Executive Art, with its canvas prints of famous and local people (or whatever you want), started when some friends of Harvill’s said, “‘Hey, you need some paintings. Here’s a couple of them. If you sell them, great. If you don’t, they’ll just hang on your wall.’ That grew to us selling almost four or five pieces a week of this wonderful artwork,” he says.
“None of this was planned. We woke up one day, and we had almost eight or nine different vendors that make up the entire Bizarre culture that we sell every day. We make each other better, definitely.”
Harvill says, “My customers are lots of local people who knew me, lots of entrepreneurs who just love the vibe. Any day you come to Bizarre, you can run into a networking situation … anything from running into the mayor (more on Mayor Randall Woodfin in a moment) and his cabinet to running into entrepreneurs who are in fields that people aspire to be in. And you can share a cup of coffee or a drink with them, and they will freely give you their advice. They love this place because it’s just real chill. … Nothing fancy. Nothing extra. Just really, really comfortable.”
So, you’ll see students with their laptops and cups of coffee, people who work nearby coming in for lunch, folks winding down the end of the day with a cocktail or a glass of wine or a beer.
They come for café au lait and espresso drinks; classic breakfast plates with smoked sausage, grits, and eggs; hot dogs with chowchow; fajita (chicken or steak) nachos made to order; fresh cucumber salad or fruit bowls. And they come to eat that chicken salad, which when made into a sandwich becomes a delightfully messy fork-and-knife situation.
Most evenings, Harvill shares Bizarre with local food trucks and chefs — folks who have their own kitchens (mobile or incubator space) but don’t own a restaurant. So, businesses like Simone’s Kitchen ATL, Anthony Redeaux of Redeaux’s Bistreaux (check his Instagram @redeauxbistreaux for info), Big Red Smoked BBQ and others step in. “We close our kitchen down, and they make all the money off of food revenue. It gives them exposure. It brings their crowd to intermingle with my crowd, and we both win. The level of exposure that it brings, the people who come for their food who otherwise would not come to Bizarre makes it all a win for everybody.”
At Bizarre, happy hours last pretty much all day and there are always specials like Taco and Tequila Tuesdays, Old Fashioned / Waffle Wednesdays (the karaoke starts around 8-ish), Samosas and Mimosas, and an exciting take on wine tasting with Wine Shots and Adult Lunchables. Check the Facebook page for details. They serve locally sourced spirts like Redmont Distilling Co.’s Redmont Vodka and Vulcan Gin and Campesino rum. And on the last Sunday of the month, there’s a T-shirt brunch with local vendors like B!Moe Apparel setting up in the parking lot with a food truck and a DJ. Harvill sells plenty of his own T-shirts but says, “It’s just something so cool about taking the competition out of it. Because what happens is … people don’t just buy one T-shirt, they buy one from every one of the vendors and again, we all win. … It’s a party. Everybody’s eating and drinking and buying shirts.”
These sorts of opportunities not only allow all these businesses to have a brick-and-mortar presence – a place to sell regularly and connect with new customers – but they also keep Bizarre interesting.
“You’re never going to get the same experience twice here,” Harvill says. “You meet the dopest people in the city at Bizarre. And if support is anything that you’re interested in, as far as small businesses, you’re not going to find a place that harvests that type of atmosphere and environment more so than Bizarre.
“Our motto is, ‘we don’t compete, we complement,’ which is why we open up our doors to other businesses that sell the same things we do. … Some people say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But we always say we’ve never lost money helping other people. Ever.”
The past year has seen Bizarre – and Harvill – take a leadership role in these few blocks of downtown, which are mostly home to Black-owned businesses.
A few weeks ago, one of the vaccination sites had some shots left over at the end of the day. “For whatever reason,” Harvill says, “they called me.” So he jumped in his car and accompanied health care workers “to every bar that was open and we were able to get all the staff vaccinated. … Now, when I walk into a bar, everybody wants to buy me a drink,” he says. “We’re trying to normalize this type of stuff, not glorify it. If everybody does it, it’s not a special thing. It’s just a way of life. It’s just doing your part. It’s really a small part when you think about it. All it is is taking a platform that someone else gave you and utilizing it.”
When windows were broken at a nearby business during protests last summer, Harvill started an effort with a Facebook post and his own money to help the owner replace them. “Not only did we raise three grand in two hours to fix his windows, but people kept putting money into it,” he says. “So, I turned it into a nonprofit.” The organization is called Bizarre Blessings.
“Literally, every Friday since the riots have hit, I go out at nighttime … find a minority-owned business – be you a food truck, be you somebody flipping burgers on the grill outside a club or a convenience store – and I give you $150. We don’t take pictures of it. We don’t put it on Facebook. We just bless you.”
Bizarre got some national attention when Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin wore a Bizarre mask for an interview on MSNBC.
Harvill had given the mayor a mask months earlier. The two had met years ago when they were interning for Congressman Earl Hilliard Sr. “We were both freshmen in college, just bright-eyed and wanting to take over the world,” Harvill says. “We became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.
“My phone blew up early, early that morning” with text messages, emails, Facebook posts, he says. “I looked … and it was a picture of the mayor and he had my Bizarre mask on. … It went viral. Next thing I know, I’ve got people from Texas, California, D.C. calling me, asking, ‘Hey, can I order that mask? Can you ship me that mask?’ And we started really, really mass producing them and sending them out. The cool part about our masks and our T-shirts is $10 from the sale of every one of them goes to our nonprofit … Bizarre Blessings.”
Bizarre: The Coffee Bar also was featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December 2020 when Clarkson spotlighted Harvill’s partnerships with other local businesses.
Harvill welcomes this attention from elsewhere because his community-minded model is something he’d like to grow and share.
“Our ultimate goal is to create this micro version of an incubator in neighborhoods and cities all over the country,” Harvill says. “Go to Huntsville, there’s a (version of) My Sweetheart Bakery … a minority-owned cake company that’s one of the best in the city. Nashville has a version,” he says, adding that every city does. “If we can put a Bizarre or some version of Bizarre in all these cities to highlight all these people who don’t have brick and mortar, then eventually they will.”
217 22nd St. N. in downtown Birmingham
Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sometimes, just depending, the party extends past 11 p.m.
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)