Essay by Jim Hannaford and photography by Zach Roberson, Kate Reali, and Bill Goodman
A little over six years ago, when Brian Kane and his wife, Michele, decided to start a brewery, they had already figured they would name it after their new hometown. It just had a nice ring to it, and a certain cachet. “Fairhope was often being written about, by Southern Living and The New York Times and other publications, as one of the best small towns in the country, so it seemed like a good idea to try and take advantage of that.” Since then their business has taken off like the pelican in flight that adorns their now-familiar capital-F-for-Fairhope logo. Fairhope Brewing Company has seamlessly become part of the community, and its beers flow freely on both sides of the bay and beyond. They are a local success story– and certainly not the only one.
Just down the street from the brewery’s taproom on Nichols Avenue, a couple of tons of coffee beans are being roasted and shipped out every month and a ship designer has found a later-in-life niche making custom metal fire pits and signs. Across town, a restaurateur is working long hours to meet the enthusiastic demand for his boutique bacon. And a few miles away, an environmentally conscious soap maker has found alike-minded following. And this is just a handful of examples of interesting entrepreneurs in our midst following their passions – sometimes making full-circle life changes – and finding acceptance in a crowded marketplace. A commonality to their stories is that they took a leap of faith and found a soft landing.
At his home base at the taproom bar, Kane talks about their humble origins that started nearly as far across the country as you can get – in Juneau, Alaska, where he and Michele, were both practicing law. He grew up in Mobile, and she was from Shreveport, Louisiana. They met at the University of Alabama, where they went to law school, and both found an opportunity to go to work for the state government in the nation’s 49th state.In Alabama back then, “there were a few varieties of Bud and Coors and maybe a Samuel Adams, if you were lucky,” he says. But the microbrewing trend had already hit other areas, including Alaska’s capital city. The Kanes were immediately drawn to brew pubs and began to think that people on the Eastern Shore would probably support one. The state laws governing breweries were restricting and confusing, but guess what: his specialty was legislative law, and that was a big advantage.
These days, Fairhope Brewing Company has nine full-time employees, 14 beers and a cider on tap every day, and brews 50 or 60 different beers over the course of a year. They produce around 135,000 gallons of beer a year and ship out four varieties in their distinctive cans. Their reach extends well into upper Alabama and over into coastal Mississippi and Florida and is spreading farther all the time. Kane admits to being a little surprised at how fast things happened for him and his partners at the brewery, but says he was confident from the start. “I thought it would work out as long as the beer was good,” he says. “We were the sixth brewery in the state and now there are 35, so we were a little ahead of the curve.”
A couple of blocks to the west, Fairhope Roasting Company shares space with the busy Warehouse Bakery & Donuts. In a tiny back room, the aroma is incredibly inviting as a classic industrial roaster lovingly named Lucy does her work. By the end of the month, more than two tons of beans from around the world will have been roasted, bagged, and shipped to individuals around the country, grocery stores, eateries, and coffee shops along the Coast, a few restaurants in Mississippi and Tennessee, and to all 56 of the Publix stores in Alabama.Their coffees were already on shelves at around 50 other stores,including Piggly Wiggly and Greer’s locations, as well as around 20 restaurants and cafes, says Chase Chandler, the company’s owner. “Last year we roasted right at 41,000 pounds, and we will probably be close to 50,000 pounds this year,” he says.
The exciting recent expansion into Publix stores has meant longer days for some of company’s six employees (five full-time and one part-time) and some additional roasting time for Lucy. He said he hopes the company can continue to grow at this same manageable rate. “We always thought the community would get behind us,” says the company’s owner Chase Chandler,“ but it’s grown exponentially larger than we thought. ”The company was started in 2014 by Hanson Eskridge, and Chandler’s wife, McKenzie, was involved from the beginning. She is a graphic designer, and it was her idea to put the city’s iconic clock in the logo.He got more and more interested in the coffee business, and took it over about three years ago, quitting his job as a hazardous waste broker. “I’ve always been a coffee drinker but I never set out to do this or said this is the path I want to take, but it fell in my lap in a nice way,” says Chandler.
Inside her home on a peaceful,oak-shaded lot in the Silverhill area, Talia Lumpkin makes soaps that reflect her own personality and lifestyle. She is careful about what goes into her products because she cares about the environment and the people who use them .Her company is N.O. Soap Co. The initials stand for Nature’s Offerings,but there is another meaning, too. “There are no synthetics, no GMOs, and no palm oil. I use essential oils but no artificial fragrances,” she says. She mixes up her fresh-smelling, Earth-friendly concoctions by combining plant-based oils with clays and herbs and a variety of natural fats (including olive oil, coconut oil, rice bran oil, and shea butter) with lye (sodium hydroxide). She slices them into rustic rectangular bars or molds them into delicate floral shapes.
Her packaging, which she also creates, has a simple elegance and is easily bio-degradable. She started making soaps several years ago in part because she had problematic skin herself, and found that mainstream products were too harsh. Many of her customers– mostly female, but not all – have sensitive skin, too. “But there are some that just like it because it smells good. ”She sells her selection of soaps at several of the Piggly Wiggly stores in the area and a few other businesses. She also sets up shop at farmer’s markets and similar events and has an online Etsy store.
Popular varieties include Rosemary Mint, Lemongrass, Lavender Tea Tree, Patchouli Sunshine, and Detox, which contains activated charcoal to draw out impurities. Her professional background is social work, having worked as a foster care caseworker and with kidney dialysis patients. Though she found that type of work gratifying, it could also be troubling. She enjoys the freedom and creativity her new job allows her. “I always wanted to have a product that I enjoyed making and that people enjoyed using,” she says, and it seems like she has found the right combination.
For much of his adult life, Jim Trainer designed ships for the U.S. Navy. But inspiration struck on game day one fall morning eight years ago, and in a flash he created a new line of work for himself. His girlfriend at the time was a huge college football fan, so they were up early one Saturday making pre-game preparations. He thought it would be fun to invite a few friends over fora cookout and was planning to put together a makeshift grill over an open fire. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if it had a football logo on it?” So he designed one and had it made by the next weekend. Then a friend wanted one … and on it goes. Using CAD (computer-aided design) software, a plasma cutter, and sheets of steel or aluminum, Trainer’s small company, Alabama Iron Works, has since made several hundred custom fire rings and fire pits, some of them quite elaborate, and has branched out into new areas. His custom metal signs and fire pits can be seen along the Eastern Shore at numerous businesses including The Bone and Barrel, Utopia, Tongue & Groove Drinkery, and Bouch’s Premium Cigars in downtown Fairhope, The Fort Container Park in Spanish Fort, and The Steeple, NoJa, Saisho, and Iron Hand Brewing in Mobile.
The bulk of his work, though, has been for private individuals, who want one-of-a-kind accessories for their yards and homes. Fish and birds are popular decorative touches, but Trainer and his full-time assistant, Lucas Thornton, can fabricate just about anything. All they need is a high-resolution image or font. A native of Maine, Trainer worked at numerous shipyards around the country for 35 years. It was while living in Fairhope and making the daily 120-mile round trip to and from Ingall’s Shipbuilding in Pascagoula that he realized he needed to find a different course. “It was a major step, but I was going crazy,” says Trainer. “I was quitting the corporate stuff and going out on a limb with just last week’s paycheck, but I had to do it. And now I feel like I got my second wind. It’s so much more rewarding.”
William Stitt started making bacon fora very practical reason – he couldn’t find any that he really liked to use at his restaurant, so he decided to make it himself. Three years after he first started selling his Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon, he literally can’t make enough of it to meet the demand. Stitt opened his comfortably casual Old 27 Grill (recently rechristened Bill-E’s) in early 2011. His old catering kitchen next door is now a modern smokehouse where he cures his carefully chosen pork with brown sugar, molasses, kosher salt, and a touch of pink curing salt before smoking it at low temperatures over hickory. He learned the craft of making bacon while studying hospitality management at the University of Mississippi. Later, as a corporate manager for the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, he was assigned the task of researching whether amass audience was ready for smoked pork bellies. They weren’t, he concluded back then, but they certainly are now. He is shipping out to all 50 states and to several other countries.
Many chefs in the area slice it thick and treat it as a center-of-plate protein. “It is in around 400 restaurants from Texas to Tallahassee,” says Stitt. “We are in some stores as far north as Atlanta. We’ve got a restaurant in Brooklyn that orders. We are on the breakfast menu at Brennan’s in New Orleans – that just happened recently.” He is picky about his pig. The breed he uses is a cross between Berkshire reds and Chantilly whites, and there are no added hormones or growth antibiotics.He wants the company to expand without growing out of its mission of making old-style bacon that emphasizes the natural flavors of the pork. “I don’t ever want to be a giant company with forklifts and folks in hazmat suits,” says Stitt. “but I would like to eventually have a bigger facility and some more small smokers.”