Birmingham ready for a food fight!

Josh Watkins
Josh Watkins

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Josh Watkins.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

There’s a four letter ‘F‘ word that could help define Birmingham’s future–but as you might expect–it’s not the one you’re probably thinking.

However, when I tell you the word, it still won’t be in the context of what you might expect.

The word is “food,’ but not our nationally recognized upscale restaurants.

In fact we receive so much positive press about our incredible food scene—that many of us seem to take the constant drum of good news for granted.

After all, Birmingham has been named one of America’s top food cities by the national restaurant guide for the past three years. It’s getting to be expected and kind of boring.

Yes, our restaurants should be discussed as part of our future—but Birmingham has a powerful food history and potential that many of our  business leaders and economic development folks seem to have overlooked.

Not just upscale restaurants

Food and beverage companies like Golden Flake, Coca-Cola United, Red Diamond, Royal Cup, Barber Dairies, Buffalo Rock, Moore’s Marinade, Dales Seasoning, Mrs. Stratton’s Salads, and Bud’s Best Cookies have been taking advantage of Alabama’s strong food production and distribution ecosystem for decades.

In addition, Alabama and Birmingham have a strong history in the food service industry as well, creating brands like Milo’s Hamburgers and Milo’s Famous Tea Co., Sneaky Pete’s, Jack’s Family Restaurants, Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Jim-N-Nicks, Zoe’s Kitchen, which had a $276 million IPO in 2014, and Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe, which seems to be on a similar trajectory and continuing with up and comers such as Taco Mama, Urban Cookhouse, Maki Fresh, and Wasabi Juan’s.

In fact, even the most recent blockbuster tech sector success story from Birmingham, Shipt, which was purchased by Target for $550 million in December, is a food related company with a technology twist.

Economic developers often overlook Birmingham’s food potential

Unfortunately, despite media praise and a history of success, potential for local growth in the almost $1.5 trillion national food industry has continued to be an afterthought in the eyes of many of Birmingham’s most influential economic developers.

Since its inception in 2016, the Birmingham Business Alliance’s Blueprint 2020 has contained eight (8) target industry clusters “which are deemed to be most compatible with the Birmingham region’s core strengths, and therefore the best opportunities for future growth” including:

  • Metal Manufacturing,
  • Machinery Manufacturing,
  • Automotive,
  • Financial & Insurance Services,
  • Life Sciences,
  • Information Technology & Analytical Instruments,
  • Chemicals,
  • Aerospace

The only mention of anything related to the “globally focused” food industry, is relegated to a footnote that says:

Of these eight target clusters, the first six are considered to be primary, while the last two, chemicals and aerospace, are secondary. Additionally, there are other sectors, such as food processing and related technologies, which already have a significant presence in the Birmingham region and offer potential for future growth.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with the eight target clusters, as they all have merit as well, but many of them are industries that have strong clusters in other parts of the country.  And like many of those clusters, food certainly has other competitive regional clusters as well, however southern food is almost undeniably world known, even revered, which is a huge advantage for companies seeking to find a place in the market and unique among most of the targeted clusters.

Existing Ecosystem

Probably even more important to successful growth within food cluster however, is the existing functional ecosystem for emerging companies in the food sector.  Thanks to the long history of successful food industry companies, Birmingham has an abundance of resources, including a network of experienced senior level executives, creatives, financiers, professional service providers, skilled local workforce, and potential industry partners that foster growth companies.

The existence of these network resources are not trivial matters, as a quick Google search for “startup ecosystem” will quickly lead you to dozens and dozens of scholarly and popular articles on how to build a successful ecosystem.  Many communities all over the world are attempting to figure out and apply the formula, so they can build such a system to support their own local companies.  Birmingham is lucky enough to have one such ecosystem in the food industry that has grown up organically and been successful without a lot of organized support from key community leaders.

If Birmingham leaders truly want to help Birmingham be the best it can be, then recognizing and supporting one of its unique growth creating industries would probably be a good idea.

Josh Watkins is a local attorney with a solo law practice in the Birmingham.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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One thought on “Birmingham ready for a food fight!”

  1. First of all, Zoe’s moved to Dallas, the other companies you mentioned are pretty small. What’s getting old are quotes like this:

    “…has been named one of America’s top food cities by the national restaurant guide for the past three years. It’s getting to be expected and kind of boring.”

    It’s getting boring? Really? You’ve got to be kidding me. This makes you sound like another blind Birmingham booster on City Data hired to prop up the city. Everyone knows that if it weren’t for one restaurant (overrated Highlands), that Bham would never make a food list.

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