Breaking the law never tasted so good

The best things that could happen to Birmingham's food scene — if only they were legal

Birmingham’s food scene isn’t bad at all, but there’s always room for improvement. Much of what needs to happen isn’t just about the chefs, farmers and people with appetites: Greater Birmingham needs public policies that support the food system, too. Here’s a list of some of the best things that could happen to the local food scene. Some will make date-night better. Some support the local economy. Some are good for the environment. And some help make sure that even the poorest among us has enough good, affordable food to eat. Bottom line, everything on this list could take our local food scene to the next level — all we need are the laws and regulations to make it happen. There’s no particular reason to the order these are listed in, and to be honest, not everything on my list is illegal — some are just wrapped in taboos or red tape, waiting to be liberated. Others are simply victims of underfunding and under-staffing. Your part: Shop, eat out and send messages to local policy makers.

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1. A “cork and carry” law. Can’t finish the bottle of wine you ordered with your dinner? A cork and carry law will let you take it home. Thanks to these laws (also nicknamed “Merlot to go”) in at least 30 other states, restaurants can provide the service of re-corking an unfinished bottle of wine so the customer can take it home. (Some areas require the wine also be sealed in a tamper-evident bag and that the wine has to ride home in the trunk of the car.) Right now in Alabama, restaurants can’t let anyone walk out with an open container of alcohol. However, that might change in the not-too-distant future. State legislators are considering a bill proposed by Representative James Buskey (D-Mobile) that would let larger cities set up “entertainment districts” — areas where people will be able to leave establishments with open container of alcohol. “Say you have dinner some place in the entertainment district, you have wine and you don’t finish it. You can have the restaurant re-cork it, and then you can take it out and finish it at the river front (in the entertainment district),” explained Alabama Alcohol and Beverage Control Board Attorney Bob Martin. “In a weird sort of way, cork and carry might be the next step.”

Supporters say “cork and carry” laws encourage responsible drinking: Diners who might otherwise stop at a glass or two won’t feel they have to choose between polishing off a $40 bottle or wasting it. They also boost restaurant wine sales, and may help restaurants turn tables faster (customers won’t linger while finishing their bottles). While restaurants have offerings to encourage safer drinking — at Highlands Bar and Grill, for example, there’s a nice list of wines by the glass and half-bottles — Highlands general manager David Parker and bar manager Matt Gilpin agree it would be a nice service to offer to patrons.

“We don’t have many guests at this time that ask to take wine home, but I’m sure if something like that is available, people would show interest,” Parker wrote via email.

2. Alcohol before noon on Sundays. Brunch really sings when it includes a glass of bubbly, a mimosa or bloody Mary. In Birmingham, though, it’s straight fruit juice until the clock strikes noon. At Trattoria Centrale, where they make mimosas with freshly squeezed OJ, the staff often finds themselves explaining this particular blue law. “A lot of people aren’t aware of it, and they look at us as if it’s our fault,” said Brian Somershield of Trattoria Centrale. “It would be great if we could serve booze before noon, but I don’t know that it would affect our business — we don’t have much of a demand for alcohol at brunch. Right now, we let people prepay and then we give it to them at noon.” (It almost mimics a religious experience, watching a Trattoria waiter with a round tray of small glasses distributing mimosas all through the house exactly at 12.) Brunch in Birmingham definitely has room to grow and can be nurtured into something special. Early Sunday alcohol sales would give restaurants one more reason to do brunches.

3. Tax-free groceries. Alabama remains one of two states in the country that fully taxes groceries without any relief for the poor. (The other is our neighbor, Mississippi.) Birmingham’s 10 percent sales tax adds up quick: Tax on $65 worth of groceries is enough to buy, say, a whole chicken, depending upon where you shop. For many, that raises the question as to whether government should tax life’s necessities. Alabama ARISE, a statewide coalition of 150 congregations and organizations working to improve public policy for low-income people in Alabama, has an ongoing “Untax Groceries” campaign with the goal of lifting the state’s 4 percent sales tax on groceries. “Removal of a 4 percent tax sounds like a drop in the bucket, but one easy way to understand what it means is to think of an entire year. Four percent of a year is two weeks. So everyone in the state would get two weeks’ worth of groceries,” said Jim Carnes, communications director for Alabama ARISE.

4. Let grocery stores keep food that’s past its “sell by” date. Some food that’s right at or just past its sell-by date is still edible, and capable of feeding hungry people. Food banks and operations like Magic City Harvest can send refrigerated trucks to grocery stores to pick up that food and quickly distribute it to people who need it — but it’s not so easy in Jefferson County. The problem is that current regulations do not allow grocery stores to keep any food that’s past its sell-by date on the premises at all — not even in refrigerators in the back of the store, where it can be safely held for a few hours until food banks pick it up. Stores caught with goods past the sell-by date on site during an inspection risk their ability to stay open. Worse, the food is sent to landfills, where it creates greenhouse gases that hurt the environment. (Wasted food produces just as much methane as livestock; for details, read Jonathan Bloom’s book, Wasted Food.) Hunger in our community is high: With 30 percent of families reporting that they did not have enough money to buy the food they needed, the Birmingham-Hoover area has the tenth highest rate of food hardship in the nation, according to Food Hardship: A Closer Look at Hunger, a report released this month by the Food Research and Action Center. We can do better for our neighbors and for nature.

5. Food truck freedom. Food truck food is like street music: It’s where innovation can happen, quickly and inexpensively. And it’s where you can enjoy creative genius on the cheap. The food truck trend is peaking in cities across the nation, with meals on wheels covering a range of eats, from lobster rolls, curried goat, and tacos, to whoopie pies and drinking chocolates. But food safety is key — and food safety laws that are on point and work well do help food truck businesses (by easing any stigma-based concerns about eating food from a truck).  Still, governments all over the country are struggling to keep up with the trend, and Greater Birmingham is no exception. In June this year, the Dreamcakes Cupcake truck was ordered to leave Pelham. Because Dreamcakes is based in Homewood and not Pelham, the truck of sweets was in violation of three ordinances. (Metro area government, anyone?) It’s also not easy to start up a food truck on a dime: According to State of Alabama regulations, these businesses have to have a brick-and-mortar base of operations (a commissary, to use health department lingo) where food, utensils, supplies, and commercial appliances like refrigerators are kept. A food truck is considered a satellite of the commissary. State law also requires that a food truck go back to its commissary at the end of each day for good and sanitary reasons, such as emptying wastewater. Until there are creative ways to meet those food safety needs that satisfy health department inspectors (and those creative ways can be written into state codes), food truck businesses will need plenty of cash to keep rolling.

6. A kitchen incubator. Current laws make it hard for someone to take their awesome cookie recipe and turn it into a business. Unless you have the cash to convert your garage or basement into a commercial kitchen, starting a home-based business in your own kitchen is illegal. (And if you do have that kind of cash, you’ve got to get past zoning laws before you start planning your renovation.) Bottom line: Our laws could do a better job of stimulating the local economy by making it easier for new start-ups to get legit starts and grow. “Martha Stewart would not have been able to start her business if she had to start with the laws we have in place now,” said Hanson Watkins, owner of Indie Candy in Mountain Brook. “Martha Stewart started catering from her home. Sister Shubert started with just a couple of pans at a bake sale.” Watkins started her all-natural, allergen-free candy business as a single parent of two small children driving two and a half hours each way to the kitchen incubator in Florence, Ala. “We have got to have a food incubator in Birmingham,” she said. “If you have just one product and not a product line, or you just want to test something, you don’t have a chance. Most people don’t have $100,000 to see if their barbecue sauce or their fig jam is going to fly.”

A kitchen incubator would give small start-ups a low-cost way of launching a business (many kitchen incubators also support small start-ups with marketing, packaging, accounting, business plans, and other assistance), and, as Watkins points out, it would make underground start-ups less appealing. A kitchen incubator would need community support, though. “It’s not going to be financially self-sustaining,” Watkins says. “It’s going to need ongoing grants and money to survive. But it can create jobs and businesses with longevity that employ people at a variety of levels. They’re not all just $7-an-hour jobs. Businesses also need marketing and managerial staff, too. An incubator has a lot of community value that is way beyond the couple hundred thousand dollars a month to keep it going.” Fortunately, there are efforts to start kitchen incubators in the greater Birmingham area, including an effort that’s captured the interest of the Homewood City Council and Samford University, Watkins said.

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This is just a starter list of things that could make food in Greater Birmingham better. And there will always be more. (I’ll save urban chickens, immigration and retail sales of raw milk for another story.) If there were any one overall wish, it would be for leaders and voters who get how food is so deeply a part of our daily lives. It touches our economy, our policies and our social and moral identity — as well as our taste buds.

Shaun Chavis is a writer and editor specializing in food and food issues. She’s founder of the Birmingham Foodie Book Club, Food Blog South and a member of Slow Food Birmingham. She works as a cookbook editor for Oxmoor House.

Share your ideas for improving Birmingham’s food scene by visiting weldbham.com.