By Christiana Roussel
Photos by Kathryn Bell
Longtime Mountain Brook residents have seen more than a few changes to the Crestline retail scene over the years. Some of those changes have been met with outrage or raised hackles (we all remember the brouhaha over the CVS pharmacy and Piggly Wiggly relocations). Other changes have inspired and delighted residents, attracting more walking traffic to Church Street, and increasing tax revenue in Mountain Brook. After all, the one true constant in this city is that we relish tradition while always seeking to innovate and improve. You might not think a restaurant could fall into that category but Craft’s on Church Street really does just that.
Once home to a fantastic drug store and soda fountain, 49 Church Street has also been the site of a CVS pharmacy and Miss Dot’s restaurant. But it is in its latest incarnation that may be the best one yet. Craft’s on Church Street took the concept of Miss Dot’s—the source of some damn fine chicken and fries—and raised it several notches. Much of that change can be credited to the timing of new investors, Craft O’Neal and his son, Craft Jr. Most people know that Miss Dot’s was started by John Cassimus, of Zoe’s Kitchen fame, along with two other investors, Tyre Stuckey and Tim Ferguson. When John was ready to give up the restaurant business, he sold his share of the endeavor to the O’Neals, which marked the beginning of a new chapter.
To hear Craft tell the story, this steel-industry scion has had the itch to be in the hospitality business for about as long as he can remember. “My first in-depth exposure to the restaurant business was through my former in-laws, Zoe and Marcus Cassimus. Zoe’s (Kitchen) was founded in 1995, and I was able to observe firsthand the challenges and opportunities of the business,” he says. Even in college, the lure of hosting live music nights and serving great food to a crowd appealed to him. “My grandfather, the founder of O’Neal Steel, recognized my interest in the bar and restaurant business. As I was completing college, he told me that he would be my silent partner if I wanted to give it a try. Fortunately, I decided not to go in that direction (just yet) and joined O’Neal Steel.” After 35 years in the steel business, he is finally scratching that itch.
Joining the Miss Dot’s team, Craft and his son had an idea for the direction they wanted the business to pursue. “Craft Jr. and I became partners in Miss Dot’s with the goal of helping Tyre and Tim grow the brand into an even more important part of the Mountain Brook community. Having grown up here, we know the high expectations people have here. We have been doing everything possible to elevate the customer experience to a level everyone appreciates.”
That started with the concept of converting Miss Dot’s into Craft’s on Church in the summer of 2019. General Contractor WatsonBruhn was brought on board to facilitate the physical part of the upgrade. They were involved with original build out of Miss Dot’s so they were familiar with what had already been updated and how they might make the changes effectively and efficiently. As Delia Folk of WatsonBruhn notes, “Our goal in construction was to minimize the down time and make sure the restaurant opened as quickly as possible to minimize impact on their business.” Minor tweaks to the layout, without changing the footprint, ensured this transformation took place. “The biggest difference in changing Miss Dot’s to Craft’s was taking out the bar, adding seating and creating an order line that maximizes efficiency of customer flow,” she notes. The pandemic saw some additional adjustments, like fine-tuning the to-go process and establishing a pick-up area for those orders.
The menu got a second look with the change as well, with more variety in the offerings, items that appeal to a broader range of neighborhood diners. Chicken can be ordered fried, grilled or baked and there really is something for everyone – even those looking for healthier options. About those slightly addictive fries, Craft says “The fried are unique and very popular. Local food vendor, Wood Fruitticher, helped us develop those. We are also now serving breakfast – in addition to lunch and dinner – and are growing our catering business. We are thrilled to have Winn Crockard overseeing that part of Craft’s.” There is a designated cooler, located by the drink machines, which houses a variety of sauces that amp up the flavor of anything they touch. Craft adds, “Indeed, the sauces are all good and make our food even better. They include Dats, White Lightning, Honey Mustard, and Ranch. They were popular when we joined the restaurant, and we encourage our customers to try them all.”
Yes, the chicken and fries, salads and sides are big sellers at Craft’s on Church Street, but there are lots of regulars who will tell you that the frozen drinks are their true go-to menu items. Craft adds wryly, “We do have a lot of frozen drink fans. In fact, when Craft Jr. and I first got involved, everyone was telling us how much they loved Miss Dot’s frozen drinks.” This feedback inspired the team to tweak the menu and expand their food offerings which really resonated with customers. They amped up their bar game too: “Late last year, we added a new team member, Jorden Estis, who brings bartending experience to the team. She helped take our drink offerings to a new level, most recently collaborating with Hatton Smith II on a Campesino Rum Coconut Mojito.” It is interesting to note that Craft’s frozen drink sales benefitted from the pandemic: “We did experience a surge in frozen drink sales last March into the summer as people were adapting to work-from-home.”
The steel industry and the restaurant business might seem like very different endeavors, but there are definitely skillsets that are useful in each. “Adding Craft’s and the development of my new entertainment venue, The Fennec (see sidebar), to my full-time responsibilities at O’Neal Steel has been a bit overwhelming, but rewarding,” Craft says. In both the metals business and hospitality industry, surprisingly, many characteristics overlap: the businesses both “start with the values of honesty and integrity and treating people with respect and dignity. Providing high levels of quality and customer service are also paramount to success in any business and we strive to provide that in everything we do.” Leaders also know the value of strong teams, delegating responsibilities to those with greater acumen in one area or another. “I recently recruited the manager of Hard Rock – Atlantic City, Jameson Cesar, to move to Birmingham as director of operations over Craft’s and The Fennec. Jameson embodies those values and passion for providing superior customer service and is the right person to help lead and grow these businesses.”
It is good to know that Mountain Brook is still a place where tradition reigns but we value innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit – all of which can be ordered with a side of really great fries, at Craft’s on Church Street.
The Fennec: Coming Soon
Slated to open later this year in Birmingham’s Parkside District, The Fennec will be something truly special in the post-pandemic entertainment and hospitality milieu of the Magic City. Named for a small pale-brown fox native to Africa, one with a penchant for nighttime frivolity, this new venue promises to live up to its namesake. With the ability to function on a number of levels – special event space, bar, live music venue, restaurant – The Fennec might just embody what Craft O’Neal dreamed of all those years ago when he was still in college and his grandfather promised to be his silent partner. The name was chosen to be “something distinctive that also lets us tell a story with the whole concept, which we think of as having ‘the soul of a honky-tonk,’” he adds. “We think The Fennec will become a destination experience for locals and visitors alike.” None other than James Beard Award-winning chef and Mountain Brook resident Chris Hastings worked with the team to develop the food and beverage menus.