There is a running joke amongst some Mountain Brook restaurant owners that Crestline Village is the food court of our fair city. Given the population density and younger demographic of this area, it is easy to see why so many food retailers are attracted to Church Street. In just a few square blocks, diners can enjoy everything from loaded hot dogs and fries to sushi and pad prik pork. There’s fresh seafood from the Gulf and protein power plates, fried chicken sandwiches and the best onion rings around. Then there’s the new Piggly Wiggly with a butcher AND a fishmonger, alongside hydroponic butter lettuce and organic kale offerings. Filling that niche in-between is Black Sheep Kitchen, a grab-and-go spot where chef-owner Julie Grimes creates made-from-scratch meals that travel well and are sure-fire people pleasers.
Julie grew up cooking and always enjoyed the process. Majoring in English at Texas Tech, she taught school for a few years but always felt more at home in a kitchen than a classroom. She completed a work-study culinary program in New York City and went on to work in the famed Danny Meyer-owned Union Square Café. (Meyer’s restaurant group is also behind the new Shake Shack coming to The Summit this summer.) The work was rewarding but the pace was grueling, and she knew she eventually wanted to make a change. Fast-forward several years to the time when Julie and her family moved to Birmingham and she landed a job with Southern Progress as an editor and recipe developer. The opportunity was perfect as it combined her first love, cooking, with her well-honed ability to write. Along the way, she learned what resonated with readers (and eaters!), what they wanted more of and what they could do without. All of this percolated in her mind, which is where the idea of Black Sheep Kitchen began. “I was always thinking about it, looking at possible locations and then when this space (in Crestline) opened up, the timing just seemed right,” she recounts.
From her corner spot adjacent to Church Street Coffee and Books, Julie and her small staff feed ever-growing numbers of Mountain Brook residents. “I would say that about 95 percent of my customers live in Mountain Brook but I am still—even in our third year of business—getting in new customers who have never tried us before,” she says. A Crestline resident herself, community support is one of the things that drew Julie to open Black Sheep Kitchen in this particular location. “This might sound like an odd analogy, but I feel like Black Sheep Kitchen is what the beauty shop used to be in a town this size: a place to see familiar faces and keep up with friends old and new. The people of this community have just been a real blessing to me. I love being a part of people’s lives here. Like we know who just had a baby, who is in the hospital. Above all, I want to feel like we’re a good neighbor to have.”
Getting to this stage in her business took some tweaking though. “I look back at the direction of where I thought this would go and so much has changed—portion sizes, menu options—but the core approach is the same. All those years I had of being an editor and a recipe developer informed my decisions here at Black Sheep Kitchen. What are the dishes people want to make at home versus what do they want to pick up? What are the dishes that the whole family will eat?”
Julie changes many menu items each week but knows that if she completely gets rid of certain items, there might be a mutiny. Her guiding mantra is, “I want everything we do to be rooted in the familiar.” “Of course, we want to be aware of trends and new ingredients,” she says, “but I always come back to that fact. For example, our chicken pot-pie and meatloaf are very humble foods, rooted in Southern tradition.” Other options in rotation show off her Texas roots, like Gran’s Texas Brisket with Onion Jam or Pork Roast with Apples and Onions. Menu offerings are the dishes people crave but might not have time to make from scratch. So Julie does just that. “For the chicken pot-pie, I start by roasting the chickens myself, pulling the meat off the bones and then making my own stock. We make the pastry ourselves.” And all those years perfecting recipes in the test kitchen added some secret skills to Julie’s arsenal. “The marinara meatloaf is another popular entrée we sell. We bring in imported Parmeggiano Reggiano to add that extra umami.”
Regular customers receive weekly emails from Black Sheep Kitchen with menu updates while others are apt to find Julie’s updates on Facebook and Instagram, showing off what has just come out of the oven, or noting that there are only a certain number of meatball orders left that day. “This is a community that really engages that way.” These social media followers will soon see something else new from Julie. She has a cookbook coming out this August from Oxmoor House: $10 Dinners: Meals for a Family of Four that Don’t Break the Bank. The idea originated while she was still working at Southern Living and her Oxmoor House editor, Rachel West, held on to the idea. The timing now seems perfect for its release. Featuring more than 100 weeknight-ready recipes, and several that would impress your mother-in-law, Julie seems once again poised to fill a kitchen need we never even knew we had.
A Chat with Julie Grimes
If you were renting a beach house for a week, what is the one kitchen tool you would take along from home?
A great chef’s knife is my first thought, but after that it would have to be a good whisk. You can use it to make a great dressing or a dessert.
What is something that works in Texas that might not fly here?
I have learned that if there is anything we make with pepper in the title – or gumbo or enchiladas – people here want to know just how spicy the dish is. In Texas, eaters want things a lot spicier than I make them here. I make a point to keep things low on the Richter scale. People can add hot sauce at home if they like.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
FOCUS! FOCUS! FOCUS!
If you could go back to school for an advanced degree, what would you study?
Oh, I would love to get my Masters in Gastronomy.
Tell us something about you that would surprise our readers.
I prefer to eat Black Sheep Kitchen Bacon Almond Cheddar Spread with Fritos scoops—no judgement, please!
What’s next for Black Sheep Kitchen?
I recently attended a Food Entrepreneurs conference at Auburn University because I’d like to launch sales of my products outside of our storefront, like our White BBQ Sauce and that Bacon Almond Cheddar Spread.