By Christiana Roussel
Photos by Mary Fehr
Owning and operating a restaurant in normal times can be thrilling but challenging. Throw in a pandemic, and what used to be exciting can become nerve-wracking or downright scary. The best restaurants will not only survive but thrive when there are a number of hallmarks in place: location, location, location (of course); experienced leadership; a well-honed concept; and great staffing. Chef John Hall has all those components in his Post Office Pies restaurant that debuted in Lane Parke this fall.
The people want pizza.
And they want it close by.
And they want it to be amazing.
And they want it to be from a local business, not a chain.
Enter Post Office Pies, in Lane Parke.
Riffing on a tried-and-true concept takes a deft and experienced hand which is exactly what Chef John Hall and his partners, Brandon Cain, Hunter Lake and the late Mike Wilson (see sidebar) bring with their Mountain Brook version of the Avondale favorite hotspot. The team takes the best of the original—including that all-powerful brand-recognition—and tweaks it a bit to be what this dining market is craving. The end result has already proven to be a true crowd pleaser.
Sitting down with Chef Hall, we talked about this new location and why it is exactly what Mountain Brook diners love. To begin with, the footprint of the Mountain Brook location is slightly larger than the original yet feels larger with the high ceilings and large windows. Additional outdoor seating has been a boon to being open seven days a week and staying socially distant. In terms of the menu, Hall notes: “We have a gas-burning stove here—we don’t have that in Avondale—so we can do some different things here that we are not capable of doing there.” That translates into wider menu offerings that will include soups, sandwiches and pasta dishes that just aren’t possible at the Avondale space.
Avondale regulars will be happy to know that the Swine Pie is front-and-center on this menu, as well as other favorites like the Saw’s BBQ pizza and the seasonal kale and Brussels sprouts salad. “Our Buffalo Chicken pizza is a big mover here too, as well as a lot of gluten-free items,” Hall adds. “I’ve never seen anything like it! Our cauliflower crust sells like crazy.” For those new to Post Office Pies, there are always build-your-own options.
This restaurant—like Carrigan’s, ABHI, brick & tin and Sol y Luna—is a Mountain Brook outpost of other Birmingham locations, and there seems to be a rubric to follow when entering this market. All of the aforementioned have successfully taken the best of the original locations but changed things just a bit to be what Mountain Brook diners are seeking. Enhanced wine and cocktail offerings are one constant among these spots. Additionally, diners here are more family-centric and look for menu items that will appeal to the junior set of patrons.
Successful proprietors have found a way to stay true to their roots while adapting to fit the Mountain Brook needs. Hall observes that “the interesting thing about this location is that we are attracting some of the parents or grandparents of kids who have been coming to our Avondale location for years. Those kids have been attending music shows at Avondale Brewery (just next door to Post Office Pies in Avondale). They already know us and love us, but now we are being introduced to a different sector of diners. There are more families here, more kids.
Avondale is an entertainment district with a different vibe. This Post Office Pies is more family-oriented. Both locations are great but just having Avondale made us one-dimensional, and we knew we could be more. This location gives us a broader reach, for sure. We have a great product, and I think it is important to strategically place yourself in a place where you are reaching multiple demographics.”
Beyond mastering the art of the pie, Hall has serious restaurant chops. After graduating high school here in Birmingham, he went on to pursue an associate degree in culinary arts from the prestigious Johnson & Wales University in Charleston. Between his first and second years there, he came back to Birmingham and worked under Chef Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar & Grill. Fine dining is most definitely in his wheelhouse and something he excels at. From there, the chef went on to get a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Johnson & Wales in Providence, which has proven invaluable in the operations side of the restaurant industry. And no doubt, that degree has been very useful, now more than ever, when the need to pivot becomes imperative.
Several staff members came to the Mountain Brook location from Avondale too, which made the opening somewhat smoother. “Employees are getting acclimated to working again—some have not worked in six months—but everyone is getting their bearings,” Hall notes. “Every time I think about (opening a restaurant in the midst of pandemic), I think we’re crazy, but also we had to. We still have some kinks to iron out, things to fix, but honestly, it still feels surreal to have people here!”
The pandemic isn’t the only thing making 2020 a year like no other; certainly race relations have been top of mind this year as well. I asked Chef Hall what it is like, being a Black man, owning and operating a business in Mountain Brook? He paused for a moment before smiling and answering thoughtfully, “Because of a lot of exposure and national attention, people are welcoming and receptive. There are people who are proud and happy we are here. That said, I do feel more pressure to be successful here, as a Black business owner. The pressure to not fail. Any restaurant owner already has that pressure but it feels like extra added pressure.”
In the past, Chef Hall has done private parties in homes all over town, serving a different type of cuisine that lets his entire skill set shine. His menus at those events are spectacular and extremely well-executed, down to the smallest detail. Having attended a few of those intimate dinners, I asked him if he has future plans for a possible fine-dining restaurant in Birmingham: “I still have plans on doing a different concept at some point. But if I do, it has to be something that can work with me still overseeing operations at Post Office Pies locations as well.” In the meantime, we are lucky to have Post Office Pies this close to home, where we can gather together and dine well with friends and family alike.
Note: Post Office Pies is open every day except Thanksgiving. That means that you can still get your Swine Pie fix even on Christmas Day!