By Sam Prickett
After spending 10 years working in the grocery business, Jeff Gentry saw an opportunity to fill a gap in his hometown of Vestavia Hills.
“I’ve lived in Vestavia my whole life, and on this side of town there’s just not really anywhere to go to get a cheeseburger, a beer, a bottle of wine, a piece of gouda — just the bare necessities,” he said. “There’s not a neighborhood market close by where you can go get things without having to go to a big-box store … . And given the conditions of everything right now, who wants to get out in all that mess?”
Enter the Backyard Market, which celebrated its grand opening last month. It’s a combined grocery store and restaurant with a gourmet focus, located just off Montgomery Highway. Gentry based the concept on neighborhood markets he’d visited in New Orleans, which he said have flexibility that many larger retailers don’t.
“I’ve sold to retailers across the country, and I’ve been to different independent grocery stores all across the country, and the independents are the ones that have the ability to change and evolve, especially in this climate that we’re in,” Gentry said. “People shop where they live, and I think things are starting to turn even more that way. Being independent, you have the ability to carry whatever items you want to carry and just provide for whatever people need.”
Gentry worked at the supplier Gourmet Foods International from 2010 to 2014, when he left to start his own company, Bamawise, with business partner Bobby LeMoine. Bamawise connects small food producers with the larger retail market, and its local focus has carried through to Backyard Market.
“We’ve got a lady who lives back here, (Sally McKay) of Sally’s Confections, who makes frozen cookie dough that we’re selling in here for people to take home and bake their own cookies,” Gentry said. “We carry a lot of local products: Conecuh Sausage, Southern Organics. We’ve got cage-free eggs from north Alabama.”
There’s also a large wine selection — at least 100 different bottles, Gentry said, “that you can’t find at Publix.” And there’s an unconventional selection of meats, including elk, rabbit and wild boar tenderloin. “We’ve got a lot of products you won’t find in normal grocery stores,” Gentry said.
Cooking to Order at In-House Restaurant
If you’re unsure of how to prepare your wild boar tenderloin, or just not in the mood to cook it yourself, you can take it over to the in-store restaurant, where they’ll cook it for a fee for both dine-in and carry-out customers.
“If you and your wife come in, and you’re in a hurry and want to grab a steak, and she wants to get a salad or pasta or whatever, we can cook it for you here,” Gentry says. “You can grab a bottle of wine off the shelf and pay a corking fee and drink the wine here, or you can buy a bottle and take it home.”
The restaurant is headed up by two Birmingham chefs, Leo Oliver and John Williams, and will offer a menu of its own.
Oliver “brings a wealth of knowledge and experience that I don’t have on the restaurant side,” Gentry said, having worked at Jim ’N Nicks, Big Bad Breakfast and as a corporate chef for Mercedes.
“He was feeding 2,000 people a day when he was working with Mercedes, so surely he can feed the neighborhood over here,” Gentry laughed.
Williams, meanwhile, has a résumé that includes Satterfield’s Restaurant, OvenBird and Hot and Hot Fish Club.
“We’ve got a really, really good mix,” Gentry said.
The restaurant will feature “a pretty extensive breakfast menu,” a daily slate of lunch and dinner specials, and simple staples such as sandwiches, wings, chicken fingers and salads. They’ll also prepare grab-and-go options such as chicken salad and pimento cheese.
The restaurant has a “neighborhood, laid-back,” atmosphere, Gentry said, and includes a large patio and outdoor seating area. “We’re going to have live music on the weekends. There’s an awesome sunset off the corner in the afternoons. We’ve got a lot of TVs in here, too, so we’ll be ready for March Madness and football.”
The alleyway that Backyard Market shares with Bob’s Power Equipment will be blocked off in the afternoons to provide a play area for kids while their parents eat.
Opening a restaurant and grocery store during a pandemic has not been without its obstacles, though – particularly with regard to staffing.
“We’ve got an incredible staff, but we are hiring,” Gentry said. “That’s been the most challenging thing. We’re in about a 3,000-square-foot space, and for the amount of volume that’s coming through here, we need more kitchen help … . We’re just trying to feel through it, but every (problem) we’ve identified can be fixed, so that’s a good thing. We’ve got a great space and the community’s supporting us, so we’re excited.”
The pandemic also has opened up opportunities for expansion, something Gentry said he’s already started to consider.
“We’re in talks and discussions right now for some other locations in other areas,” he said. “We’re going to get everything ironed out and get this figured out and rolling on all cylinders, but we’re looking at a spot in Louisiana, maybe around the Birmingham area, and then maybe some Gulf Coast stuff, too … . We don’t need 20,000 to 50,000 square feet. We can come in with a much smaller footprint. It’s been extremely unfortunate that a lot of (businesses that size) have closed, but there’s some space available. We’ve got some feelers out there.”
The Backyard Market is at 633 Montgomery Highway in Vestavia Hills. For more information, visit thebackyardmarket.com.