At the Table with Ashley Mac


Culverhouse Alums Build Community Over Good Food

As Culverhouse students, neither Ashley (Marketing, 2002) nor Andy McMakin (Accounting, 2002) planned on opening a restaurant. In fact, Ashley Mac’s Kitchen started as a hobby. Andy was working at an accounting firm at the time, and Ashley was at a marketing agency, so she catered for friends and family, on the side, for fun. When other people starting taking notice, they moved into their first location in Bluff Park, a catering kitchen that was not open to the public.

But not being open to the public was not good enough for the public. Catering customers would ask for a catering menu to take home. They would come by the kitchen and ask to buy servings of items they tried at office events. McMakin was a little surprised but game: “oh, I guess you can buy a little bit.” This grew into their Market Items product line: containers of chicken salad, pimento cheese, frozen entrees.

“We had no cafe at that first little Bluff Park location in 2007,” she explained. “So our first official restaurant was in 2010 in Cahaba Heights.”

The Best-Laid Plans

One of McMakin’s favorite themes is holding on loosely to dreams and plans, and figuring out things as you go, along with a tribe of good people and a strong belief in God’s guiding hand. After all, she did not plan on opening a restaurant; she was “planning on having a bunch of kids and staying at home.” Now, in addition to five Ashley Mac’s locations, the McMakins have five children: one through adoption, two through fostering and two biological. “We do have a bunch of kids,” McMakin said, “and I just juggle home and a career as best I can.”

McMakin grew up in the kitchen, helping her mother and grandmother cook as early as she can remember. Her large family gathered around food, potlucks, big Sunday lunches. McMakin herself loved to bake–cakes and cookies and sweets, all her favorites.

Even now, when the McMakins are not working, they love to cook at home. Her husband and the boys like to grill, and McMakin makes homemade pizza. Their Chinese adopted daughter loves to make noodles from scratch.

Though she admits that her kids are typical in often preferring junk food to a home-cooked meal, she insists that they try everything at least once. “They’re pretty adventurous eaters,” she said.

“I love to get my kids in the kitchen,” McMakin went on. “I kind of let them dictate, what are we cooking? We love to do steaks and a lot of simple things, but good quality ingredients. I love to go to the Pepper Place market [in downtown Birmingham] on Saturdays. A lot of times I just get stuff there and then decide what to cook from that.”

Growing by the Book

After a year of work, McMakin published the first Ashley Mac’s cookbook, Ashley Mac’s Kitchen, in March. “I partnered with Hoffman Media, my publisher,” she said, “they were phenomenal and honestly held my hand through the process, through photo shoots, recipe development, and recipe testing.”

The book boasts more than 100 recipes. Many are Ashley Mac’s recipes, but also many that the McMakins enjoy cooking at home with family. As of this writing, the cookbook has shipped to over 36 states. “Now we’re getting lots of people wanting to get Ashley Mac’s in their cities,” McMakin said.

The People Are Big

“There was a book that someone shared with my husband and I one time,” McMakin said, “about a little girl that was building a town of chalk. And so she was drawing on this big outdoor surface with chalk. You get to the end of the book and the people are big and the houses are small.”

The child’s drawing is a metaphor for the McMakins, because they strongly believe that the “house” they are building–a successful restaurant chain serving refined Southern cuisine–is still smaller, perhaps even less important, than the people who are involved.

“For us, people are so important, and everyone has dignity in their work,” McMakin said.

She explained that in the early days of building the business, when they were not taking home any money, they decided to instead invest in good people.

“Even to this day, our core framework is built around our employees and it’s to improve their lives,” McMakin said. “We are a very employee-centric company and just want to give people opportunities. We are also a second chance employer, so we employ many people who are not employed in other places because of their backgrounds.”

In No Hurry

Now, with a new rebranding–new logo, colors, department language–Ashley Mac’s is ready for the future. “As we continue to grow, we’d like to put in some more locations,” McMakin said. “Hopefully Tuscaloosa is on the horizon. Maybe Huntsville, other parts of Auburn, other parts of Alabama. And then honestly, even continuing to build out the Birmingham market.”

But McMakin is in no hurry. “We want to do each location very well,” she explained. “We haven’t franchised, we are all company-owned, and ‘slow and steady wins the race’ is our motto.”

Authored by

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Zach thomas

Director of Marketing & Communications