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Local Spotlight: The Essential

Downtown Birmingham is definitely having a moment. This summer has been full of exciting additions to the area and the H2 office is buzzing about our new across the street neighbors, The Essential, a new concept from the founders of Baking Bandits and Feast & Forest. We stopped by the recently opened restaurant – located at the bottom of Founders Station on Morris Avenue – and chatted with owner Kristen Hall about her vision, how she got here, and of course, food!


“When we opened Feast & Forest the long term plan was always to expand and find a bigger space, but that need ended up coming much sooner than expected,” Kristen explained over coffee. Architecture was key to their vision, which led Kristen and co-owner Victor King to search for the right space for two years. When they initially looked at the location The Essential now occupies, it was a bank drive-thru that was partially underground. The building itself dates back all the way to it’s construction in 1887 so needless to say it took some creative vision to turn this spot into a charismatic restaurant. The cobblestone charm of Morris Avenue and untapped potential of the historic street were key factors in selling the space to the restaurateurs. “It has been a long time since this beautiful street has seen it’s full potential,” Kristen noted. In the end, they felt that choosing this new home on Morris Avenue would hopefully spark more businesses to join them.

The renaissance of downtown is evident, making it an exciting time to make the move into the city for professional or residential reasons. Kristen, who is passionate about the ‘rebirth’ of the area, told us there was no doubt in her mind that the new restaurant would follow Feast & Forest’s lead and occupy a home in town as well. “The downtown spirit is so different. There is so much heart in the city and it’s exciting to see so much opportunity for growth. Endless possibilities!”

While it’s apparent that Kristen and Victor have found their professional sweet spots, their paths weren’t always headed in this direction. Kristen, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and masters in public health, had spent her first twelve years working at UAB in medical education and community relations. But, she was always dreaming of new things, and eventually the time was right. “Sometimes things chose you.” The mom of two, soon started baking with her daughters and would leave treats on neighbor’s doorsteps, ring the doorbell and leave. Hence they became known as the “Baking Bandits.” That venture spiraled into Saturdays at the Farmer’s Market and eventually led to Kristen entering and winning Birmingham’s first “Big Pitch “ competition.

Co-owner Victor King who has a degree in entrepreneurship from Samford University has worked in restaurants for most of his professional career. He spent over 3 years working at Highlands Bar and Grill before pursuing a role in butchery. The pair met in late 2014 and realized that their perspectives on food worked well together, and they began building a plan for a brick and mortar. A few months later, construction began on 24th Street and Feast & Forest was born

Photo Credit: Mountainside Photo Co.

So why rebrand from Feast & Forest to The Essential? “Feast and Forest was a season, a chapter in a book, and it was very specific to that space,” Kristen detailed as she described why The Essential needed a story of it’s own. Victor and Kristen’s love for food and produce led them to want to do the minimal amount of things to it in order to make the food taste it’s best. They wanted the space, menu and name to honor this straightforward approach, thus “The Essential “ was born.

Fans of Banking Bandits need not worry though, just like these famous pastries were a part of Feast & Forest, they’ve once again found their new home at The Essential and Kristen is excited to announce the imminent launch of her new blog which will be centered around the fundamentals of baking pastries.

The Essential offers unique options for every meal. The menu will change seasonally so be sure to stop in every few weeks for a good sampling of what they offer. If you’re headed over there for the first time, Kristen recommends trying the Eggplant and Okra “It’s the perfect collaboration for summer.” She also recommends trying the Chicken Liver Mousse Éclair – the perfect collaboration of Kristen and Victor’s pastries and savory tendencies. “It’s the best of both worlds, I love to take pastries to unexpected places.” If that’s not your speed, they make all pastas by hand and Kristen suggests trying the rigatoni, paired with the roasted beet salad, and pork shoulder with peaches, cucumber and peanuts from next door! Try the blackberry almond cake and lemon meringue tart for dessert.

The aesthetic at The Essential is dripping with charm – a unique marble tile pattern lines the floor around the bar and a rich blue tone is carried subtly throughout the restaurant. “One thing we wanted to accomplish was to be open 7 days a week so that we can be part of every person’s, every day – from breakfast to cocktails. We wanted to create a home away from home for people who live and work downtown and love our city.” The end goal with the design was always to transform people’s experience of Birmingham and both owners are proud to know that their Parisian-esque spot transports people out of their typical Birmingham environment.

Photo Credit: Mountainside Photo Co.

Loft District Spotlight: Sweet Mornings at We Have Doughnuts


Doughnuts are a ubiquitous part of American food culture, not to mention coffee culture, yet they’ve never really been our favorite treat. But We Have Doughnuts’s Loft District perma-pop-up just might be changing our minds. The same solid craftsmanship that Loft District neighbors have applied to bar food and the classic cocktail shows up at We Have Doughnuts, and we’re officially impressed.

We Have Doughnuts specializes in “old fashioned” cake donuts, a style that has forever altered our ideas of what a doughnut could be. It’s lighter than we thought possible for a cake doughnut but with enough heft to feel like a solid treat, and that combination is what won us over. We’ve been known to complain that a standard glazed is a bit too much like eating sugared air. Regular cake doughnuts, on the other hand, can feel like eating a powdered brick.

If you’re suckers for a salty/sweet palate (like us!), the brown butter doughnut will make you a convert. We can personally recommend the blueberry doughnut as well: a yummy marriage of fresh blueberry muffin flavor and old fashioned doughnut texture, with a lingering hint of lemon for a perfect finish.

As much as we love their product, we’re equally impressed by their business approach, which combines social media outreach and a creative footprint. We Have Doughnuts’s regular space is a simple stand framed by the gorgeous marble facade of an empty downtown building. It’s basically a food truck with a reserved spot, and we think it’s a perfect display of the neighborhood’s energy for rapid transition and a crafty, entrepreneurial spirit.

These donut wizards have also been active in downtown events like Sidewalk Film Festival and Art on the Rocks ⏤ where they showcased a doughnut wall installation with a quippy gallery placard. It’s only a matter of time until we see wedding photos from Bridge Street or the Florentine with donut tiers subbing in for a groom’s cake.

In the meantime, catch them bright and early Tuesday through Friday at 112 20th Street North.* They open at 7:30, which is the perfect time for Loft District dwellers to stop by for a vaguely decadent (but somehow wholesome) breakfast. Just don’t wait too long. When the doughnuts run out, they close up shop. Based on recent Facebook posts, this seems to happen around 9am.

We’re around the office by then, should you want to stop by and share. Happy sugar high!



*Should you need a Saturday fix, place your order online for pick up at Satellite in Avondale, where you can also score a stellar latte.


Loft District Spotlight: Custom Clothing at Adrienne's Essentials

Adrienne Nixon has been dressing Birmingham ladies for years through Adrienne’s Essentials, her line of handmade clothing and custom creations. This year she moved her business operations from her home to 3rd Avenue North, where she’s able to combine old building charm with a convenient location for clients. We love to see growing local businesses, but we get especially excited when they bring something new to the neighborhood. So we’re excited that the Adrienne’s Essentials space means custom clothing is just around the corner for Loft District ladies.  Below, Adrienne tells us more about her business and how it found a home in the Loft District.




How would you describe your typical customer?
My typical customer is between 25-50. She’s a classic woman who loves items that she won’t see all around town. She tends to dabble in the trends with her accessories.

You have an online catalog of available items in standard sizes, and you create custom orders for clients as well. How does the custom process work, and what’s your favorite custom project so far?

When I have a person who is interested in having a custom garment made, the first thing they do is schedule an initial consultation online. Once we meet for the first time, we go over the type of garment they would like to have made and we start the design process. We can talk about this for a while. I always advise them on what will look good on their body type. Not only do I want them to be happy with their item, they are also representing my company and my work so it has to be flattering.

My favorite project so far has to be a pair of high waist red pants. I picked this one because my client lives in Mobile, Alabama and tailoring pants is a beast all on its own, but if you add the fact that your client isn’t in town it makes it a little more difficult but they were perfect. I know this is a gift that God has given me.

Image via Adrienne’s Essentials


How did you make the transition from a home-based business to a brick-and-mortar location?

The transition from home to brick-and-mortar was pretty easy. My work began to take over my home. I had fabric everywhere and everything was disorganized. I knew it was time to go to the next level.

Your shop is located on 3rd Avenue North, roughly a block away from popular Loft District shops and restaurants. What made you choose this part of Birmingham?

I LOVE Birmingham. I was originally looking at office space in Vestavia, and I really liked the space I was looking at but I didn’t LOVE it. The agent that I was working with told me that she had some space that had just come available and she hadn’t listed it yet. The first thing that I loved was the location. It was super easy to find and parking was easy. 

When she showed me the office space my heart melted and I fell in love IMMEDIATELY. There is an exposed brick wall in my office that makes me smile every single time I turn the lights on. It’s the perfect size for me. It’s not a “store” but it’s office space where I work and my clients come for our meetings and to pick up their items once they are ready.

You can reach Adrienne Nixon through her website or via email at info@adriennesessentials.com.

Our Team: Jess Anne Heppenstall


H2 Leasing Agent Jess Anne Heppenstall is a Birmingham native, an Ole Miss grad, and a recovering New Yorker. You could say she has mixed geographic loyalties, but she maintains firm Magic City roots.

Jess Anne’s grandfather was among the original families in Glen Iris Park, and that neighborhood remains her favorite. She thinks the area’s historic beauty is one-of-a-kind, and she’s happy to see it rising in popularity. She also says our Mesa Verde property is an example of great renovation work in a fantastic location next to Glen Iris Park.

Talking up the H2 brand comes naturally to Jess Anne because she sees happy clients on a daily basis. “H2 stands out when it comes to service and communicating with our clients,” she says. She believes that client communication is key to successful client placements, and she thrives on seeing the fruits of that work. “The gratitude and satisfaction when we are able to successfully place someone in their new home is super rewarding, and we love to hear positive follow up after a client has moved in,” Jess Anne says.

Her experience as a former marketing coordinator for H2 also meant opportunities for satisfying connections. From the inaugural Sloss Fest to the Swinging for Smiles Golf tournament benefitting Camp Smile-A-Mile, Jess Anne has kept H2 involved with great things happening around town. She also helped maintain our support for the Young Professionals of Birmingham and the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Art on the Rocks series, including this year’s After Rocks parties following the main event.

When she’s not helping folks #liveinbham, Jess Anne enjoys riding her horse, Andrew; taking her dog, Ollie, on long walks; and spending time with friends and family. She’s partial to a good glass of wine and an evening of Netflix, but you may well find her sampling the great Birmingham food scene. She absolutely recommends the burger at Chez Fon Fon, by the way, and says it’s “hands down the best burger in town!”

We think Jess Anne’s Birmingham grounding, cosmopolitan world view, and excellent taste in burgers make for top notch service to our prospective tenants. Reach out here if you’d like her help finding your next home.


Bham Events: January Theater

If your January could use some hilarity, you’re in luck. This month’s Birmingham arts schedule features three shows that promise a heaping dose of absurdity – the good kind – from our homegrown theater scene.

Image via Theatre Downtown

Beginning January 8th, Theatre Downtown presents Peter Nachtrieb’s Bob: A Life in Five Acts. The play’s synopsis of acts presents the main character, Bob, as a series of resurrection tales. He’s an orphan who rises from fast food obscurity to have his heart shattered, undertake an epic journey, find a version of success, follow it with redemption, and then “the rest.” The Theatre Downtown promises a character who “follows the journey we all take through life, and the weird and wonderful characters we meet along the way.”

Image via Virginia Samford Theatre

The Producers, that show business classic, opens at the Virginia Samford Theatre on January 22nd. Besides the timeless tale of theater hacks who conjure up “Springtime for Hitler” in a bid to close quickly and avoid investor payouts, this production includes local tap group the Birmingham Sugar Babies. This self-described group of “lovely, mature ladies” formed in 2002 for a single theater run and have been together ever since. They “range in age from 53 to 71 years young.” (Ed. note: The Sugar Babies are not included in our promise of absurdity. They are merely awesome.)

Image via Terrific New Theatre

Opening January 29th is Terrific New Theatre’s production of I’ll Eat You Last. Bette Midler premiered the role of Sue Mengers, agent to the stars and keeper of their secrets, on Broadway in 2013. Midler called the show’s writing “irresistible,” and the New York Times noted that it broke even only eight weeks into its run, which is almost unheard of. Kristin Staskowski plays Mengers in the Birmingham production, where Thursday shows – besides opening nights – are “pay what you can afford.”

Bham Beverages: A Bloody Mary Roundup


The new year is a symbolic fresh start, a time to shake off our disappointments of the past and move forward to new adventures. But after a whole holiday season – not to mention New Year’s Eve – we don’t always feel fresh come January. Sometimes it’s good to look back to old wisdom for solutions, and sometimes those solutions mean a slight repeat of the behavior that got you here. Sometimes, you just need a little hair of the dog.

Like many a recovering reveler before us, we tend to choose the Bloody Mary as our elixir of choice, blending past mistakes with hearty tomato juice, a hit of spice, and a sprinkling of vegetables to assure ourselves we’re taking the healthy approach.

Fortunately, Birmingham is a brunch-inspired kinda place, and there are plenty of neighborhood beverage options. We’ve put together a handy reference guide below, so your metaphorical dog is never far away.

Highland Park

Rojo serves a classic Bloody Mary, by the glass or by the pitcher, at Saturday and Sunday brunch. Add in some bracing park time, and you’ll be on track with healthy resolutions.

Garage Cafe‘s Bloody Mary earned a mention in Southern Living, which recommended their “from-scratch bloody mary with eight different spices.” Available today and Saturday after 11 and Sunday after 3.


Five Bar offers the Bloody Mary Bar (!!!) at their Sunday brunch. If the standard bartender never gives you quite enough olives, this one’s for you.

Five Points

Cosmos also offers a Bloody Mary Bar during their Sunday brunch, with what appears to be a generous range of hot sauce options.


El Barrio mixes up a Bloody Maria during Saturday brunch hours, which sounds like a great way to vary your habits in the new year.

The Collins Bar, home of the custom cocktail, will tweak the recipe just for you today and Saturday after 2 and Sunday after 6.


Melt serves a Bloody Mary that sounds like a meal with habanero jack cheese and bacon, today and Saturday.

Bottletree includes a Spicy Bloody Mary on their Sunday brunch menu, along with vegetarian and vegan food selections for the full-on detox experience.

Forest Park

Silvertron also serves by the pitcher during Sunday brunch, providing the perfect pairing for a Crab and Shrimp Cake Benedict.

Loft District Spotlight: St. Paul's Cathedral

st. paul's cathedral

These days, St. Paul’s cathedral boasts a diverse congregation, beautifully maintained historic structures, and bells that mark the hours for Loft District residents. But its back story is far more complex than the casual passerby would imagine. From its architecture to its role in a shocking murder, St. Paul’s Cathedral reveals forgotten histories of Birmingham.

The Building

The congregation has been downtown since 1872, according to the cathedral website, beginning in a more modest church near the current site, not acquired until 1880. Construction on the current cathedral began in 1890 and was completed in 1893, the site explains. The most complete description we found of the building’s architecture comes from its application to the National Register of Historic Places, which notes that St. Paul’s was established in a brand new Birmingham and grew with the city:

The present cathedral was built during the city’s first major period of expansion, which was touched off by the ironmaking and real estate boom of the late 1880s. In addition to its importance as an individual structure, it is an important remnant of the city’s first major public square, the heart of which was the Jefferson County Courthouse (1889-1930), which stood on the western half of the cathedral block. The spires of the cathedral and the bell tower of the nearby First Presbyterian Church (1888) contribute to a distinctive urban skyline that was formerly dominated by the central tower of the Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse.

Its chosen Christian imagery represents the parish’s ethnic origins ⏤ St. Anthony for the Italians and St. Patrick for the Irish ⏤ while a Holy Family image features the carpenter father Joseph, who resonated with the many laborers in early congregations, notes the cathedral website. But the symbols that now appear as historic markers of an immigrant community also hint at that community’s outsider status in the Magic City, demonstrated most dramatically with the murder of Father James Coyle in 1921.

The Murder

“The assassination of Father James Coyle is a memorable tale of early Birmingham, played out at the intersection of romantic love and religious hatred,” writes  Weld columnist Courtney Haden. “The ensuing trial caused a national sensation and the chief attorney defending the murderer went on to become one of the most influential U.S. Supreme Court justices in history.”

Haden describes Coyle as an eloquent advocate for Birmingham’s Catholic population, comprised largely of immigrants, who penned letters to the local news rebutting anti-Catholic rhetoric. Coyle was a man used to being threatened for his vocal defense of an unpopular faith, according to Haden, but it was a marriage that would prompt his ultimate end.

Popular versions of the story from long-time St. Paul’s parishioners will tell you that Fr. Coyle married the daughter of a Methodist minister to a Catholic and that the enraged minister shot Fr. Coyle on the rectory porch the evening of his daughter’s wedding.

But the version Haden tells provides a more complicated view of the events, starring a strong-willed daughter who had herself become Catholic and who sought marriage to escape her father’s corporal methods of control.

Haden also details the role that Birmingham’s racial tensions, fueled by a revived Klan organization, played in the murder and the resulting trial of shooter Edwin Stephenson. Stephenson turned himself in immediately after the shooting, and he was represented at trial by future supreme court justice Hugo Black, she writes. Stephenson claimed to have fired at Coyle in the midst of a fight and in self-defense, but Black pursued a more persuasive defense strategy, Haden explains. He argued that Stephenson had been temporarily insane following the extreme stress of his daughter’s conversion and marriage, both enabled by Fr. Coyle. The jury found Stephenson not guilty.

Each year the cathedral holds a mass on the anniversary of Coyle’s death. The event is a remembrance of Coyle and his leadership, but the event invitation also highlights Coyle’s ministry and death as a continued reminder of the challenges Birmingham’s Catholic communities once faced.

Bham Design: Dungan Nequette Architects

“Think about how much time you spend in something that somebody drew.”  

– Jeffrey Dungan

We love the natural light in this stairwell detail in our Crestline custom home.

A photo posted by H2 Real Estate (@h2realestate) on

It’s no secret the folks at Dungan Nequette are our very favorite architects. You’ll see their names hashtagged on our instagram feeds and all over the plans for each custom build we undertake. We think the beauty of their work speaks for itself, but it never hurts to talk about why it speaks to us.

“We’re always focused on what is the desired experience of this room,” says Louis Nequette in the firm’s introductory video. He also hints at the power of contrasts they harness for their work, explaining that the transition from a windowless space helps to fully appreciate a light-filled room. (They specialize in those.) “You’re not really doing a floor plan; you’re laying out an experience,” says Jeffrey Dungan

Even before paint, these shapes from an Abbey Road cottage are awesome.

A photo posted by H2 Real Estate (@h2realestate) on

It’s not hard to find the firm’s Arts & Crafts inspiration. It’s written throughout the crafted details in every space they design. Their work is full of curves, nooks, barrel roofs ⏤ features you don’t see in the modern focus on linear space and flattened surfaces. There are eaves and depth and movement throughout their facades, even on the relatively modest footprint of a townhome at Abbey Road.

“When I’m designing, I’m always thinking, ‘O.K. I’m here. I enter. What do I see? Why is that interesting?’ “ says Jeffrey Dungan. Their leading lines keep the eye exploring and excited. Yet for all their artistry, these are deeply livable homes.

I love this little reading nook in our custom home in Crestline.

A photo posted by H2 Real Estate (@h2realestate) on

Open, flowing floor plans abound, with spaces delineated more by architectural features than by solid walls. Theirs is a world designed with light and texture. It’s modernity tempered with craftsmanship. They favor floor-to-ceiling casement windows rather than spare walls of glass. A delicate curve at the end of a stair shows a certain kind of care, devoid of any fussy tendencies.

Dungan Nequette homes manage to be stunning without being ostentatious. And that’s perhaps the biggest Arts & Crafts influence of all. Even at their most dramatic, these aren’t spaces that shout. They’re the kind that invite you in…and make you never want to leave.

Bham Development: Creating a Bike Culture


Birmingham does not have the most bike-friendly reputation. Dedicated lanes are basically non-existent, and as drivers we’re still learning how to share the road. But if the explosion in bike culture options in recent months is any indication, things are changing quickly. Two recent business startups ⏤ Parkside’s Wheel City Rentals and Woodlawn’s Cycle Cafe ⏤ highlight the potential for bikes in our urban leisure culture.

Wheel City Rentals offers ridiculously adorable vintage-style bikes in cruiser, tandem, or “Adult tricycle” configurations, available by the hour or the day. Operating out of Railroad Park, their location should be even more attractive once the Rotary Trail is ready, allowing renters a lovely and almost car-free ride all the way to Pepper Place.

Even now, though, the Loft District offers a relatively easy bike experience over less congested weekends, and the Wheel City website suggests downtown as a destination for independent renters. For folks less interested in solo cycling, Wheel City also offers tour options, using either cruisers or a 14-seat “party bike.” It looks unwieldy, but the novelty of a party bike is hard to resist. Either option seems like a good fit with the young, active Parkside branding.

Cycle Cafe has yet to open, but the Birmingham Design Review Committee gave owners the go-ahead in August, reported AL.com. The cafe will be a combination of coffee shop and cycling community hangout, according to AL.com, with co-owner Armand Margjeka telling the site he envisioned hosting screenings of the Tour de France. REV Birmingham will be the cafe’s landlord, AL.com reported, which seems like a nice tie-in with its imminent Zyp BikeShare launch, as well as the millenial-friendly work/event spaces at neighboring SocialVenture.

And of course, Zyp itself is the big debut we’re still waiting for. Will the coming years be the tipping point for widespread biking in Birmingham? We can only hope so. After all, Woodlawn’s business district is less than 4 miles of relatively level terrain from our Loft District offices. If we can make bike commuting popular enough that motorists have to adjust, Birmingham residents could pretty easily ride between some of our most popular urban areas.

Community rides like the Tour de Ham and Redemptive Cycle’s Trample have worked hard to make bike riding broadly accessible. If Zyp can successfully inject the REV Birmingham momentum into local bike culture ⏤ and lead the charge for more bike-safe traffic patterns ⏤ we might just see a local cycling revolution.

Bham Development: Why We Need Uber


Many of us would like to see continued Birmingham growth without the accompanying traffic snarls and parking headaches. And it is shockingly easy to imagine a life in many central Birmingham neighborhoods without daily car usage. Besides, who wants to devote precious downtown real estate to another parking garage? The only way to avoid that, of course, is to become less dependent on car ownership, and we think ridesharing services are part of that progress. But as recent press coverage has made clear, it’s not just our core development at stake; outside perception is on the line as well.

In July, AL.com ran a story composed almost entirely of tweets complaining about transportation problems. “The inaugural Slossfest brought national acts and thousands of visitors to Birmingham and to our city’s rusted jewel, industrial-space-turned-park Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark,” AL.com reported. “But outside the gates of Sloss Fest, it was difficult to avoid the clamoring on social media for transportation options.” Republished tweets complained about taxi wait times and expressed surprise that Birmingham Uber and Lyft weren’t even options.

“Resistance to innovation hurts the Birmingham brand,” wrote Art Carden, an associate professor of economics at Samford University, in an AL.com op-ed piece. “The city’s refusal to accommodate ridesharing innovators is sending prospective visitors and residents the message that they cannot expect the same amenities they take for granted in other cities.”

And if you’re not already convinced, there’s a public health argument for ridesharing as well. The Daily Beast reported on a study by Temple University Professors Brad Greenwood and Sunil Wattal which demonstrated the potential impact of Uber uptake on road safety. “Its key findings were that UberX significantly reduces the number of alcohol related motor vehicle fatalities, that the effect takes between 9 and 15 months to manifest, and during times of likely surge pricing, such as weekends and celebratory holidays associated with drinking, the effect is greatly diminished (most likely because fewer people use the service when its rates are increased).” (Click here for the original study.)

But of course this study points to an important caveat: Uber represents necessary progress, but it can’t be the whole answer to a less car-dependent city. Public transit remains an important stumbling block for this city, and one that no amount of Uber cars can fully replace. As we wait for the 2016 rollout of a bus system upgrade, though, ridesharing is a good place to start. And after a recent Uber meeting with city officials, we’re cautiously optimistic.

In the meantime, follow Magic City Movement for updates on the ridesharing movement in Birmingham. We hope you’ll join us in this push for progress.