An old Latvian proverb proclaims that “A smiling face is half the meal.” Ashley McMakin, the owner of the Birmingham area’s five Ashley Mac’s restaurants, has been putting smiles on the faces of her customers for more than a decade with her delicious comfort meals. The restaurant’s signature dishes-mouthwatering creations like poppyseed chicken and strawberry cake- have gained Ashley and her partner husband Andy accolades from fans and critics alike, but McMakin said that the success has been a sweet surprise reminding them of God’s faithfulness. Today she smiles as she looks back at the business’s humble beginnings and the way God has used it to bless others.
Humble Beginnings, Unexpected Success. Ashley Mac’s was born “as a hobby” in a small Homewood condo in 2007 after Ashley McMakin graduated with a business degree from the University of Alabama and returned home after a year serving in China with Campus Crusade ministries. “I got engaged the day I got home from China and looked into culinary school, but we were broke newlyweds,” McMakin remembers. Instead, she began work at a local advertising agency and started catering out of her condo with a friend from work. They began catering parties and corporate lunches and within three months she quit her job to work full time with the new venture.
Recipes were developed and dishes tested, as they tried to build a menu that was “a little bit better than your Momma’s.” That idea- to not be super trendy, but to appeal to the average person who likes delicious comfort food and may not have time to cook- started then and continues today. McMakin’s husband saw the potential for growth and quit his own accounting job to, as he would tell friends and colleagues, “help my wife start her business.” Together they named it Ashley Mac’s and opened their first location- a catering and to-go place only- in Bluff Park in 2007.
“During that time is when we felt like God called us to Ashley Mac’s,” she said. “We feel that we are called to the restaurant industry like missionaries are called.” Their first employee hire is indicative of the way the McMakins do business with faith and concern for others. When the business was first run out of their home, Wanna Conner had just married their downstairs neighbor. One afternoon they went to introduce themselves and Andy asked, “Do you like to cook? And do you need a job?” Conner joined them on the spot, was the first official employee at their first location, and still works for Ashley Mac’s today.
The number of employees grew as Ashley Mac’s continued to gain popularity, and expansion was inevitable. “As it continued to grow, we got our name on the map with stories in food sections, and then we did Pepper Place. We love being involved in the community, and a lot of our current customers first discovered us there,” McMakin said. The second location in Cahaba Heights opened soon after; affectionately called “the pink house,” it was a pick-up location only. They soon discovered that there might be a market for something more. “We saw that there was a market over there, so we opened our first restaurant, sit-down location in Cahaba Heights in 2010,” she said. “The joke is that when we got the place it was going to be pick-up only. My husband looked at the space with tables and said, ‘Why don’t we let people sit down and eat?’”
“That’s called a restaurant,” she laughingly answered, knowing the hard work involved in operating a full-fledged restaurant. “My husband was right, though. He was the visionary. We learned so much from that first store and after that he had me on board.” The menu developed–very similar to what it is today–and the three-pronged concept of their business was born, with catering, gourmet-to-go, and a cafe offered. Locations in Inverness (2013), Riverchase (2015), Homewood (2017), and Pizitz Food Hall (2020) followed.
Family-focused in Midst of Challenges. While finding success with Ashley Mac’s, the couple struggled personally with infertility- something that McMakin said today shows God’s plan for their lives. She took infertility treatments and prayed for a child, all while the restaurant started and then flourished. “At the beginning, I didn’t really have the desire to make the business bigger, and I decided that I’d do it until I got pregnant. But we never did get pregnant, and then went on fertility treatments for two and a half years,” McMakin recalled. “God used that time for us to build the business. If we had a baby, there wouldn’t be an Ashley Mac’s.”
Their first son, Ryder, was born in 2009 and was followed by Jackson in 2011. They each arrived while McMakin worked to open new locations, and Jackson came while dealing with a fire at the Cahaba Heights café. “Each time, people would laugh that with each location we’d have a kid,” McMakin said, not realizing at the time that there would be some truth to the joke.
While in the middle of preparations for the Riverchase location, the McMakins began the process to adopt a daughter from China; the adoption, which took place through Birmingham’s Lifeline Christian Services, brought 2-year-old daughter Mally to them in 2015. “When I lived in China, Andy and I would Skype and I’d tell him that I really want a little girl from there one day,” she said. “Throughout the infertility process, we’d always discussed adoption.” According to McMakin, the adoption process was a smooth one. Since Mally had a minor heart condition, the process was somewhat sped up; the adoption took about 10 months, whereas usually, it takes more than a year. “Lifeline has partnerships in China, and they facilitate everything. They were great to work with,” she said.
More family additions came through a fostering situation with two former employees. The McMakins got to know their families and during difficult situations, they’d care for their children on weekends. “As we were opening the Homewood location, they asked if a child could live with us,” McMakin said. “He stayed with us for two years.” The situation, McMakin said, was an extension of the grace they try to extend to their employees and in all business dealings. “We’ve always been taught by our church that life is our mission. We don’t separate work and faith. And we felt like God was telling us to take these kids in, even though we’d never necessarily felt called to fostering. We were just responding to a need. Doing life with our employees,” she said.
That Christ-centered business philosophy, according to McMakin, is stressed in all of Ashley Mac’s plans and dealings. The restaurant finds some employees through Jobs for Life (a program that helps people through addiction, poverty, and other issues), where McMakin has served as a mentor. “We strive to create a culture that’s different than the typical restaurant industry, which can be rough,” she said. “We want employees to feel respect and to know that there’s dignity and worth in work.” Ultimately, she said, their core value is grace.
A Bright Future. The recent coronavirus pandemic brought extra challenges to McMakin, as she worked to continue supporting her employees and customers while battling to keep the business open. Ashley Mac’s business model, however, made the challenge a bit easier for McMakin than other owners. “Restaurants had to pivot to figure out how to do what we’re already doing,” she said. “Gourmet-to-go saved us through Covid. People already knew us for that and thankfully our loyal customers continued to support us, and we gained new customers who were looking for a place to get take-home meals.”
McMakin shut down dining for a period of time and had to furlough some employees, but thankfully was able to recently reopen. “The first day we reopened, we wondered if anyone would come,” she remembered. “At first we might have two tables occupied, but now we stay pretty full along with social distance and a limited number of tables.”
“We’ve hit what we call a new normal, but we’ll be excited when it’s over,” she said. McMakin’s immediate plans for Ashley Mac’s include the upcoming holiday season, which she expects to be especially busy with more people eating at home because of the pandemic. The restaurant will offer new holiday packages to make dining at home easier, and further plans for the business include possible expansions into other areas inside and outside of Birmingham. Whatever comes, McMakin said that the business is in God’s hand.
When Covid was at its height, she realized that it could mark the end of Ashley Mac’s–and she rested in the knowledge that that would be okay. “We knew that God had given Ashley Mac’s to us, so if it was the end, we understood that. We’d weathered so many issues in our lives and the business and felt like Covid wouldn’t stop it, but if it did there would be something else for us,” she said. And now? She rests in the witness Ashley Mac’s can give to others, and the smiles it puts on her customers’ faces. “You don’t always think about the significance of what you’re doing,” she said, “but when you hear stories from people who are celebrating around your food, it puts things into perspective. Food is such a central part of life, and we’re blessed to have a part in it.”
-Cheryl Sloan Wray
Wray is a freelance writer and author who lives in Hueytown; she looks forward to the holidays with husband Gary, three daughters, and six grandchildren. She’s also the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference.
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