Made in Alabama: A Look at Alabama Makers

Jul 26, 2017

If you ask residents of Illinois what product that state is best known for, the answer might be farm equipment. Illinois, after all, is the home of John Deere. Kentucky might point to Bourbon Whiskey, and Wisconsin is the headquarters of Harley Davidson motorcycles. The state of Alabama has a few homegrown products you might not know about.

One good place to find these Alabama Makers are t events like these. We’re at a Makers Market where Alabama craftsmen and women gather to show their wares and promote their business. The Alabama Tourism Department spent all of 2016 highlighting local craftsmen and women across Alabama. Lee Sentell is Alabama's Tourism Director...

“We saw how many people there are all over the state of Alabama who are making items that are a higher level of what you would think of as crafts, its fine art for many of them and its locally sourced materials and it’s a growing industry and it shows the creative spirit of people in Alabama.”

Markets like this show off a wide variety of items, from board games, to pickles, to tuffets, to pottery. Tena Payne runs Earth Born pottery in Leeds Alabama. However, it was something other than making mugs and plates that got her officially in the pottery business.     

Earth Born in Leeds, Alabama
Credit Stan Ingold

“One of our hobbies is growing shiitake mushrooms and the first time that we got mushrooms, we tried to eat them all, gave them away froze them, we dried them, we were still getting mushrooms, so it occurred to me, who uses fresh food, fresh vegetables, and I said “restaurants.””

And that is how she got her big break...

“One of the chefs that I sold to had only been here six months, brand new, young fella, by the name of Chris Hastings, at hot and hot, and he bought my mushrooms and when I was there I saw some old broken pottery laying on the floor and I said, you know, I’m a potter too. He said you are? We need to talk…”

Now, Payne works with a number of high end chefs... “We have Hot and Hot here, we’ve got Ross Bridge, we have Revolve, we have Bellini’s and several corporate accounts.”

Payne is now going international with her plates and serving platters...

‘Now we have product in over 90 restaurants worldwide.”

Serving Dish in the Works at Earth Born
Credit Stan Ingold

Payne's shop is done in an old watch factory. The work benches have been replaced with potter’s wheels where today’s run of plates and platters are taking shape.

“So from that point forward, it was a trial and error and he was giving me feedback on what he needed as a chef and I asked him if they needed to be round and white and he said no you do whatever you want to do, I need it to do THIS and had a list of criteria.”

A lot of work and detail goes into Payne's work, as the clay is mixed, molded, cut, shaped, fired and glazed, the craftsmanship is one thing, but Payne say there is something else that draws chefs and restaurant owners to her work...

“It’s actually a good hook for me when I’m selling, I say “you have all this beautiful food, you’ve sourced it locally, you’ve learned locally and you’re gonna put that on a dish from China?” you know? Here I am, here it is, and they see “oh yeah, that does make sense.””

Payne's shop is Leeds wasn't the only place I visited. In Western Alabama, just south of Tuscaloosa is a hub of creative activity. Greensboro Alabama is home of Hero, the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization. They serve the black belt with housing and creating small business.

They have project called “Hero Bike.” They make bicycles and the sales from those go towards benefiting housing in the Black Belt. Now the bikes they make are not your typical, run of the mill bicycles. They're made out of a renewable resource found all over southwestern Alabama...Bamboo.

Bamboo Bike Made at Hero Bike in Greensboro, Alabama
Credit Stan Ingold

“Bamboo grows prolifically around the area, its everywhere,"

That’s Cailley Cole-Sigmon. She helps runs Hero Bike…

“It’s pretty hard to get it to stop growing. It’s an awesome way to build bikes because it’s really sustainable, its durable and its everywhere, it’s really cheap and we can make a lot of bikes and it’s a universally positive way to use that resource.”

The bikes are made just down the street from their offices, where they can custom make a bike to fit any rider. Sigmon smiles when asked about if the bamboo is strong enough to be a bike…

“They use it for scaffolding in Asia, if you look at a piece of bamboo it just has, these kind of natural support things in it, it just makes it a really strong, tough material.”

Push Bike Made From Bamboo by Hero Bike in Greensboro, Alabama
Credit Stan Ingold

The process of building a bamboo bike is just like putting together a puzzle, with a slight possibility of maiming…

“We have to take a piece of metal and poke holes in the natural layers it has, otherwise, they used to use bamboo as an explosive because the pressure will build up when heated then it just explodes so we do that so we don’t die…”

It gets simpler after that…

“Then we take that saw over there, cut the bamboo into pieces we need, we set up a jig and we set up the pieces and set up the basic bike frame.”

Outfits like Hero bring people from all over to experience other parts of country and to help out those in need. “Provides employment, we can hire local people to come work and make money building bikes for us. One of the things we like to do with small businesses is that we start them up and then we pass them off to local people like Pie Lab.”

Credit Stan Ingold

Pie Lab is right across the street from the Hero Bike workshop. It was started originally as a social experiment to get people from all walks of life to get together and talk over pie.

Seaborn Whatley co-owns and run Pie Lab with his wife…

“My wife and I are classically trained chefs, I went to the CIA in New York and she went to Johnson and Wales in Charleston South Carolina.”

That’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency. When asked why, as a classically trained chef he came back to rural west Alabama. Whatley says has a special connection to Greensboro…

“Well it’s my hometown, well one of my two home towns, I grew up between Greensboro and Moundville but grew up running the streets around here, and why shouldn’t a small town have good food.”

While they started, their reached extended to whoever could make the trip to Greensboro, but now they ship pies across the whole state…

“During thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter we do drops in mobile, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and probably fixing to start doing in Huntsville and Montgomery as well.”

What drives people to Whatley’s pies?

“The crust is what we’re always told, we do the old family recipe on some end and we play around on other.”

The secret is not a particularly healthy one…

“The crust has butter AND lard in it, I’ll tell you that.”

Whatley isn’t sure exactly how many pies they make a year, but over Thanksgiving alone they do over a thousand. But he says there are two pies that stand above the others in popularity…

Pecan Pie from Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama
Credit Stan Ingold

“That would be a toss-up between the brown sugar buttermilk and chocolate bourbon pecan.”

Makers like Whatley, Payne and the people at Hero can be found all over Alabama. People come from all over the country to find and experience their craft. The results may not be as famous as John Deere in Illinois, or Kentucky Bourbon. But, it is part of a shop local, support local movement that keeps small entrepreneurs like them in business.