15 Fulfilling Years
Birmingham Restaurants celebrates 15th Anniversary!
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson and Jan Walsh
On March 1, 2007, I launched BirminghamRestaurants.com. An unintentional pioneer of the local internet, I became back in the early (www) wild, wild, web days, when most businesses did not have a website—including restaurants. When we launched, Twitter was less than a year old. And Facebook had become a public site less than six months prior.
In 2006 I was a food and wine writer for print publications, locally, nationally, and one international mag, Wine Spectator. I also had a local wine events calendar in Birmingham magazine, at the time. Yet I found it difficult to get events from wine shops and restaurants in time to meet print deadlines. They did not always plan that far in advance. So, I proposed that the magazine take the events online instead. But I got a head shaking “No” response and was told they did not “like” the internet. Yet they were generous, offering the option for me to do it myself and syndicate my wine column there, along with Beau Gustafson’s professional photography from my column. I did like the internet and took them up on it.
First, I contacted my friend and former student from my teaching days, Richard Phillips, who had recently graduated from Auburn with a graphics arts degree. He took my ideas and developed the logo. I bought the domain name, BirminghamWine.com. And after meeting with several developers, including one who told me I could not use my own graphic artist, Richard—so they were fired before being hired. And I chose Infomedia to develop the website.
I did not actually intend to make money from the website. But I did not want to lose money either. So, I formed an LLC and planned to launch the site once I had enough wine retail and restaurant sponsors to pay for its development. I was delighted with the quick response, including wine departments at Piggly Wiggly, which remain sponsors today. And BirminghamWine.com was launched March 1, 2006 along with its e-newsletter Wine Weekly. I had always wanted my own business, and I finally had it—with no bricks and no mortar.
Yet I knew that a Birmingham Restaurants website was also needed. And I was determined to launch it next. Hungry for information on what to develop and how to best monetize it, I bought (of all things) a book on how to make money on the internet. On one of the first pages the author wrote that no one would ever make money selling advertising on the internet except Google. Given I already was, I tossed the book in the garbage and continued to research and figure it out for myself.
I envisioned Birmingham Restaurants as the online destination for locals and visitors to the area to discover the best restaurants—from casual fare to fine dining—in Birmingham, along with their menus and events. I did not know much about internet search at the time, but instinctively thought the name just had to be BirminghamRestaurants.com. Unfortunately, this name was already sold. And I had no means of finding who the owner was because it was privately held, as were many domain names back in the day. Thus, I could not even make an offer on it. Putting this problem aside, I began planning the design and functionalities of the website and working with Richard on the logo development. Drawing from my previous experience at a local software company, IACT, I drew rough ideas on paper. It was at IACT where I sat in development meetings with programmers, and I got it as I watched them draw ideas and interrelationships of functionalities on the walls on big white sheets of paper. I saw the connection of the frontend user to the backend programming and came to the realization that (pretty much) anything you can dream up, you can develop if you have the money—a BIG if.
I also searched for online models to get ideas and honestly did not like any of the restaurant directory models. I thought we could do better. The website was to be profile based with multiple pages for overview, menus, map, food pics, chef bios, and more. After a few months I had an agreement with Infomedia for the development, the logo and branding developed, a list of the best restaurants to invite to become members, a plan for the functionality, and an agreement with Birmingham magazine to syndicate my restaurant and food columns and Beau Gustafson’s fabulous food photography there. When B-Metro launched, I moved my columns there under the same agreement.
But I still did not have a domain name. Making one last attempt to find the owner of BirminghamRestaurants.com, I found that it had been put into an online, after market auction. I had two options, to bid or “buy it now” for $800. I immediately pulled out my credit card and became the proud owner of what was to become the online destination where millions of people (over the next 15 years) would find a restaurant for business lunches, weekend brunches, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, date nights, prom nights, wine dinners, holiday meals, and even popping the question. Beyond locals the website has been and is used by people all over the country and the world, who are planning a trip to Birmingham for business or personal reasons. For example, Food and Wine magazine used it to find restaurants to dine at for an article on Birmingham as a food city.
With the domain in hand, I once again signed up prospective clients and launched BirminghamRestaurants.com, on March 1, 2007—BirminghamWine.com’s first anniversary. With two online businesses, I was truly a one woman show. I worked on little sleep, still writing for print, and seeing the sunrise every day for months—all while signing up restaurants, mailing invoices, and publishing content myself. I soon realized I needed help I researched online and found software for invoicing. Eventually I hired part time help to manage content, including family and stay at home moms, but this role ultimately fell into Richard’s hands and remains there. I also tried part time help with sales, but most often the restaurateurs wanted to work directly with me. So, I remain in that role.
I am forever grateful to the chefs and restauranteurs who took a leap of faith and signed up for something that did not yet exist before the launch and who have remained loyal members during the 15 years since. Among the first to commit and who have remained: the late Guillermo Castro, Giani Respinto, George Reis, and Frank Stitt. Founding Restaurants that were up during the grand launch and remain Member Restaurants today: Bellini’s Ristorante, Billy’s Sports Grill, Bottega Café, Bottega Restaurant, Chez Fonfon, GianMarco’s Restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, Ocean, and Sol Y Luna. Other Member Restaurants that later opened or accepted our invite afterwards and remain members: 5 Point Public House Oyster Bar, Abhi Eatery and Bar, Bay Leaf, Bistro 218, Bistro V, Blueprint on 3rd, Bocca Ristorante, Coffee Shoppe at Vino, Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Dyron’s Lowcountry, Eli’s Jerusalem Grill, Galley and Garden, mo:mo:, Moon Shine, The Pig Delis, Pizzeria GM, Taco Mama, Ted’s Restaurant, The Gardens Café By Kathy G., The Yard, Village Tavern, Vino and Galley Bar. This community of restaurants also survived the pandemic with us. We were in it together. And we were there for each other the disastrous, past two years.
The development and expansion of social media provided a new platforms for Birmingham Restaurants to expand its reach. Today even after our Instagram account was ransomware hacked in 2021, a story in itself, we have 26K Instagram followers.
Over the past few years, I have also moved beyond print—writing for my own brand rather than building someone else’s business. And technology has enabled this move. The camera of an iPhone for still and video photos is incredible. Better than my old Nikon. But I also invested in a Leica Q2 Camera along with photography editing software, just before the pandemic. And after two years I am shooting some food photography that is wowing my restaurants, which makes me proud as an aspiring food photographer. The camera also shoots killer video. And I can’t wait to get back in the kitchen soon with my chefs to revive our Chefs Secrets cooking demos.
Model During the past 15 years I also became a serial entrepreneur, evolving the restaurants profile model to other geographic markets and to other verticals, including medical and legal. My goal was a check in the mailbox or direct deposit every day. I later sold BirminghamDoctors.com to a group of investors at Founders Investment Banking and worked for them as a consultant for two years. LocalLawyers.com, LLC’s legal sites remain a family business: AlabamaLawyers.org, BirminghamLawyers.com, HuntsvilleLawyers.com, MobileLawyers.com, and MontgomeryLawyers.com.
Along the way I stood on the shoulders of many. And my family was always there, especially Kev. He has been there when websites were hacked and crashed in the middle of the night. He has been there when I paid five figures for a domain name for future development—rather than us going on a cruise or making a safer investment. He has been there when there were no checks in the mailbox. And he still is!
Most of all I thank God for revealing my path to me and instilling the faith (to take the risks) to follow my path has made a tremendous difference in my life professionally, personally, and financially.
As Steve Jobs once said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” Mine has not been a linear path. It has not been an easy path. But the dots did connect in ways I could never have imagined. And I look forward to the next dot…
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