A little girl sits on the cool tiles of the kitchen counter and watches her mother’s hands deftly crack each fragile egg shell letting the yolks slide and plop into a bowl of flour and sugar. A gentle cloud of flour rises up in a haze as she looks up at her mother in wonderment.
“I’ve seen pictures of me as a toddler sitting on the kitchen counter, cracking eggs with my mom,” says Ashley Mac’s owner, Ashley McMakin, trying to recall her earliest memory in the kitchen. “I don’t remember a day when I didn’t love to cook!” While most girls were reading Sweet Valley High, Ashley relished every dramatic twist and turn of cookbook recipes. As a girl, she made chocolate chip cookies and helped her mom host football parties.
As she entered The University of Alabama, Ashley originally considered getting her degree in hotel and restaurant management, knowing that her true passion was food, but she opted for a marketing degree, since she was unclear on her culinary future and knew she’d need solid business skills, no matter where she landed. “I lived in the Tutwiler and the Alpha Chi house, so I didn’t have many chances to cook,” says Ashley. “I remember going home on weekends and making loads of poppy seed bread, cookies and other treats to take back to my friends.”
Ashley’s marketing degree landed her a job at Martin Advertising, where, like a moth to a flame, this enthusiastic epicure found a way to keep cooking. “I decided to start a little side business catering for friends and family,” says Ashley, who started the company with one partner, a friend who worked in the cubicle next to hers at the ad agency. “We called our company A Taste of Birmingham. We would cook at night, and we would run home on our lunch breaks to put the lunches together, which was crazy!” Within months, she resigned at the ad agency and made her ‘“little” side gig her full-time job.
Ashley bought out her partner due to her pregnancy, and from her tiny kitchen in Homewood, she began her exciting epicurean adventure. “Looking back, this is when I really grew in my culinary abilities,” says Ashley of her trial-by-fire training in the professional kitchen world. “I spent countless hours testing recipes. I learned how to cook under pressure and how to improve my game. I learned how to take a recipe for six people and make it for 100. There were many nights of tears and many early mornings thinking ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Ashley recalls a bit of advice that stuck with her during the hard times: “Trust in the Lord and His plan for your life rather than trying to control things yourself,” she says. “It is a very freeing way to live.” The tears shed in her tiny test kitchen would pay off, with Ashley Mac’s eventually becoming a booming business and well-known homegrown name.
With the business growing, Ashley and her future business partner and husband, Andy, found a charming vacant tea house in Bluff Park, which they renovated and opened as Ashley Mac’s first catering kitchen in June 2007 with two employees. Locals began to pop their heads in and request meals in smaller portions for individuals. With her signature adventurous spirit and openness to new ideas, she decided to buy a freezer and give it a shot. They went from selling a few pans a week to hundreds of what is now Ashley Mac’s Gourmet To-Go selection of frozen soups, casseroles and sides. In the first year, the company grew to seven employees, including Andy, who left his job at an accounting firm to focus exclusively on the financial growth and long-term vision of Ashley Mac’s.
It was Andy’s idea to branch into the cafe service at their Cahaba Heights location. “He said, ‘There’s a seating area up front. We might as well open it up for people to come and eat,’” recalls Ashley, adding, “To which I said, ‘Absolutely not! I do not want a restaurant! People who own restaurants are crazy and work all the time!’ Well, you can guess who won that argument.”
Ashley Mac’s offers fresh, homestyle food that is delicious, yet straightforward, keeping customers coming back for their familiar favorites. The chicken salad and the poppy seed chicken casserole are among the most popular menu items. From their crowd-pleasing dessert selection, the hands-down customer favorite is the strawberry cake, a heavenly three-layer confection made with fresh strawberries and cream cheese icing. Ashley Mac’s offers fresh, delicious salads, like their popular baby bleu, as well as classic sandwiches with a twist, like their pimiento cheese BLT or turkey and spinach aioli sandwich, not to mention their pitch-perfect kids’ menu items that come with a brownie. And for the health conscious, Ashley has been working on a gluten-free dessert, as well as some healthy — possibly paleo or gluten-free — Gourmet To-Go dishes.
Ashley and Andy balance each other out well as business partners, with her focusing on the food and the customer service while he crunches the numbers. “The area we work together the most on is our employees. We take a lot of pride in our staff, and we like to take care of them. They are like family to us,” she says of their current staff of 100 employees spread across their three locations in Cahaba Heights, Riverchase and Inverness. Ashley Mac’s is devoted not only to its staff, but also to the community at large, regularly participating in charity work for breast cancer awareness, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, VSA Arts of Alabama, The United Way, March of Dimes and Make-A-Wish Foundation, among others. They even employ a number of graduates of the Jobs for Life program, a ministry of the nonprofit organization, Clerestory, which provides training, mentoring and meaningful job opportunities that alleviate the effects of unemployment and poverty in our communities.
“I get to combine two of my greatest passions in life: my love for cooking and my love for people,” says Ashley. “I love getting to know our employees. We are all from different backgrounds and are in different stages in our lives, yet we come together in the kitchen and are unified in one goal.”
Her connection to one ministry in particular runs deep. “I lived in China as a missionary just after college, and I felt the Lord’s calling to adopt a child from there,” says Ashley. “We just recently adopted our daughter, Mally Lu, from Guangzhou, China. This is one of the many reasons Ashley Mac’s partners with our adoption agency, Lifeline Children’s Services, to continue to help orphans both here in Alabama and around the world.” Mally Lu, 3, joined brothers Ryder, 6, and Jackson, 4, in January. “Andy and I always joke that with each new store we open, we end up adding a child to our family around the same time. I still want more kids, and he still wants more stores, so we will just have to wait and see what God has in store!”
Don’t forget to order your premade holiday casseroles and sides from Ashley Mac’s holiday menu!
Ashley Mac’s has three locations:
- 3147 Green Valley Road in Cahaba Heights
- 5299 Valleydale Road in Inverness
- 4730 Chace Circle in Riverchase.
Hours at all three locations are Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (205) 822-4142 or visit ashleymacs.com.
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