Kristen Farmer Hall couldn’t stop daydreaming. While sitting at her desk a few years ago, Kristen found her mind wandering out of the office, away from her fundraising and community relations job at UAB, toward the creative pursuits that she had always tucked away for evenings and weekends. Then, as if in slow motion, yet rattling at the speed of light, she took a huge leap forward and hasn’t looked back.
Kristen has always had a heart for taking care of people, and the Georgia native initially planned to do so by practicing medicine, moving to Birmingham to study biology at Samford University. She ultimately chose to pursue a policy-based track in medicine and earned her master’s degree in maternal and child health at UAB, where she then worked for more than 12 years. Kristen enjoyed her job, but couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. “As the years went on, I just thought, ‘Okay, this will be my day job and then I’ll have my hobbies. I’ll have these other parts of creativity in my life and that will be enough,’” Kristen says. “But for me, it just wasn’t going to be enough.”
Kristen’s first steps toward fulfilling her creative daydreams came through the idea for a space in which to host small, intimate gatherings. While planning events for UAB, Kristen discovered that the city lacked an event space fitting for smaller gatherings. “I really liked planning those smaller events for parties of 25 or 50, where everything was much more hands-on and intimate,” Kristen says. “But I ran into a challenge, because there was never a home for these kinds of events. Your options were either a restaurant, which was very expensive and not private, or these massive venues that just felt too big and sterile. So I decided to open a space that would be perfect for those smaller events.” From this seed of an idea, Kristen began a 16-month search for the perfect location to transform into the intimate, charming space that would become The Nest.
While juggling both her pursuit of The Nest and her full-time job, Kristen, a self-taught pastry chef, was spending what little downtime she had in the kitchen with her young daughters, working to instill in them her love for baking. “I wanted to be very intentional about that with my daughters, because the kitchen is my favorite place in the world and so I wanted it to be their favorite place, too.” Kristen says. “We started baking on Sundays. That was our special time to make a mess and learn. There’s no substitute for experience — the only way you learn to crack eggs is to crack eggs.” Kristen and her daughters spent their Sundays baking, packing up their treats, leaving them on doorsteps, then ringing doorbells and hiding from view. Friends and neighbors playfully referred to the trio as “bandits,” and their baked goods began to gain a small, yet loyal, following.
Around that time, Kristen’s friend was recruiting participants for REV Birmingham’s 2013 Pop-Up Project, an initiative to install short-term, retail pop-ups and drive foot traffic to downtown areas in need of revitalization. She suggested Kristen enter her famed treats to the Pop-Up Project competition. And just like that, her second creative venture, Baking Bandits, was born. Kristen’s pop-up shop in Woodlawn was a complete hit, and a wildly successful season at Pepper Place Farmers Market followed soon after.
Baking Bandits began moving at a pace that Kristen never anticipated, and soon she was working long hours filling orders for customers, local restaurants and pop-up shops. “The bakery was getting out of control, and I had come to this place where I was just like ‘Wow, this is not a hobby anymore.’ This façade that I had of keeping my day job and my creative hobbies separate — Baking Bandits kind of crushed that,” Kristen says. “My boss pulled me into the office one day and gave me 24 hours to decide what I was going to do. ‘You either invest here, or you invest there, but the time has come to make the decision.’ I was terrified then, but I’m deeply appreciative of that now. Apparently, I was not going to jump until I was forced to the edge of the cliff.”
Kristen chose to take the leap, plunging full force into building her businesses. That long season of searching for an intimate event venue finally led Kristen to an exposed brick galley space in Avondale, and she set about making it her own in the summer of 2014. “It had been a long process, and it was stressful and nothing really felt right,” Kristen said. “And then I walked into where The Nest is now in Avondale and I just knew this was it.” Every detail was selected and installed by hand. With Kristen’s touch, the space now is brimming with charm, from the vintage medicine cabinet Kristen had her heart set on since she found it at Southern Accents in Cullman, to the tile in the bathroom she laid by hand. “People come in to do walk-throughs before an event, and they say ‘Gosh, I love the way this feels,’” says Kristen. “And that is not something that you can manufacture.” The Nest opened its doors in September of that year and has since hosted countless beaming moms-to-be at baby showers, rehearsal dinners for lovely brides and grooms, jovial family gatherings, and beautiful pop-up shops and dinners.
Kristen met Chef Victor King, formerly of Highlands Bar and Grill, through her work with Baking Bandits, and the two began to collaborate, starting first with pop-up dinners hosted at The Nest, where Kristen managed the front of the house and presented the cocktails course while Victor created the first and second courses, then Kristen’s pastries would complete the meal. “Those dinners were actually really fun, and it was one of the first times that work had been fun,” says Kristen.
The Nest was thriving, but Kristen still felt that Baking Bandits needed its own home. She was one of 62 aspiring entrepreneurs to apply to Birmingham’s first Big Pitch, and she won the $10,000 prize a year to the day after the closing of Baking Bandits’ first appearance at the REV Birmingham pop-up shop. For Kristen, winning the contest was the vote of confidence she needed to move forward with establishing a permanent home for Baking Bandits, but she didn’t want it to simply be a bakery. “I’m a pastry chef at heart, but pastry was not the only thing that I wanted to do. I didn’t want to open just a bakery, I wanted a refined neighborhood cafe where we could really kind of be a part of a person’s day. But I knew that I could not do that by myself.”
With the seed money from the Big Pitch, Kristen and Victor’s collaboration grew into Feast & Forest, an elevated neighborhood cafe with a heavy emphasis on baked goods and a thoughtful, intentional focus on seasonal food featuring local ingredients. The cafe-meets-bakery-meets-neighborhood hangout in the heart of Second Avenue North opened its doors Thanksgiving week 2015.
Tucked into the corner of a brick building along 24th Street North, Feast & Forest features a packed-full case of pastries, a drool-worthy menu of breakfast treats, sandwiches and other lunch dishes, including several riffs on classic sandwiches and a truly divine savory pie. An espresso machine is en route, and there are plans to expand the menu to include wine and a new snack menu (we’re especially intrigued by the pork belly toast). Kristen stocks the pastry case with Baking Bandits classics and her latest pastry obsessions, and she also offers online ordering, where you can take home your own gorgeous cake, from the playful Felix, a naked cake with a generous helping of vanilla cream buttercream sandwiched between three layers of Funfetti cake, to the refined Grace, a Southern strawberry cake with strawberry buttercream.
Though juggling the three ventures is a constant challenge, Kristen is inspired by the common thread that unites them: stopping to savor life. “The heart behind The Nest, Baking Bandits and now Feast & Forest is just to create a space for people to enjoy their lives and be able to celebrate things,” Kristen says. “Life moves at such lightning speed that you have to be very intentional about stopping to celebrate things. I guess as a parent, I’ve realized this on a very personal level. Unless I stop and celebrate these moments, they’re not going to celebrate themselves.”
Kristen’s journey is centered on bravery, on that willingness to take the first step and build the life that you dream of, and then not being afraid to revise the dream along the way. “What I know now and am continuing to learn is that it’s one thing to have gifts and talents and creativity. Bravery is a totally different thing,” Kristen says. “I had those pieces all along, but I didn’t have the bravery to take that step. And I didn’t realize that that step was going to be so wide. I thought that I would be able to ease into things, but there was no easing. It was jump or don’t jump. I was never going to get where I am now without jumping, but you don’t know that when you’re in the air.” And just a few years into her whirlwind entrepreneurial journey of taking chances and actualizing her dreams, Kristen’s world has been completely transformed. “It’s funny, because now I don’t daydream about anything else,” Kristen says. “I dream about what’s happening here and how to make it better. I have lots of dreams, but I don’t dream about anything else.”
The Nest is located at 130 41st St. S., Ste. 101 in Avondale. To book an event, call (205) 538-1350 or visit thenestbham.com.
Feast & Forest is located at 212 24th St. N. in the heart of the bustling Second Avenue North neighborhood. Bakery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the café serves breakfast from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday brunch is 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. To learn more, call (205) 920-1862 or visit feastandforest.com.
Baking Bandits operates out of both The Nest and Feast & Forest.
Thank you, Heydon Hatcher, for the gorgeous pictures of Feast & Forest!
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