Not many restaurateurs can master both casual and upscale dining. Paget Pizitz and Harriet Despinakis, however, make it look easy. They’re the owners of MELT Birmingham (the food truck turned brick and mortar located in the heart of Avondale) and Fancy’s on 5th (just a stone’s throw away from MELT across the street). They started serving perhaps the most nostalgic dish, grilled cheese, from their food truck (fondly named “Matilda”) back in 2012. Then, they decided to turn the truck concept into a restaurant. In the process, Paget and Harriet became among the pioneers of Avondale’s rebirth. A few years back, they decided to open another restaurant, Fancy’s on 5th — named for the beloved elephant, Fancy, who used to guzzle beer at the nearby Avondale Zoo. Today, Paget and Harriet run their slice of the restaurant scene with finesse and flair. We’re thrilled they are today’s FACES of Birmingham!
What’s it like being among the restaurants helping pioneer Avondale’s rebirth?
Paget: I think at first it was a little bit scary, but really exciting because we both had a vision for what Avondale could be. I think with fear comes excitement and curiosity.
Harriet: We were both born and raised in Birmingham. We had both moved away at certain parts in our lives and were really just acquaintances when we met in 2010. I was gone 18 years and Paget was gone for 12. Birmingham changed so much just in that time frame and I think when we saw this space — and it certainly wasn’t what it is now — we saw a neighborhood. We saw the tree-lined streets. We saw the park. We saw the neighborhood start to rebuild itself. And it was the very beginning of it. And I think we both just thought it was the perfect fit.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Paget: It depends if it’s during the week or the weekend. MELT is open during the day and Fancy’s is not. Melt is more of a hands-on environment, so during the day we get to work with the lunch service in the morning and we’re there pretty much all day, come and go. And then we do what’s called line-up over here [at Fancy’s] at 4:30 p.m. That’s when the chef talks to the servers about the daily specials. The bar manager talks to them about the cocktails, and then the service starts at 5 p.m. We’ll usually go back and forth.
Harriet: We’re really trying to focus more on our personal lives and take turns on weekends, which has been really nice. We started that recently.
What’s the most rewarding thing about what you do?
Paget: I think it’s knowing that we started with a vision, and I really feel like we’ve achieved so many goals. We started with a food truck, and now we have a permanent place here. Restaurants are opening and restaurants are closing, but we feel very positive about our future. We know we’re not going anywhere, and it’s just rewarding to see the actual fruits of our labor.
Harriet: It’s rewarding to see the hard work and how it’s blossomed. We’re now franchising MELT in two locations in Hoover and Huntsville. Knowing that our work has been noticed by others is really exciting.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
Harriet: For me, it’s that even though I don’t cook at [MELT or Fancy’s], I’m actually a really great cook. I don’t do it very much anymore. It’s why I got into this industry in the first place. I don’t really have a go-to dish. I’m that person who sees something or craves something and wants to make it.
Also, I love to prank people.
Paget: I think mine is that I really like to travel abroad by myself. People usually find that strange, that I prefer to travel alone. Traveling by yourself is amazing. It’s very freeing. I like to go to places alone that push me out of my comfort zone. It reminds me that I’m independent and self-sufficient. I kind of forget that sometimes. Two years ago, I went to Amsterdam and before that, I went to Turkey by myself.
If you could give your 18-year-old-self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Harriet: Believe in yourself. And don’t live in fear. Don’t let fear stop you.
Paget: Mine would have been not to second-guess myself. Embrace your weirdness. I feel like I’ve done that now as an adult, but I used to hold back so much in fear of what other people would think about me. I was very self-conscious. But now, I don’t second-guess my decisions anymore. I’m completely comfortable in my own skin. And that’s really just a part of growing up.
Harriet: Whatever your passion is — as long as you embrace it and believe in it — that’s really all that matters.
What’s one thing you think all female business owners should know?
Harriet: How to do everything in their business. You need to know how to do every single job in case someone else walks out.
Paget: Same. It may not be pretty all the time, but we’ve mastered what we’ve mastered. We’re yin and yang. We do different things. And trust is a very important thing. Especially when you’re in business with someone else.
Harriet: Trust is the cornerstone of all human relationships. I know at the end of the day, no matter what, she’s going to have my back.
Who do you most admire and why?
Paget: My great-grandfather — he left Poland after the war and came to the United States, but he didn’t speak the language, and he had left with the equivalent of a dollar. He had no marketable skills, but he knew he wanted to do better for his children. I never met him. He was shuffled around New York and made his way down to Georgia. And then he decided he wanted to make a name for himself in Birmingham — and, I’ve heard, he accomplished every single goal he ever set for himself. I respect that a lot. I don’t know a lot of people who would be able to do that.
Harriet: My grandfather came over from Greece — same thing. He came to Ellis Island when he was 14 years old. He knew no one, had no money, went to Montgomery. He started as a dishwasher at a restaurant at age 14, and at age 23, he bought the restaurant. It stayed open for 50 years.
That’s something Paget and I both have in common. We both just have a really strong work ethic that runs in our family. And it comes from that. When your grandfather or your great-grandfather does that…
Paget: …It sets the bar at a whole new level.
Describe your perfect night out in Birmingham.
Paget: Mine would be at home, with my animals, packing my bags for a big trip. I just want to go everywhere. Because for so long all we did was work, and travel has always been my passion. At this exact moment, I’d be traveling to Sausalito, because it is the perfect mix of east coast and west coast. It’s walkable. It’s like New England on the west coast. I am obsessed with it.
Harriet: Honestly, I love sitting at the bar here, at Fancy’s, having a glass of wine with Paget or sometimes my boyfriend will come down. I just love going out to dinner. Also, I’ll say, there are Saturdays when at 9:30 p.m. you go “Wow, we’re done.” And you have a drink with your staff, and it’s a sense of accomplishment. Because you’re proud of them — they’re like your kids. They work so hard for themselves and also for our business. I wouldn’t say that’s my favorite way to spend a night, but it’s definitely a cool feeling.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Paget: It was from my dad. I know the saying is “The meek shall inherit the earth.” But, to me, it’s “The meek shall not inherit the earth.” My dad told me that when I was a little kid and I think it’s really given me a lot of motivation and ambition. I think I’m pretty outspoken, but I think that’s done more help than harm. I think he meant to tell me, in a way, that if you want something, you need to go after it. Because nothing will ever be given to you. I will never forget him saying that because a few years later I heard someone say, “The meek shall inherit the earth” and I said, “No, that’s not it!” I still think to this day that he thinks that’s how the saying goes!
Harriet: Mine was from my dad, too. He passed away just a year ago. But he always told me, “Just don’t give up. Keep plugging along. If you’re not seeing the end yet, just keep plugging along.”
With the exception of family, faith and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Paget: Lip gloss, my passport and snacks
Harriet: Lipstick, my reading glasses and a good glass of Chardonnay
Thank you to Charity Ponter of Charity Ponter Photography for today’s beautiful photography.