Kristen Farmer Hall built a restaurant based on comfort. Savory pasta, scratch-made croissants and homemade Pop-Tarts (that stir nostalgia and delight taste buds) are just a few of the items featured on the menu at The Essential, which Kristen co-owns alongside Victor King.
What most folks don’t know, however, is that Kristen’s culinary journey was based on anything but comfort. Not too long ago, she was managing fundraising and community relations at UAB. While she enjoyed the work, Kristen says she knew a deeper calling was beckoning.
Baking had always been a passion, but what she didn’t realize is that it would soon become a profession.
“I very vividly remember opening the door on the very first day on that very first morning of the pop-up shop and thinking I had no idea what I’d done,” Kristen remembers while taking a rare break on The Essential’s patio, a cozy space peppered with café tables and stylish bistro chairs.
Almost overnight, Kristen went from baking pastries with her two daughters (the trio called themselves the Baking Bandits, now Bandit Baking Co., as they would leave homemade treats on neighbors’ doorsteps and then dash) to hosting pop-up shops and becoming a beloved favorite at The Market at Pepper Place. Around that same time, Kristen says, her boss at UAB presented her with a weighty decision. It was either keep her job at UAB or pursue baking full-time.
“I remember thinking, this is the moment to do something different,” Kristen recalls. “I had always taken the safe road, both personally and professionally, but I knew if I didn’t pursue this, that I would regret it.”
So, Kristen left her well-paid, highly benefitted job at UAB and put on the apron for good. Soon after, she and Victor, formerly of Bottle & Bone, opened Feast & Forest off 24th Street North with the help of funds earned from a big win in REV Birmingham’s Big Pitch, a business pitch competition for local startups.
Similar to Baking Bandits’ quick success, Feast & Forest became a darling among local foodies. Known for their crowd-favorite “Pasta Fridays” and a smorgasbord of pastries that made mouths water and long lines spill out the door, Feast & Forest reached capacity with flavor — and customers.
“We had planned on being a quiet coffee shop that served lunch and dinner,” Kristen says, “but we turned out to be a very busy brunch spot where people waited in line for a very long time.”
Only three months into opening Feast & Forest, Kristen and Victor began looking for another location. Like anything Kristen puts her mind to, however, the space, she says, had to be perfect. She and Victor had a specific vision for their restaurant, and not just any space would do. After a year and a half of searching, the duo found the perfect place for their restaurant in an unlikely location — the site of Birmingham’s historic first bank drive-thru.
The building, Kristen explains, used to usher customers in from Morris Avenue and have them exit on to First Avenue North. Luckily, Kristen’s creative brain could see straight through the building’s cobwebs and craft a vision for what would become The Essential, her and Victor’s anticipated follow-up to Feast & Forest. Joining several other new tenants in the renovated mixed-use development dubbed Founders Station, The Essential has already become, well, essential to Birmingham’s growing restaurant scene.
Kristen was careful to maintain much of Feast & Forest’s menu, but thanks to the space’s large kitchen, she and Victor now have the liberty to try out a few new menu items, both savory and sweet.
“The menu has adjusted and evolved to what we had really hoped for,” she says.
Open seven days a week and offering café-style snacks along with more complex dinner options, The Essential, Kristen says, is meant to be a place where visitors can come, relax and enjoy heartfelt food and drink.
“If you would have told me five years ago that I would be standing in a restaurant that we designed and that we built, I would probably tell you that you were crazy,” Kristen says in between taking sips of coffee, watching as patrons trickle into the restaurant on a Tuesday morning. “But it has become such a home for me.”
Looking back on her journey, Kristen says there’s one lesson that stands out most. Bravery, she says, was a necessary ingredient in The Essential’s story.
“Bravery is not being unafraid,” she says. “Bravery is being terrified and doing it anyway. If you’re really going to live life to its fullest, you will have to push through your fears to get to the other side.”
Judging by the steady flow of customers on a muggy Birmingham morning, it’s safe to say Kristen’s hunch that baking was her true calling paid off. The Essential is already witnessing a positive response — and we have no doubt it’ll continue to play an important role in not only Kristen’s story, but Birmingham’s as well.
The Essential is located at 2018 Morris Ave., Birmingham, AL 35203. Hours are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with lunch served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner served from 5 p.m. to close. On Saturday, hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. for brunch and dinner. Sunday, brunch is served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit essentialbham.com or call (205) 703-3012.
Thank you to Stacy Allen of Mountainside Photo Co. for the beautiful images of The Essential.
See more highlights of Birmingham restaurants here!