Meet Chef Ryan Westover and Helene Jones, owners of Birmingham’s Pizza Grace. Their approach to entrepreneurship encourages community and connection in one of America’s best food cities.
Helene Jones is pure sunshine.
It’s a damp, dreary Tuesday, and as I run across the cobblestone street that lines the Mercantile on Morris in Birmingham, Alabama, Helene’s smile welcomes me like a ray of light.
I’ve traveled three hours one way from my home north of Atlanta to Birmingham to meet Helene and her husband, award-winning chef Ryan Westover. They’re the owners of Pizza Grace, one of The Magic City’s newest eateries, and Helene’s warm welcome is the perfect introduction to a restaurant named with intentionality. It’s what drew me to reach out to Ryan and Helene to request an opportunity to share their story.
Beautifully and prominently noted on their website is this dynamic duo’s approach to their business:
“Grace has many meanings. Pizza Grace was created in order to bring those meanings to life. Grace, simple elegance and refinement of movement, this is our approach to cooking and baking. Grace, courteous goodwill, this is our approach to hospitality. Grace, a divinely given blessing, this is our view of pizza, bread, and our local farms and producers. Grace, a short prayer of thanks said before a meal, this is the spirit of Pizza Grace, gratitude.”
The concept of grace paired with a commitment to seasonality, locally sourced and better-for-you ingredients is at the heart of Pizza Grace. It’s immediately clear that the red threads that tie this business together are, indeed, grace and goodness.
The James Beard Foundation agrees. Following our interview, Pizza Grace was named a 2023 James Beard Awards semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Each year, the prestigious organization recognizes culinary leaders across an array of categories, such as Best New Chef and this year’s newest category, Best Bakery.
It’s a well-deserved recognition for two passionate restaurateurs who are intentional about everything they do. Helene humbly describes the honor as unexpected, but it’s no surprise to those of us who’ve experienced Pizza Grace firsthand. Helene’s hospitality is akin to a big hug from a friend – the kind you’ve never met before but feel like you’ve known for years. Then, you take a bite of Ryan’s signature sourdough crust and there it is – everything you need to know about what makes this place so special.
To see Ryan in his element is to see a glimmer of a career that has come full circle. His first job in high school was at a Domino’s Pizza in Canton, Georgia. From there, he spent a year making pizza at Papa John’s. Next was Johnny’s New York Style Pizza. And while Ryan has always appreciated pizza, his real passion is pastry.
As with most things in life, one’s career path is rarely a straight line. Rather, it’s a series of twists and turns, a few dead-ends and an upward trajectory that tends to feel like a roller coaster. It makes sense, then, that Ryan and Helene find themselves in Birmingham.
Pizza Grace opened in November 2021 but the concept for the restaurant was years in the making. Ryan and Helene began prospecting the possibility of opening a restaurant in 2017. The pair were living in Washington, D.C., at the time and Alabama wasn’t even on the radar.
On the radar from the start, however, was the importance of high-quality ingredients, local and seasonal as often as possible, sourced from farmers and purveyors who care as deeply about their products as Ryan and Helene care about serving them. Ryan says previously working for restaurants that valued their relationships with their local communities, farmers and fishmongers set the foundation for an approach that is reflected in the high quality of local ingredients featured on the the menu at Pizza Grace.
“I worked at a restaurant called Clyde’s in Washington, D.C., which was exceptional at reinvesting in local seafood and bringing it back to Mid-Atlantic cuisine,” says Ryan, who is a classically trained, award-winning pastry chef and serves as executive chef at Pizza Grace. He’s referencing the state of the culinary scene in the Mid-Atlantic region in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“The Chesapeake Bay was a total wreck at that time, extremely polluted, and the region’s culinary scene was suffering because of it. Clyde’s was instrumental in bringing oysters and local seafood back onto the scene in a major way and reshaping the city’s comfort with eating locally sourced seafood again.”
Ryan and Helene met at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Washington, D.C., while they were both working for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. He says their years working in the nation’s capital significantly shaped how they approach their business today.
“Helene and I went through a highly successful management training program at Clyde’s, and we also both worked for a French restaurant that was heavily focused on local fare as well as initiatives like recycling oyster shells and generally ensuring that the ecosystem was being cared for adequately,” Ryan says in reference to his time as pastry chef at the now closed French Brasserie at Hotel Monaco, managed by Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, in Washington D.C.’s Penn Square. What he humbly neglects to mention is that he earned a nomination for Food & Wine Magazine’s “The People’s Best New Pastry Chef” before taking on an elevated role as pastry chef at 1789.
“What we picked up during those years are fundamental in our approach now. Looking back, our experiences influenced so much about how we manage our business and where we choose to invest our resources. That exposure to working with restaurateurs and chefs that were thinking about the locality of ingredients was huge for us,” says Helene, who manages front of house operations for Pizza Grace.
Making it in the Magic City
Nearly five years – and a fair share of roadblocks – into their journey, Ryan and Helene found their footing in Birmingham. It was a big risk in a city of well-established restaurateurs and Southern-based chefs who’ve made their mark on the city’s culinary scene.
“Birmingham is a city that feels like a small town. The culinary scene here is a poster child of sorts for a community-centric approach. The people are very welcoming and supportive,” says Helene, who has made a point of volunteering and getting involved in local events that support the culinary community. “Chefs from this area have left to do big things in places like New York and California, yet they come back to Birmingham to continue creating and contributing to the local agricultural and dining scene. This is a community of people who take care of one another. People have told us how glad they are that we’re here. They’ve even thanked us for choosing to start our business in Birmingham. It means a lot to us.”
Ryan says Birmingham’s food scene revolves around working together and investing in one another’s success.
“I think that’s the most exciting part about being here in Birmingham. We get to be involved in an established Southern food scene that is amazing and somehow feels like it continues to evolve – as though it hasn’t fully reached maturation just yet. It’s fun to be part of that process. And I hope we’re doing it justice by really pushing for hyperlocal and seasonal ingredients, as much as possible,” says Ryan. “Pizza Grace isn’t bringing anything exceptionally unique to the table, but rather we’re learning from those who have come before us and hope to be a part of cementing the concept of taking the best of locally available ingredients and giving them the care and respect they deserve.”
So, what can you expect from Pizza Grace? For starters, a taste of Frank.
“Frank is our 20-year-old sourdough starter. We keep it healthy and stay in tune with it because our sourdough baking is critical to presenting what we believe is much healthier pizza dough and artisan breads. Our process has a long fermentation process and a sophisticated bacterial colony that helps the body to digest the bread. Everything we do here at Pizza Grace is about minimal processing,” says Ryan, who was gifted Frank eight years ago during a stint teaching at a culinary school.
Helene notes that Frank the sourdough starter shares the spotlight with farm fresh ingredients and a hearty Amish flour that distinctly sets their dough apart.
“We sought out local farmers and producers immediately upon arriving in Birmingham. Our moving boxes weren’t even completely unpacked yet and we were checking out local farms, including Ireland Farms. It was so cool to be in the field literally getting our hands in the dirt and learning about the produce. It was the perfect introduction to the local farming community,” says Helene.
These days, Helene and Ryan are at the local farmer’s market every week to meet the farmers and talk to them about their produce. What’s available at the market inspires the menu for the next couple of weeks. For example, a friend recently had a large crop of permissions so Ryan created a persimmon upside down cake that was wildly popular.
“It’s been fun to get reintroduced to some of the ingredients we haven’t always had easy access to and to see our customers get excited about what we’re creating with these ingredients,” says Helene. “And the fruit here is exceptional, across the board. There’s something special about the soil here in Alabama. It’s unbelievable. For example, we had no idea that Alabama has grown citrus for centuries and the quality of the crop has really blown us away. The satsuma, the grapefruit, we’re getting a great education about the soil and what grows well in the region.”
Creating Space for Grace
Ryan and Helene have a wonderful partnership with managing back and front of house, but it’s clear that the two work in tandem in every aspect of their business. For Helene, creating a positive space for the customers is equally important as creating a safe environment for employees.
“What I wanted my stamp to be when we opened Pizza Grace is to create a space where I can implement the positive lessons that I’ve learned from past mentors and bosses and also the not-so-positive experiences to create an environment where our team can make a decent wage and feel like they have a safe and healthy work environment. We aim to blend a compassionate management style while maintaining a structured approach to how we manage our business. We want to create an environment where people feel seen and heard and respected.” said Helen, who graduated with a degree in international studies from Virginia Tech but says hospitality comes naturally to her thanks to her Southern upbringing.
“We’ve learned lessons on creating a sense of community. The pandemic impacted our industry significantly and we want to treat people with more humanity. If someone is sick or is feeling run down, they don’t need to come to work. They need time to heal and get better. This is traditionally an industry where people constantly push and burn out easily.”
As Pizza Grace inches closer to its second year in business, Ryan and Helene invite their community to experience Pizza Grace for its menu as much as for its ambiance and the opportunity to connect with others.
“We were intentional about building community and that’s reflected in the design of the dining space. We have communal tables to encourage guests from multiple parties to sit together and perhaps strike up a conversation. We have people who are on their way to see a show at the local theater or coming to dine in their workout clothes – everyone is invited and encouraged to come as they are. Our kitchen features an open design so people can see how we’re preparing their food. We want our guests to engage with us and ask us what we’re doing, inquire about our processes and our ingredients. It means a lot to us when they take an interest in our work,” says Ryan.
At the end of the day, Ryan adds, Birmingham is a tough city with high expectations. Despite the warm embrace and supportive community, the stakes are high when it comes to succeeding in a city sometimes referred to as the ‘Dinner Table of the South.’
“We’re not the traditional restaurant space, and we’re asking people to step outside of their comfort zones to experience our concept. As a society, we’ve lost a connection to our food and one another. We hope to play a small part in filling in those gaps where we can.”
Sweet New Roots