Tyler Bell: The MML Interview

By on 26 September, 2011 in Bars, City Living, Food, Government, Interviews, Kate and Stephen with 5 Comments

With the news that Midtown fixture El Rey Burrito Lounge hopes to expand across the alley into a new bar/waiting space, we decided to interview El Rey owner Tyler Bell and therefore inaugurate a new MML feature. Periodically, we will be interviewing folks around the community whose ideas and actions make Midtown Montgomery such an interesting place to live.

You own El Rey, but also started Tomatino’s and other restaurants in town too. How should we describe your history of entrepreneurship in Montgomery?

After four years of playing percussion for the Montgomery-based band Blues Old Stand, I was burned out. I had a notion that the ideal way to live was to own a pizzeria and Italian bakery a short bike ride from my house. In my naivety, I imagined I’d get up every morning, bake some bread and watch the sunset with my dog. That was in 1995. By 1999, a friend and I had opened Tomatinos Pizza and Bakeshop, Cafe Louisa, The Olive Room and El Rey Burrito Lounge. The result: over 60 employees and a lot of keys. The ridiculous part of the story is I am a terrible bread baker and still don’t have a dog. I sold my interest in The Olive Room in 2002, then sold Tomatinos Pizza and Cafe Louisa in 2005.

El Rey is all about where the food we eat comes from, but most people really don’t think about their food that much. Why should we care about the food we eat?

Everyone should be concerned about what they eat. We evolved to crave fats and sugars. Unfortunately that is what is cheap and readily available, resulting in a lot of seatbelt extenders in airplanes and heavy-duty stretchers in hospitals. You don’t have to eat like Euell Gibbons every meal to be healthy. It takes discipline to eat healthy, especially in Montgomery because there aren’t many options, but it can be done, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot.

At every restaurant I have been a part of, we choose our ingredients wisely. Not everything has to be organic, local or expensive to be good. A good start is eating lower on the food chain. It keeps you on your toes. I am a vegetarian and have been for 20 years, although I now occasionally eat fish and eggs, especially when traveling.

How has the current economic climate impacted your current ventures? I guess that’s a high-falutin’ way of saying “how’s business?” Recession/depression keeping people out of the restaurant? Depressing booze sales? Fueling it?

Four years ago we saw a slow down at El Rey. Then, exactly three years ago, when Lehman Brothers shuttered, sales plummeted. It was scary. Business improved slightly after Obama was elected. It was extremely important to me to keep all of the staff employed, but that required reduced hours and a freeze on wage increases and bonuses. Commodity prices didn’t rise, which helped for about a year, then they started to creep up. We are in a awkward predicament now because our thin margins are steadily being eroded by rising food costs, and our customers can’t afford to pay much more. A lot of operators start cutting costs by using cheap ingredients. We can’t go that route because many of our customers have discerning palates and would taste the difference. That’s been the great thing about El Rey – our customers would rather pay a bit more for quality ingredients than for our quality to go down.

Speaking of business, we’re curious about what you think about the big Free the Hops win a few years ago. How big of a win was it? Do you think it will lead to other changes in Alabama’s food policy, or is it mostly a one-off win?

The Free The Hops gourmet beer bill becoming law has been the single most important progressive legislative action that has taken place since it has been legal to shop at a grocery store on Sunday afternoons. We have been selling the best beer available to us in the state since opening Tomatinos. Back then, the only craft beers available were pretty much limited to Sam Adams, Anchor and Sierra Nevada. We started forging relationships with craft brewers and their Birmingham distributors back in 2007, which allowed us to bring in beers that weren’t distributed in Montgomery. It took some effort, many phone calls and a lot of driving, but it has paid off. When the FTH gourmet bill passed, our beer selection went from 60 beers to over 120 within weeks. Beer and food sales soared. Now, El Rey has the most comprehensive beer selection in town – a truly world class list. With the passing of last year’s FTH bill – The Brewery Modernization Act – and future FTH legislative agendas, it is a fun time to be a part of the Southeastern US beer scene.

Is it too early to talk about El Rey expansion plans? If not, what do you have in mind?

Not all the details have been worked out, but we plan on opening a bar down the alleyway from El Rey’s front door. It will serve as a waiting room/spill over space for El Rey. Our draft beer selection will be larger than at El Rey. It will be very comprehensive and well edited. Our bottled beer library will be expansive. The wine list will focus primarily on natural and biodynamic wines from small producers in Europe. And our favorite margarita and cocktail list from El Rey will spill over into the new space. We hope to open early 2012.

A lot of the talk these days is about how businesses, especially small businesses, need tax incentives to do things like expand and/or hire people. Did free money from the government play any role in your decision to take a risk and expand your business?

We always take advantage of tax incentives and tax breaks, but they aren’t incentives — more like nice surprises. My incentive with opening a business has always been a clear, honest way to make a business work. If the numbers work and it looks like fun, then I’m ready to get involved. Gimmicks and special favors are for boring people.

Willing to go out on a limb with any predictions about the overall economic climate in Montgomery?

I assume it is good. When I am in Montgomery, I rarely leave Cloverdale. When I do it seems like Saigon Deli, Health Wise, Fresh Market, Natural Gourmet and Earth Fare are doing quite well.

What should the city do to improve the climate for folks looking to start a business, whether that’s restaurant, retail, or otherwise?

I haven’t opened a business from scratch in Montgomery in almost 13 years, so it will be interesting to see the ease of opening a place here. So far, so good. Everyone is rather eager to help. I am in the early stages, so my opinion may change. I have worked on projects in Austin and Los Angeles where opening a business can be down right repressive, especially in California. Regulations may have good reasons for existence, but they are not managed efficiently. As a small business owner, this can be maddening. If the weather wasn’t so nice, no one would live in California. I’m still not sure why anyone lives in Texas.

I am all about downtown’s renewal and will not talk negatively about the generous offers businesses and land owners have been given to open shop and renovate buildings. We have been offered many of the spaces that are currently occupied with bars and restaurants downtown, but passed because the businesses I feel comfortable operating need to be surrounded by dense and diverse neighborhoods. After decades of neglect by the previous mayor, the state of downtown left the current leaders no alternative. Since I was a teenager hanging out in the deserted streets of downtown, I have seen the empires of RSA and Troy destroy buildings that entrepreneurs would have naturally snapped up and gentrified. Without building stock, you can’t have businesses. I hope in ten years time downtown Montgomery is going to be a really cool place.

What should the city to to improve the climate for folks that appreciate local farming, local beer, and the other characteristics that make El Rey so beloved?

The city should ask the Madison Avenue Curb Market to make available the plethora of empty stalls to all farmers in Central Alabama. As it is now, if you reside within a city limit, even if the population is 5 people, you cannot sell at the curb market. Meanwhile, there are hucksters that pinhook, meaning they sell produce grown elsewhere as if it was local, which is beyond misrepresentation. It is a city-owned and city-maintained property so the city has have clout with the managing board to make changes to their rules. The curb market could be like various covered, year-round markets around the world that sell not only local produce, but also baked goods, coffees, sandwiches, seafood, and local beer. This is a perfect situation: a city-owned resource that requires no new capital improvements could become an incubator for people, many whom I talk to every week, who wish to open a business related to food but do not have the resources to open a full-blown shop. I am not talking about daydreamers, either. Passionate, gifted, would-be entrepreneurs are looking for a place to operate.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 5 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Stefania says:

    Here here! Excellent new addition…both the bar and the MML Interview.

  2. Kate says:

    Evidently the drawing was done by a prisoner!

  3. Mike iLL says:

    Great interview. Rivka and I are huge fans of Tyler Bell and his last couple of comments demonstrate exactly the kind of thinking that, when passionately pursued can transform slum into village and sprawl into neighborhood. Montgomery is fortunate to have him, not to mention Stephen and Kate!

    We still hope to find a good non-smoking venue for Mad haPPy performances in town soon (no disrespect to Head on the Door).

  4. Eric says:

    well said Tyler! I wish more people would come over to your way of thinking. WE COULD HAVE A MINI AUSTIN! I just found this site and im loving the articles. keep it up!

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