Lots of people want to make a living doing what they love. Ashley McMakin made that dream a reality with her Ashley Mac’s cafés, catering and gourmet-to-go business. It all started with her hobby of cooking for those she loves.
McMakin grew up in a large, food-loving family, and she learned to cook alongside her mother and grandmother. “I remember making the desserts when I was 12,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Alabama, where she majored in marketing and advertising, she began cooking for friends and family, thinking it would be a nice hobby until she had children. Her husband, Andy, an accountant, realized the hobby could become a business. “People really love your food,” he told her. “It would be a shame to stop it.”
“He was the one who really encouraged me to pursue this,” McMakin says. “I feel like he was the visionary behind Ashley Mac’s.”
Ashley Mac’s started as a catering company in the couple’s Homewood kitchen in 2005; it was called A Taste of Birmingham back then. And McMakin sold strawberry cake at a booth at Pepper Place Market the first few years.
“When we started,” McMakin says, “I was going to Sam’s, buying the food, taking the orders on a Post-it note, delivering the food … washing the dishes, doing everything.” In 2005, she hired her first employee – a neighbor who still works for the company.
A few years later, McMakin moved her operation to a catering kitchen in Bluff Park when she outgrew her home kitchen. Today there are four Ashley Mac’s cafés around Birmingham, and the company employs more than 100 people.
McMakin has grown her business right along with her family, and she often shares her inspirational, working-mom story with others.
“Every time we put in a store we’ve had another kid,” she says. “So we have four kids right now. We went through infertility for several years when we were trying to start Ashley Mac’s, and looking back, I’m just grateful that that was God’s timing. I really don’t think there would be an Ashley Mac’s if I had gotten pregnant right away. I was working 14 hours a day, and I couldn’t do that if I’d had little children.”
Eventually, the fertility treatments worked, and McMakin was pregnant when she and her husband opened their Cahaba Heights store. “Opening that first store, I had to take a step back and really trust people, which is a big learning curve for a business owner, to learn how to delegate,” she says.
“When we opened our second location (in Inverness), we had our second son, through fertility treatments again. And then we were opening our third store in Riverchase, and we adopted our little girl from China. Then last Christmas, we were about to open our Homewood location, and, by some divine circumstances, we ended up with our foster son. He’s 17 and will be with us for two-and-a-half years.”
One reason for Ashley Mac’s success is that McMakin knows what her customers need because she is one of them – a busy mom who wants to put good, healthy food on the dinner table each night.
“A lot of the things we do were born out of … what I need,” she says, laughing. “So, I’m busy with soccer practice, but I’m sick of picking up Chick-fil-A every night; we need something else. A lot of the ideas certainly do come from that and even the recipes. Many of the things that are on our menu came out of something I’ll make for dinner.”
Ashley Mac’s offers modern interpretations of traditional recipes that call for fresh, simple ingredients.
The company began doing gourmet-to-go years ago, and the cold cases at each location have always been full of fresh and frozen, homestyle dishes. Poppy seed chicken is a favorite. “I think it’s just a good comfort food,” McMakin says. “A lot of people had it growing up; it’s simple, but people love it.” You also can find grilled chicken alfredo, baked spaghetti, chicken tetrazzini, beef enchiladas and a breakfast casserole in the cases along with sides like creamy macaroni and cheese, brown sugar-bacon green beans, kettle chip hash brown casserole and an assortment of sweets.
The idea for these grab-and-go dishes came from McMakin’s customers who wanted their favorites in smaller quantities for family weeknight dinners.
“My catering customers would call and say, ‘You’re doing this lunch for 100 next week, but I really just want chicken salad for my family this weekend. Can I just buy a small portion?’ We had this little, tiny cooler … that I’d put four quarts of chicken salad in and just pray they would sell,” she says. “Now we do over a thousand pounds a week of chicken salad.”
Not long ago, McMakin added fresh, hot family dinners to the gourmet-to-go menu. These made-to-order meals for four include an entrée like bistro steak or lemon-rosemary chicken as well as a salad and your choice of Ashley Mac’s sour cream biscuits or yeast rolls. “You call in, and we’ll have it ready for you with an hour’s notice and you can pick it up,” she says. “So now that we have those, I’m our best customer.”
Ashley Mac’s chic, fast-casual cafés do brisk business with a seasonal menu of sandwiches such as ham or turkey with havarti cheese and apples or the new grilled cheese panini, fresh salads (the create-your-own trio is a best-seller), a few hot entrées and sweets like mini-cupcakes. Ashley Mac’s “drop-and-go” catering (without servers) can handle groups from 10 to more than 300. The menu features appetizers like a strawberry jam cheese ring or hot spinach and bacon dip as well as classic dishes like chicken potpie and fancier, premium entrées like beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce.
“Many of my recipes are family recipes that I tweaked along the way,” she says. “The strawberry cake is my mom’s recipe. It was our birthday cake growing up, and she let me have that one. In fact, it was not on our menu the first several years, and she said, ‘You need to sell my strawberry cake.’”
There is a certain element of goodness at Ashley Mac’s that goes far beyond that now-popular strawberry cake.
“We’ve kind of set ourselves apart by being grace-centered … trying to be gracious with our employees and our customers,” McMakin says. “… Just treating (our employees) with the respect that every person deserves and giving them a chance to work their way up and to invest in how they’re learning and in them personally as well, which is how we ended up with our foster son, through a former employee. We’re just grateful that we not only get to employ them but do life with them.”
She says investing in good people is key to her success.
“My husband and I early on … decided we are going to hire good people, we are going to pay them well and we’re going to keep them if they want to be there … we’re going to invest in them. Our core purpose is our employees, and we’re a very employee-centric company.”
McMakin says she’s proud of the opportunity to employ as many people as they do. Some of these employees are single moms. Some of them are homeless, coming to the stores each day from shelters around town. “Everyone has a story,” McMakin says. “So I think being able to get to know them as a person and give them, basically, a second chance on life — maybe previously they weren’t able to get jobs, and we can employ them. I’m just so grateful and humble that we get the opportunity to do something like that.”
Running a business is hard, she says, but it feels right.
Some days she thinks to herself, “It is a miracle that we get to do this,” considering that neither she nor her husband had a background in food. “Just taking what really was a hobby and then turning it into this, I lose sight of that in day-to-day life,” she says. “But when I can step back and think, ‘Wow, this is amazing that we’re living a lot of people’s dream’ — it honestly wasn’t necessarily our dream to begin with, but God saw that dream for us, if that makes sense. We’re just grateful that we get to do what we do.”
During Women’s History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of female Alabamians past and present.
3147 Green Valley Road
Cahaba Heights, Alabama 35243
1831 28th Ave. S.
Homewood, Alabama 35209
5299 Valleydale Road
Hoover, Alabama 35242
4730 Chace Circle
Hoover, Alabama 35244
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday at all locations.