Inclusion

In Birmingham, this restauranteur cooks up family, community and fine dining

July 13, 2022 | By Siobhan Stewart

Bernadine Birdsong has taken different paths throughout her professional life. She’s been a teacher, pastor and wellness center owner. She says all these experiences have centered around community -- particularly her community of Birmingham, Alabama.

“That’s always been my heart, being engaged with the community, being engaged with the people around me,” says Birdsong. “I feel like that is a part of my calling.”

So when Michael’s, a well-known steak-and-seafood fine dining restaurant, went up for sale, she felt that buying it was an important next step for her community work. Michael’s had been owned by the same family since it first opened in 1953 and it had been looking to pass the establishment on to another local family. After Birdsong toured the location, her family made the decision that they should buy Michael’s.

Her brother began working at the restaurant to learn the day-to-day operations before their family officially became the owners in 2016. Once they felt ready, they jumped right in. Now, when thinking of the most rewarding experience she’s had owning the restaurant, Birdsong says it’s “the bonding we’ve had as a family.”

It’s estimated that about 8 to 10% of restaurants in the U.S. are Black-owned, with few of them being fine-dining establishments. In Birmingham, Michael’s is a rare Black woman-owned and operated fine-dining restaurant. Following the pandemic and racial-justice protests in 2020, the U.S. government, nonprofits and many businesses have redoubled their efforts to expand opportunities for Black-owned businesses like Michael’s.

Looking to do its part to drive down this racial opportunity gap, the Michael’s team has offered culinary programs to train locals, including high school students, interested in restaurant work. “It’s beneficial for everyone,” Birdsong says.

It's a family affair at Birmingham favorite Michael's Steak and Seafood, owned Bernadine Birdsong, left, her son Sebastian Kole, right, and her mother Amelia Williams. The restaurant's rooftop bar is named for Kole, a singer-songwriter and record producer. (Photo courtesy of Bernadine Birdsong)

 

Because of that work, Mastercard and the Fearless Fund venture capital fund awarded Birdsong a $10,000 grant, digital commerce toolkit and mentorship as part of the Fearless Strivers Grant Contest, which supports Black women-owned businesses across the U.S. Birdsong said she plans to use the funds to pay off bills and keep upgrading the restaurant so it can remain a draw for years to come. This grant builds on Mastercard’s In Solidarity commitment, a $500 million program to support Black communities and build a more inclusive digital economy.

Birdsong became a restauranteur somewhat by accident. She had been looking for a new space for an existing wellness center she ran for 20 years when she heard from a real estate agent that Michael’s was looking for a local buyer.

She eventually acclimated to the “hustle and bustle” of the food industry and decided to move the restaurant inside of Downtown Birmingham’s Negro Southern League Museum in 2019.

The last few years weren’t easy, but she found ways to adapt. Due to building delays, the team couldn’t move into the new space until August 2020. By then, the pandemic shut down businesses across the industry.

Other restaurants transitioned to carry-out and delivery, but Birdsong avoided that option. “The best thing about fine dining is dining in, not carry-out.” All they could do was wait.

Luckily, she added her own flair to the restaurant – a rooftop bar called Bar Sebastian, named after her son. That bar eventually served as an outdoor alternative to the fine dining inside.

While there have been hurdles, Birdsong says she’s grateful to have worked through them and keep serving her community.

After finding out she received the grant, she says, she choked up and thought, “Somebody saw us… someone had seen the challenges we were facing and wanted to be a part of the solution.”

Siobhan Stewart, Specialist, Communications