The Simple Life of Carole Griffin
With more than three decades in business in English Village, the baker, restaurateur and businesswoman finds success in simplicity.
Written by Joe O’Donnell; Photography by Beau Gustafson
Music. Food. Celebrations. If there is a three-point stance to a fulfilling life, these are the marks to which Carole Griffin tries to stay true.
Spring-A-Ling-A-Ding-Dong says it all. That’s the name of Griffin’s spring celebration festival, held more when the mood strikes than on an annual basis. They put it together this year, at the end of April in English Village.
“It is a take on a French Rite of Spring Festival. The first year we did it, I was feeling so happy to be alive and thought we should have a big party in the village. It was a gratitude festival, where I really wanted to give back to our customers and the people of Birmingham, who have made me feel so loved and supported over the years. I feel like I’m so lucky to have such great employees and culture and community. We’ve held it periodically over the years since. This year we decided to do it again,” Griffin says.
Griffin operates Continental Bakery and Chez Lulu, right next door to each other in English Village. The restaurant and bakery have been a vital part of Birmingham’s dining scene for many years, always considered a sophisticated yet comfortable spot for progressive diners in the city. In many ways, with the proliferation of chef-driven and farm-to-table oriented restaurants, it is as if over the years the dining scene has caught up with the ethos Griffin has been nurturing from the beginning.
“Come as you are or as you please has always been just one of our themes. Convening something joyous is a big part of me, and the restaurant is an attempt to build a community.
“I think it is a driving theme of my life,” she says. “I feel so proud of the culture that we have, the customers and the employees, but also just Birmingham as a whole.”
Griffin left Birmingham as a young woman and went to college at Rice in Houston and later moved to Austin to find work. Her goal at the time was to train to become a midwife, but the only job she could find at the time was the overnight shift at a commercial bakery.
“I remember crying after I accepted the job because I didn’t think I would like working the night shift. I thought it would be very disruptive to a healthy life, but I had to take the job. I just fell in love with it. It was so beautiful.”
After a few years away and a tour of Europe, she also fell in love with Birmingham.
“I didn’t think I would ever come back, but there’s something about the land and the place that you come from. It makes a tender spot in your heart. I came back and there was a Five Points Festival, and I saw something happening here. People were trying to create a vibrant community in Birmingham, centered around Southside. This was in the 1980s. That’s when I decided to come back home because I wanted to be a part of building a more cosmopolitan city; sort of like the city we’ve become,” Griffin says.
Griffin had grown up in Central Park and Green Acres in West End. “Every Sunday was a big celebration of church and children and preparing food. They would set up the table with the younger kids crawling all around. Once the food was finished we stayed at the table for two hours. There’s an art to staying at the table and having conversations. That’s where important things happen. We would eat and eat wonderful food and it was the center of every gathering. I try to encourage that in the restaurant,” she says.
“When I came home, I was struggling with what I wanted to do next, and my grandmother offered me money to start a business. She was living by herself and really wanted me to come home. She offered me $3,000 and I decided to open a bakery.”
It was 1985 and Griffin, who originally wanted to locate in Five Points South, found space in English Village.
“I had no idea what a great space it would be for us. We were going to introduce Birmingham to a lot of things like the European breads, but we had a ready-made audience here in Mountain Brook. Within just a few weeks, we knew that we were going to make it.”
Though rewarding, Griffin admits the bakery business is not easy. “You are employing people who work around the clock. At Continental Bakery there is someone in the kitchen every day, all day and all night, seven days a week,” she says. Aside from the customer traffic, the bakery provides bread and desserts for other restaurants in town, as well as Chez Lulu next door.
The restaurant was born about 10 years after the bakery opened.
“Our food is very, very clean and simple. People used to refer to us as chick food because we didn’t pile the plate full of fillers. We try to be intentional about the food. I think art has as much to do with knowing when to stop as it does adding a bunch of elements together. My style is a little bit more spare,” Griffin says.
She describes some of her personal menu favorites.
“I decided to introduce pizzas in the restaurant a while back. Now they are very popular. The catalan pizza is all Spanish ingredients, caramelized red onions, Manchego cheese, capers. We also do a red bell pepper stuffed with rice, chickpeas, tomatoes. It also has a Spanish feeling to it.
“Socca, an appetizer we do, is my favorite thing. It’s a savory chickpea crepe popular in the south of France with plenty of cracked black pepper. You should drink it with a cold Rose,” she says.
“We make a massaged kale salad with extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, and fresh lemon that is massaged into the kale. Then we just grind some Parmesan over the top and a couple sprinkles of kosher salt and that’s it. It is one of my favorite things. I can eat it every single day,” Griffin says.
“I love simple things.”
Music is a part of that love of simple things. Griffin has been a part of Birmingham’s musical community for decades now, though she is no longer as active as she once was.
“We are always a very musical family. It was in my blood, but I had not really realized it until I came back to Birmingham,” she says. At first she was in an all-girl band called The Janes, then later she sang for the popular Sugar LaLas, which she calls a big adventure. “I played a little bit every once in awhile, not very often. It’s hard for me to make time,” Griffin says.