Bernadine Birdsong is proud to add another chapter to the story of Michael’s Restaurant. Known for its steaks and seafood, Michael’s has been a Birmingham mainstay for years. The restaurant originally opened here in 1958. Bernadine and her family took over Michael’s in 2016 when it was located in Homewood. More recently, Bernadine, who owns the restaurant with her mother and her son, singer-songwriter Sebastian Kole, brought Michael’s back home. In August of 2020, Michael’s reopened in its new location inside the Negro Southern League Museum in downtown Birmingham. We talked with Bernadine about the new Michael’s, life in the restaurant business and more. Meet our newest FACE of Birmingham!
Why did you want to move Michael’s inside the Negro Southern League Museum?
The City of Birmingham was looking for restaurateurs to open [there], and I thought that would be a perfect place for us. The original Michael’s was located just a few blocks from where the museum is now. I thought that would be a great coming home story. So, I put my hat in the ring.
Some of the ballplayers are still alive, and they come out and tell their stories at the museum. I just wanted to be a part of that, a part of that rich history of African Americans, but also the rich history of Michael’s having been originally started in Birmingham. I thought those two things being married together would be a great story.
Tell us more about the newest addition to Michael’s — Bar Sebastian.
Sebastian is my son. He’s a singer-songwriter and a bit of a local celebrity. I wanted to change the name of the restaurant to Sebastian’s because he’s one of the owners and primary financers of the business. But he’s very low-key and didn’t want to change the name of the restaurant to Sebastian’s. I thought naming the bar after him would be a good way to honor him without changing the name of the restaurant. He’s a big bourbon fan, so I thought that would be perfect. He has his own brew called Bash’s Brew, and there’s a painting of him in the bar to honor him and his support of the restaurant.
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What challenges have you faced reopening the restaurant in the midst of the pandemic?
Right now, people only dine in for dinner. Lunch is carryout, curbside pickup or delivery. People think we should be scheduling like we were in Homewood, but resources are just not there. It was hard to find employees. The menu is scaled back because it’s harder to get food. Prices for certain things have skyrocketed since the pandemic.
What’s been the key to successfully reopen despite these obstacles?
The key is having a strong support team and a really serious desire to still want to help people. There are days when it’s really rough. But I’m encouraged because people come in, and this is their first time venturing out to a restaurant since the pandemic hit. For them to come and be able to sit out on the patio and look out over the city and enjoy themselves and feel safe, that’s very rewarding.
As a restaurant owner, how do you typically spend your days?
There’s always something to do in the restaurant business. We’re open six days a week, so most days are spent preparing for that day’s restaurant business. On the one day I’m off, we do payroll and scheduling. So, it’s not really an “off” day. It’s a “not going to the restaurant” day. You pretty much work seven days a week.
We have 30 employees right now, so there’s scheduling and training. There’s always a delivery coming — tablecloths, rugs, paper towels, hand sanitizer, food, beer, wine. There are floors to be mopped and windows to be cleaned and tables to be sanitized and toilets to be scrubbed. And then there’s bread pudding to be baked and apple pies to be made.
What makes you want to get up and do this work every day?
It’s the people. Some people have been coming to Michael’s for 50 years. They’ve celebrated their anniversaries at Michael’s. They got engaged at Michael’s. We’ve had people come to celebrate their Sweet 16. We’re a part of people’s milestones, and I think that is what makes me get up in the morning and come do this over and over again. I enjoy making people happy. I like to see people celebrating. And when they realize this is a woman-owned business and a Black-owned business, I like to see that sense of pride they have.
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What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice I’ve ever been given was from my grandfather — my mother’s dad. He told me never to do anything for anyone you don’t genuinely want to do. That way, if they don’t appreciate it, it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, it was what you wanted to do.
Do you apply this advice to the restaurant business?
Every single day because some days the restaurant business is hard. People can be cruel, especially in this age, when people can post something really negative and write you a bad review without talking to you about the problem first. People can just cancel you, but I keep doing it no matter what because it’s what I love doing.
Name three things you can’t live without.
Butter pecan ice cream, black pants, and my natural hair stylist Darrius Peace.
Michael’s is located at 1525 1st Ave South, Birmingham, Alabama 35233. Learn more at michaelssteakandseafood.com.
All images submitted by Bernadine Birdsong.
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