The Southern Road: The Next Bend In The Road

In Alabama, they say that Huntsville has the intellect; Birmingham has the money; Montgomery has the power; and Mobile has the bay.

Soon enough, Mobile also will have airplanes, which will be built at a factory that Airbus plans to open in 2016. And from there, the same folks that brought you the southern auto industry hope they can develop a southern aviation corridor.

And while it’s still going to be a leap to get from here to there, the South is where the Wright Brothers flew their first flight (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), where countless thousands of Air Force pilots have been trained, and where there’s already a small but growing aviation industry, in places like Columbus and Batesville, Mississippi.

But let’s get back to Mobile. I drove down on an August Saturday from Birmingham, a four-hour drive that’s legendary in Alabama for its tedium. (Actually, if you break it up with a visit to Peach Park, and you stop for green boiled peanuts and to see Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace in Georgiana, it isn’t that bad.)

Compared with the rest of the Deep South, Mobile is a city apart. For one thing, it’s on breathtaking Mobile Bay, which is shaped like an inverted U, with Mobile sitting at the top of the upside U.In appearance, and atmosphere, Mobile is much more like New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities than it is like other places in the South. It has the same shotgun homes as New Orleans and the same kind of tall buildings in its downtown. Like New Orleans, Mobile is an important port, and it’s also more Roman Catholic than Bible Belt.

But Mobile shares something with the auto towns across the South: determination. Airbus’ announcement this spring that it would build the A320 in Mobile was the culmination of more than a decade of work to attract an airplane factory. “We’ve had a long time to get ready,” says Bill Sisson, the executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, who joined a big cadre of local, state and national officials to attract the Airbus plant.

Originally, Mobile thought it was going to be home to tanker planes, built for the U.S. Air Force, a contract that Airbus won and subsequently lost to Boeing. Then, when all hope was gone, Airbus came through with a project that will be built not far from downtown, at Brookley Field. (My friend George Talbot, political editor of the Mobile Press-Register, is the authority on all things Airbus. You can read his archive here.)

Brookley opened as a commercial airfield in 1929, attracting notables such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In 1938, the Army Air Corps bought the property and established a base that remained open until 1969, when it was the largest closure at the time in military history.

Brookley became a private and cargo aviation complex (commercial traffic is handled by Mobile Regional Airport, a few miles away). There are 4 million square feet of industrial space, and 70 companies at the aeroplex, with nearly 4,000 people working there. But Airbus, needless to say, will be its biggest prize.

We rode up a tiny elevator and then climbed up to the control tower to survey the scene. The view is breathtaking. The runways and green fields spread out below us, the bay to our right, downtown on the horizon, and the ocean in the distance behind us. It was too hazy to see very far, but I was assured that when the skies are clear the view stretches for miles.

In front of us was the site where the Airbus factory will be built. It will be using the runways at Brookley to test its planes, which it will be able to deliver to customers such as Jet Blue and Delta without having to ferry them across the Atlantic. It’s likely that passengers will be flying on these American-built Airbus jets by the end of the decade.

Already, Mobile is seeing an influx of Airbus personnel, French and German, who have come over for meetings and to take a look around the South. They’re a subject of curiosity for restaurant staff like Justine, our server at Felix’s Fish Camp, who told us she’d noticed some Airbus business cards being passed around by some of her customers.

“It’s going to bring a lot of business,” she said. “I think that’s awesome. I’ve been waiting tables for a long time. Wherever the money is at, I guess.” She was excited to hear she could already submit her job application at

Airbus already has an engineering center not far from Brookley, which opened back when it looked like Mobile would be getting the tanker plant. Many of the newcomers are drawn to the quaint towns around Mobile, such as Fairhope, which sits on the other side of Mobile Bay.

I spent an evening and the following day exploring Fairhope, and it gave me the same sense of peace and contentment I feel when I’m on Cape Cod.

Along with its charming downtown, decorated with flowers that change year around, Fairhope, population 15,000, has a quarter-mile long fishing pier where families gather to catch fish and crab, and watch the stunning sunsets.

Marvin Johnson, a retired school principal from Mobile, invited me to fish with him and his family. I hauled in a fish too small to keep, while I basked in the vivid colors of the sky, watched pelicans fly across the horizon, and looked at the motorboats humming quietly past.

Soon, that sky will also feature gleaming Airbus jets. Perhaps Justine will be building them rather than waiting tables. And if it’s anything like the impact of the automobile industry on the rest of the South, Mobile will find itself in a new league. Says Sisson: “The world will be looking at Mobile, instead of Mobile looking out at the world.”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

The Brookley Aeroplex:


The Southern Road: The Perks Of Gas Station Food

The South has its highways, but in order to get to some places, you have to take four-lane or two-lane roads. That’s where you’ll find gas stations. And in many gas stations, you’ll find food.

Up north, hardly anybody I know eats food from a gas station, unless they’re starving and it has a Subway attached. Down south, gas station food is its own form of cuisine. If you’re fortunate, you can score breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in a good gas station, which may also have its own booths and dining tables.

At bare minimum, a gas station worth its salt (or fat) will serve breakfast – primarily a biscuit. This is usually a chicken, country ham or sausage biscuit. It is as far from Grape-Nuts as breakfast can get. I had resisted the biscuit breakfast until I was on the road from Birmingham, Alabama, to West Point, Georgia.

I passed a gas station that offered “Hot Biscuits & Full Breakfast, Live Bait, Hunting and Fishing Supplies.” Inside, I bought plain biscuits. They were fine, and flaky, and filled my mid-morning needs. But I knew there was more out there.

I found gas stations that featured barbecue, gas stations with fried catfish (many proudly displaying a “raised in the USA sign”) and gas stations with fried chicken. I found gas stations with a head-spinning, rainbow variety of frozen drinks that actually scared me.

I really struck gold at the Dodge’s Chicken Store in Lexington, Tennessee. It isn’t technically a gas station, but a restaurant with an adjacent gas station. The signs offered the trinity: chicken, barbecue and catfish.

Inside, people were jostling each other to get up to the counter. The variety was enormous and the prices divine: $2.99 for a pulled pork sandwich, $5.99 a pound for barbecue, $2.59 for a slab of catfish. There was corn on the cob, fried corn on the cob, hush puppies, mac and cheese. And, there were fried hand pies, a little bigger than a McDonald’s pie.

Since I knew I’d be eating a big lunch, I asked for a small piece of catfish and a sweet potato pie. The counter girl looked disappointed: “Aren’t you going to have any sides?” she asked. It was a perfect snack, and a terrific example of gas station food.

The Southern Road: Under The Factory Roof

I can’t stop thinking about Corey Burkett. And Tonya Williams. And the Burton family.

These folks – and thousands more – are southerners who have joined automobile companies to plot new careers and, hopefully, achieve some of their personal and financial goals. And the jobs along the Southern Road aren’t just going to people who were born in the South.

During my trip, I met people with roots in Detroit who made a reverse migration from the North, landing positions at the foreign automakers. Others traveled across oceans, from Korea, Japan and Germany.

These are the people you’ll see when you take a tour of a car plant. I got to talk to a couple dozen while I was on the Southern Road, and I was struck by the similarities and differences among the people I met.

All of them, it seems, feel the auto industry is their future, and the future of their communities and their states. Numerous times people said they felt “blessed” to have landed jobs for which hundreds of thousands of applications came in.

The pay for these positions generally starts around $15 an hour, but some earn more, and promotions seem to be readily available. These plants aren’t union, and there doesn’t seem to be any overwhelming drive to organize them.

You never know, as a reporter, whether people have been briefed on your arrival. But I saw more folks smile and wave at me than in any factory I’d ever visited up north. The employees in places like Mercedes, Hyundai and BMW are also used to being interviewed. Some have even starred in commercials and on the local news.

So, who’s working under the roof?

%Gallery-164491%Burkett, who I met at Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama, plant, has some awesome responsibilities. He’s the manager of the paint line, where Hyundai paints each car that’s built in the plant. He supervises more than 140 people, including an assistant manager, three group leaders and more than 100 assembly line workers.

Before he came to Hyundai, Burkett worked at Rheem’s nearby factory, making water heaters. He was already used to industrial work, so the idea of making cars “wasn’t a big shock or adjustment,” he says. His dad, who works at a bakery, and his mom, who is a supervisor at the county jail, were excited that he was getting a chance to join the big new company in town.

Burkett started on the bottom rung in May, 2004, installing fixtures in the paint shop and working on its conveyors. “You learn a lot,” he says of the first job. Promotions rapidly followed. Now, Burkett’s day begins at 6 a.m., when he receives communications from the previous shift (Hyundai is a three shift operation).

As the other workers arrive, he makes a point to be out on the paint shop floor, talking with his employees and making sure there is enough staff on hand to cover every position. When he’s training newcomers, he’ll assign them to work with an experienced team member, so no one is left on their own.

Williams, who works in the paint shop at BMW, knows what it’s like to make a transition from another industry. For years, Williams worked at a vitamin factory in North Carolina, a short drive from where the BMW plant sits outside Greenville, S.C.

Day in and day out, Williams worked on assembly line where the tablets were measured into rows after rows of square bottles. “It was nothing like this,” she says of the gleaming BMW factory.

At BMW, she confidently takes me on a tour of the paint shop (usually off limits to visitors) where employees are applying the glistening paint that is a hallmark of the German luxury brand. The BMW workers know that their workplace is a subject of curiosity.

“You have a lot of people who come in from out of town, you have a lot of Germans that visit,” she says.

And another German company, Volkswagen, has provided opportunities for three members of the Burton family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Brothers Mark, 24, and Brian, 28, are taking part in an apprenticeship program that the auto company is sponsoring in order to groom, and eventually hire, its future technicians.

Their father, Mike, is an inspector at VW – “one of half a million people who showed up at the convention center” in Chattanooga to apply for jobs at the plant, he jokes.


Brian had been working at a local bank for nine years, while Mark was a corporate trainer at the Melting Pot restaurant chain. Their father had a background in graphic design. “The opportunities did run out at the bank,” says Brian Burton.

But when he learned of the apprenticeship program, he originally picked up a flyer not for himself, but for his brother, who has always been fascinated by the way things are put together.

Now, all three of them arrive each day at the sprawling VW facility, where over three years, the younger Burtons are being taught all aspects of work at the assembly plant over nine semesters. For four, they’ll be in workshops, for five, on the plant floor. And all they have to do is go outside to see the impact VW has had on Chattanooga.

“Everywhere you go, you see VWs on the road,” Brian Burton says. “It’s a VW town now.”

At Toyota’s engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama, Evona Mayes spends her workday in an area that’s called the “test bench.” She listens to the engines for abnormal sounds, prepares them for shipping, and conducts final inspections.

Like all of the other autoworkers, Mayes also made a transition, from the retail industry. She worked at a nearby Wal-Mart, and actually missed out on the first round of hiring at the plant, which sits a short drive from NASA’s facilities in northern Alabama.

When a cousin called to say Toyota was adding jobs, Mayes applied and was called in to take an assessment test. Although it was supposed to take three hours, she finished it in 90 minutes, and wondered if her speed meant she didn’t have the right qualifications.

She was wrong. A call came, and then a job offer. Now, Mayes has applied to become a team leader, the first step toward climbing up the ladder, as Burkett has done at Hyundai. To her, the Toyota jobs means “not having to worry,” she says. And while there are some ups and downs on the assembly line, Mayes says she doesn’t have second thoughts about exchanging a life in a superstore for her new life.

“I think it was my destiny to be here,” Mayes says.

The Southern Road: History And The Future Collide

If you mention Montgomery, Alabama, to anyone outside the South, you’ll probably get a response that includes Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. People know Chattanooga, Tennessee, best for the Glenn Miller song about a choo-choo, and others because they are Civil War buffs.

These two Southern cities, rich in history, now have something crucial in common: they’ve become car towns. Along with their places in America’s past, Montgomery, and Chattanooga can now share industrial futures, one thanks to Korea‘s Hyundai, the other to Germany‘s Volkswagen.

And boy, are the movers and shakers happy to have their auto factories, probably no one more than Chattanooga’s mayor, Ron Littlefield. “It’s the Holy Grail,” says the mayor.

His office on the third floor of Chattanooga’s stately city hall is full of memorabilia related to the city’s efforts to land the VW plant that dominates the site of a former TNT plant, just south of town.On one wall, Littlefield shows off a framed copy of the lyrics to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, loosely translated into German. Another wall boasts the front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the day the city landed the plant. Chattanooga has enthusiastically embraced Volkswagen’s German home base, Wolfsburg, and Littlefield hands out medallions to visitors bearing both cities’ seals.

For Chattanooga, the VW plant is icing on the cupcake for a city that’s been fighting to remake itself since the 1970s, when it was said to have the dirtiest air in the United States. Here, VW isn’t the lynchpin to revival; the revival was what clinched the factory.

I’d only driven through Chattanooga on the way to points farther south, and by doing so, I missed a lot. Even if you don’t arrange a tour of the VW plant, there is plenty here to see, starting with the Aquarium downtown, which is modeled after the one in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Chattanooga has a stunning art museum, beautifully restored downtown buildings, one of the country’s first parking garages built specifically as a parking garage, new schools, and a thriving food scene. In two days, I dined at St. Johns, which could easily compete in New Orleans, visited one of the city’s daily farmers markets, and paid four (!) visits to Niedlow’s Bakery, where I sampled probably the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever eaten.

But those things wouldn’t necessarily lift Chattanooga above other similar sized Southern cities. VW, however, does. “Volkswagen is close to iconic for people my age,” says the mayor, who was born in 1953. The Beetle is “my generation’s vehicle.”

He admits his city “stole ideas and learned from mistakes” made by other places, as it moved along its reinvention path. Downtown came first, along with white-collar jobs at places like Krystal, the fast food chain whose headquarters is there, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has a huge office building. “What was lacking was industrial jobs,” Littlefield says.

Chattanooga watched as cities all over the South landed their car plants. It tried particularly hard to get the Toyota plant that went to Tupelo, Mississippi, but lost it because too much leaked out about the negotiations. Littlefield was at the Detroit Auto Show when he heard VW might be searching for a plant site.

The city quickly put together a proposal only to hear back that VW wasn’t impressed with the way the proposed location looked. “We like Chattanooga, but we can’t tell much about this site,” he recalled. The city, county and state jumped into action, clearing away trees and debris (there was even a webcam showing the progress) and a month later, the location was ready.

Littlefield knows he’s hit the “biggest industrial home run in the history of Chattanooga.” But he doesn’t just want to be on a list of the South’s car cities. “Wouldn’t it be great to be on the short list of progressive cities?” he says.

Progressive and Montgomery have probably never been used in any historian’s sentence.
Montgomery is a city with kind of a spooky history, to those of us from up North. Our view of it is formed in old newsreels and classes on African-American history, and the perception we get isn’t good.

I was reminded of that when I visited the Rosa Parks Museum, where her decision to keep her bus seat is depicted through a dramatic hologram reenactment. I took a drive by King’s Dexter Avenue church, which is directly across from the state capital, where George Wallace served when he vowed to fight school integration.

Nobody in Montgomery ducks this history – in fact, civil rights sites are well labeled for visitors. But for Randy George, the head of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, Hyundai gives him something else to talk about and most important, something to sell to prospective businesses.

“It redefines largely who we are,” George says of the Hyundai plant that sits just south of the city. “The dichotomy is really a remarkable thing. It proves that we have come a long way.”

Beyond the civil rights movement, George thinks the presence of Hyundai, and the other car companies and auto suppliers who’ve set up in the South are changing the perception of the South for the nation. “Our time’s come,” he says, simply.

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

The Southern Road: Visiting The Luxury South

Chris Hastings has beaten Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. This year, he won a James Beard Award. On any weeknight, his restaurant is packed with diners who look over the shoulders of his kitchen crew as they cook right in front of their eyes. But Hastings isn’t cooking in Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco.

He owns Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s in the forefront of a legion of chefs across the Deep South who are turning out some of the finest food in the United States. In turn, these top chefs and their restaurant owners are directly linked to the wealth that is resulting from the auto plants in their midst.

The Luxury South existed in pockets before the auto industry arrived. There have always been elite schools, like Old Miss, Vanderbilt and Tulane, and sprawling homes and plantations everywhere from Savannah to Mobile. But the critical mass of car plants has provided new opportunities for the South to attain its own luxury status.

The evidence is most visible in two places – Greenville, S.C., near BMW’s only American plant, and in the Birmingham area, where Mercedes-Benz built its sprawling factory in Vance, AL.

Turn down Main Street in Greenville, and you’ll find an array of bars, restaurants and hotels that would seem right at home in any upscale American city. They sit just a short walk from Fluor Field, where the minor league Greenville Drive play in a stadium modeled after Fenway Park.

Among the team’s long list of corporate sponsors is the BMW Performance Driving School, which is just across the road from the gleaming white factory that BMW opened here in 1994.BMW owners from across the country can take delivery of their vehicles in Greenville, and get lessons in how to drive them. They can dine in BMW’s cafe, buy souvenir shot glasses and water bottles in the BMW gift shop, and take a tour of the factory, which has become famous from BMW’s ads.

A number of those BMW customers have found their way to the collection of restaurants owned by Carl Sobocinski, the unquestioned king of the local food scene, who is a chief beneficiary of the Luxury South.

His stable ranges from his white table cloth restaurant, Devereaux’s, to Soby’s, a bustling bar and grill, to The Lazy Goat, his attempt at a Mediterranean restaurant.

Sobocinski, who opened his first restaurant at age 25 in 1992, is one of those restaurant owners who his patrons greet by name and in many cases thank for investing in their town. “It was dead down here,” John Bauka, a Soby’s patron declared, unasked, when he came up to shake Sobocinski’s hand after a meal. In those days, only two blocks near the city’s Hyatt Hotel were at all lively.

“Everything down here was kind of boarded up,” Sobocinski said. “It was huge, in how fast it went” after BMW arrived. “We had Michelin, we had General Electric, we had Fluor, but they didn’t bring the suppliers that we have here now.”

More than 100 other companies have opened up since BMW arrived, bringing a flood of newcomers to the area. “They were bringing people in, I’d meet them, and all of a sudden they’re calling and saying, we’re bringing in some important people, we need a quiet place,’ he said. “I was in the right place at the right time. I always say, I’d rather be lucky than good.”

The growth has bothered some locals: “You’ll have people say, why are we giving away the farm? And others who say this is the way to go,” Sobocinski says.

In Birmingham, it would be difficult to find anyone who thinks Mercedes-Benz has been anything but a plus to the community, although the investment didn’t come without risks. In 1993, the state put together a then-staggering $253 million incentive package to land the plant, but then was in danger of not being able to come up with the money. Help arrived from the state’s pension fund, and the Mercedes project was able to go forward.

Now, Mercedes is the centerpiece of aggressive growth for Birmingham and a further enhancement for Tuscaloosa, which already boasts the University of Alabama’s lavish campus. In the years since Mercedes arrived, Birmingham has become a smaller version of Atlanta, minus the crippling traffic. It was already the financial capital of Montgomery, but now it has become a bustling, medium sized city that is the center of the southern auto industry.

In another era, it might seem ludicrous that a chef like Hastings would beat out four competitors from New Orleans to win the Beard Award as the best chef in the South. Not any more.

It only takes a few minutes in his restaurant to understand why. Hot and Hot opens at 5:30 p.m., and on many nights, it is packed by 6 p.m. Hastings is often at the door, in his chef’s coat, to say hello to guests, sign his cookbook, and deal with special requests. There’s no camouflaging what’s happening in the kitchen, because the restaurant is essentially built around an open kitchen.

Dinners who sit at the chef’s counter have an up close view of their meals being prepared, as well as all the other steps that go into each dish. They can watch cooks using blow torches and painstakingly sautéing peaches. None of this is frenetic: in fact, there is a sense of politeness, camaraderie and calm to the proceedings that put lie to the tension of “Kitchen Nightmares.”

After directing a nine-course, small bites dinner for me that included three desserts, home made rye bread and biscuits, an amazing gazpacho and the best soft-shelled crab I’d ever eaten, Hastings took me on a tour.

It didn’t take long, because the restaurant has just one tiny area where the locally grown fruits and vegetables are prepared, as well as the walk-in refrigerators where meat and fish are stored. The quality is outstanding from the minute produce arrives, as I discovered when I ate one of the heirloom tomatoes he gave me to take home.

Although he has just this one restaurant, Hastings’ influence spreads out in the food world well beyond Birmingham. And, he’s not the only chef in town who’s transcended the local scene. One of the city’s other standout chefs, Frank Stitt, has won similar praise for his Highlands Bar and Grill. Like Sobocinski in Greenville, Stitt has his own collection, ranging from French bistro to Italian cafe.

The flourishing Birmingham restaurant scene right in sync with the atmosphere at the Mercedes plant, with its vast, sparkling clean aisles.

As in Greenville, Mercedes has gone all out to court its customers, who can visit a museum, take a tour, and shop for souvenirs, from picnic baskets to golf shirts and tennis balls with the Mercedes logo. It’s truly a luxury experience, unlike anything imaginable before the auto industry got here. And the impact is being shared throughout the community, as well.

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Hot and Hot Fish Club, 2180 11th Court South, Birmingham, AL 205-933-5474 for reservations (it does not accept them online)

Soby’s, 207 S. Main Street, Greenville, S.C., 864-232-7007 (the restaurant accepts reservations online)