Where There’s Smoke

Written by Edith Parten

Birmingham couple David and Andrea Snyder had dreams of becoming entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry since college, and what better place to make that start than in Alabama’s culinary capital? 

The two began their journey together as students at the University of Alabama where they were⎯inspired by renowned chefs, professors and other entrepreneurs. Since then, the couple has been on fire developing a business plan—initially using their college textbooks for guidance. They’ve now opened four Urban Cookhouse restaurants in six years.

The latest Urban Cookhouse opened in February in Birmingham’s central business district in the historic former Federal Reserve Bank building. 

“I’m very intrigued by and have always loved history,” David says. “And I always wanted to have a store in the business district. With this location, I get both.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.44.26 AMIt’s their third restaurant in Birmingham and their fourth in Alabama since they set their entrepreneurial plan in motion more than six years ago. They opened their first in Homewood in 2010, then the Summit in 2011, and Tuscaloosa in 2016. And they don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

“We are always looking for new locations,” David says. “I would love to open a restaurant in Hoover or Trussville. I’m also not ruling out the possibility of another Tuscaloosa restaurant.”

David’s former business partner, Will Gillespie, has opened Urban Cookhouse restaurants in Nashville, Charleston, Atlanta, Montgomery, and Columbia, South Carolina⎯with one opening soon in Huntsville. 

The power couple graduated from the University of Alabama’s business school, the Culverhouse College of Commerce. David earned his undergraduate degree in 2002 and MBA in 2003 at Culverhouse while Andrea earned her degree in marketing in 2004. 

Andrea proudly says the two relied on their textbooks from college and notes from favorite professors Dr. Lonnie Strickland and Dr. Ron Dulek when the time came to take the first step to becoming entrepreneurs. 

“We saved our textbook from GBA 490 (Strategic Management) and used it to create the first business plan for Urban Cookhouse,” says Andrea, smiling.

“Dr. Strickland and Dr. Dulek’s ability to actually teach the subject matter made the textbook come to life,” adds David. “And the case studies they put us through inspired me to look at that textbook and say, ‘This is gold.’ I still have it, and I make sure that I go back to it. It guides my decisions a lot of the time.”

Upon graduating from UA, David went to work for Zoe’s Kitchen, a restaurant chain created by another Culverhouse alumnus, John Cassimus.

“I went straight to work for Zoe’s Kitchen right out of college and I moved to Birmingham,” says David. “At the time, there were only about five Zoe’s Kitchens. I was with them from mid-2003 to 2009. In that time period, I helped open 13 restaurants for the Cassimus family.”

David also worked with Birmingham’s renowned chef Chris Hastings. “Chef Hastings inspired me,” says David. “People don’t understand the detail that goes into preparing food until they have worked in a five-star kitchen like (Hastings’) Hot and Hot Fish Club. I’ve seen and been a part of a process where it took 12 hours just to make a sauce. It’s that level of detail that inspired me to not overlook anything when I’m preparing a meal.”

It’s that same level of commitment and attention to detail that David took to create the menu for Urban Cookhouse. From 2004 to 2008 David traveled the U.S. collecting menus from the restaurants he visited.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.44.38 AM“I wanted fresh food and I wanted to smoke the meats,” David explains. “I got a good idea for combinations of food that were popular in all the places I visited. I would circle things on menus that interested me. My wife and I took all the menus we collected, and on the way to the National Restaurant Association Expo in Chicago in 2009, I wrote out the Urban Cookhouse menu. 

“While I worked for Chris Hastings during the day, at night I would go home and make the food that became the Urban Cookhouse menu,” adds David. 

David reveals the secret to their menu—smoking everything on a Green Egg grill. Whether it’s the pork on the El Cubano sandwich, the Urban Cowboy’s lime marinated steak or the smoked turkey on the Turkey Crunch sandwich, all the meat goes through the smoking process.

“I really wanted to combine my knowledge and ability to run a quick-service casual restaurant with that idea,” explains David. “Let’s get the freshest food we can, let’s cook it over hickory wood and charcoal and let’s do it in a setting that’s modern and urban.” 

The process took about a year to get the business plan and design together prior to opening their first restaurant in downtown Homewood in May of 2010. The restaurants continue to see great success thanks to a simple concept.

“It’s local and we buy from local farmers and the food is handmade,” says David. “We also do all that we can to make sure that our customer service is the best in our segment of the restaurant industry.”

Since opening in downtown Birmingham in February of this year, David feels confident he made the right decision to locate in the business district.

“We’ve seen growth every week that we’ve been open downtown. The success of Urban Cookhouse has exceeded our expectations and we couldn’t be happier,” he says.

Although they’ve had great success as entrepreneurs, David and Andrea still remain humble and give credit to those who have helped and inspired them along the way, including their hometown of Birmingham.

“None of our success would have been possible without Birmingham and its rise as a culinary destination,” says David. “Also, without the Cassimus family, and Chef Hastings allowing me to work in his kitchen for a year, I would have never learned the culinary side like I have.” 

“Without Birmingham, there would be no Urban Cookhouse,” he adds. 

What’s in a Name?

Andrea, with her marketing background, came up with the name. 

“I know we called the shed at my dad’s hunting camp a cookhouse. It was a separate, covered, portable detached building for cooking and smoking meats. So, the word ‘cookhouse’ was going to be part of our concept. I thought that was a perfect name,” she says. 

But Andrea adds that there was a slight problem with just calling it Cookhouse. “We didn’t want people to think it was country food,” she says. “It’s a little bit more progressive than that, and we were definitely going to be opening locations in urban areas. So, I thought Urban Cookhouse had a nice ring to it, and we stuck with it.”