By Jasmine Shaw
For the Birmingham Times
Beverly Russell, owner of Olivia’s Transit Cafe, learned several valuable tips from her mother, who was an entrepreneur for more than 50 years.
“I watched her manage a beauty salon for most of my life and saw firsthand the hard work she put into having a successful business,” Russell said.
That hard work has gone into the welcoming atmosphere that has made Olivia’s Transit Cafe a downtown Birmingham staple, where Russell uses locally sourced ingredients to provide breakfast, lunch, a full bar, and catering services six days a week.
Open since 2017 and located just one block away from the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority’s (BJCTA) MAX Central and Greyhound bus stations, Olivia’s Transit Cafe is a must-stop for early morning commuters and the bustling lunch crowd.
Russell, 57, has been cooking for 30-plus years in a variety of catering and restaurant roles. Her first business was Memorable Occasions on Valley Avenue, an event center with a formal event-wear boutique, where she provided full-service clothes, food, and decorations.
Next, she opened her first restaurant, Beverly’s, on Morris Avenue, which eventually moved to Brookwood Mall, next door to where the Target Supercenter is located. After stops on Highway 280 (where she changed the name to Olivia’s) and downtown to 2nd Avenue, she finally moved to her current location.
“I have regular customers that come for breakfast and lunch every day, and I know exactly what they are going to order,” Russell said. “Some of my customers come in to have coffee, eat, and listen to music.”
Russell named the cafe after her only child, Olivia, who chose to carry on the family’s entrepreneurial legacy by launching Barnestending, a full-bar catering service that she and her husband, Marcus, started in January 2019.
Just as Russell learned from her mother, Olivia learned from her mother.
“Watching Olivia do her thing has been awesome,” Russell said. “She learned a craft then figured out how to make it her own. I’m extremely proud. She manages her life well, and that’s all you can ask for as a parent.”
A native of Montevallo, Ala., Russell enjoyed an active childhood filled with family game nights, sports, and church events. She was an enthusiastic member of the Montevallo High School marching band, while holding down positions on the Bulldogs’s volleyball and softball teams simultaneously.
“I guess I was so young that I didn’t really realize I was juggling so many things. I was just having fun,” she said. “I can remember cheering at the beginning of a game, running off to change into my band uniform for halftime, then changing right afterward so that I could cheer again. I’ve always liked to stay active.”
Her mother’s business, Harris Beauty Shop, was in their family’s home. Her father built a separate entrance, so customers didn’t have to walk through their private space. The salon is no longer open, and her mom passed away in 2005.
Russell didn’t work in the shop because she was busy with extracurricular activities, but she always helped her mom cook and prepare for different events. The regular cooking experience gave her a catering side hustle that helped her generate some extra cash.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in merchandising from the University of Montevallo in 1985, Russell considered pursuing a career in fashion but ultimately decided on a culinary career.
“I always thought that I was going to be this big fashion buyer living in New York, but I also catered a lot of my mom’s social events throughout college, and I loved it,” she said. “After undergrad, I finally came to the conclusion that cooking was what I liked doing the most.”
“How Can I Help?”
Russell always wanted to open her own business but took a minor detour. After getting married, she started working at Alabama Blue Cross and Blue Shield to help support her family, though she continued to do catering on the side. Her daughter was born in 1993, and she decided to leave her day job. She opened her first business, Memorable Occasions, in 1995.
Another trait Russell got from her mother: a passion for helping others.
“I may be a full-time chef, but I still love decorating and hosting events,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to blend my passions and do something positive for the community.”
In the spring of 2019, Russell hosted cooking classes and public tastings that taught the benefits of healthy eating. In the summer, she hosted financial-literacy lessons taught by members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. And in the fall, she partnered with troops from the Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama to host an etiquette luncheon.
“I see children in need around me every day, and I hear so many disturbing stories on the news that I [asked], ‘How can I help these kids?’ I love to host and, of course, cooking is my thing, so I decided to give the girls an opportunity to come dress up, have fun, and learn a valuable new lesson,” she said.
The 25 attendees and their guests learned about formal place settings, utensil use, proper wardrobe attire, and common dining faux pas. The girls were then invited to enjoy a four-course meal, catered by Russell’s cafe, where they put their recent knowledge to use and dined among friends with ease.
“I think this event [was] wonderful,” said Veleria Stinson, who was in attendance with her three daughters. “The presenters were very well-spoken and kept the girls engaged. You could see the girls shifting to sit up straight in their chairs, and they were regurgitating information all day. They were happy, they were learning, and they were excited about it. I learned something new, … as well.”
“Faith Is Key”
Though entrepreneurship comes with many adversities, Russell said her goal is to build on her eight-member team and create new menu items, classes, and social events to offer customers. With plans to expand and diversify her service list, she is far more concerned with broadening her impact than slowing down.
“Nobody cares as much about your business as you do,” she said. “If this door is open, I’m here. You have to be present when you own a business.”
Standing firm in her belief that “prayer changes things,” Russell encourages aspiring business owners to remain faithful to their plans even when the road gets tough.
“I wouldn’t be able to get through all of the ups and downs of owning a business without having faith,” she said. “Faith is key.”
Olivia’s Transit Café is located at 701 Morris Ave., Birmingham, AL 35203; for more information call 205-701-1701, visit www.oliviasbham.com, or follow on Facebook @ Olivia’s Transit Café or Instagram @ Olivias_Transit_Cafe.
Updated at 7:41 a.m. on 1/23/2020 to correct the year Russell’s mother passed.