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Concepts in Eats and Enterprise

With a resume of four-star resorts from New York to California, James Boyce landed an entrepreneurial gig in north Alabama, creating a string of three distinctive restaurants in historic downtown Huntsville.

Chef James Boyce

Chef James Boyce

It’s been almost five years since Chef James Boyce first stood in the 1821 brick building in Huntsville that is now Cotton Row. Right away, he had a feeling that it would be home to his first restaurant.

At the time, Boyce was as an executive chef at Studio Restaurant at Montage Laguna Beach. An Alabama businessman who was a regular customer at the California resort had asked Boyce, knowing that he did restaurant consulting on the side, to offer advice on a Huntsville property he planned to develop.  

“When I drove up to the building, it spoke to me. It had all the characteristics of a great restaurant. I knew I wanted to be more involved in this project,” Boyce says.

“As a chef, you can always envision what the whole building will encompass, and, as soon as you walk in, you can imagine it as an operating restaurant, and you formulate a narrative on how your food will translate there. I knew everything would work: The location was ideal, the urban structure of the building was great, the facade had a French, New Orleans look, and I could just see what my food could do for the space.”

Boyce opened Cotton Row in 2008 and has since used his intuition to open two other successful restaurants in historic downtown Huntsville. Pane e Vino Pizzeria was established in 2009 and Commerce Kitchen in 2010. Among the three dining spots the 47-year-old chef owns and operates, he serves 300 to 500 people daily.

Before coming to Huntsville, Boyce, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, had spent six years working in the kitchen of the world renowned Le Cirque in New York and 15 years as an executive chef at upscale dining spots at Western resorts, including the Phoenician, Loews Coronado Bay and Montage Laguna Beach.

Boyce says he knew when he moved to Huntsville he wanted to diversify and branch out from the luxury hotel dining segment.

Each of his three restaurants is strongly influenced by the physical space in which it was established.

Cotton Row, in a former bank in the downtown financial district, features a high-end menu of American cuisine, complemented by Boyce’s personal twist of classic French and Southern flair, with wine, beers and liquors from around the world. Pane e Vino Pizzeria, near the art museum, is artsy and casual, with Italian fare and an assortment of Italian wines. Closer to the city’s residential areas, Commerce Kitchen is a medium-priced, neighborhood place that serves Southern comfort food. A throwback bar area serves draft beers and classic American drinks, like whiskey sours and oldfashioneds.

“You have to take the restaurant’s location and atmosphere into account to formulate a successful business,” Boyce says. “When I write a narrative of how I will drive customers to a restaurant, the concept is directly driven by the style of the building and the environment of its surroundings.”

After 25-plus years wearing a chef hat, Boyce added another hat when he moved to Huntsville in 2008—that of an entrepreneur. He started Boyce Restaurant Concepts Inc., a company that he co-owns with his wife, Suzan, and his partner, Jeff Sikes. It’s the parent organization for all of their restaurant endeavors.

During a jam-packed, 80-hour workweek, he now juggles much more than pots and pans. His main concern and true passion is still serving great food to the customer, he says, but now he’s also responsible for the bottom line. As he has diversified and adjusted his schedule to make rounds from restaurant to restaurant, he also has learned how to train and maintain a loyal staff that follows his core values, running the business in the same manner and offering the customers the same level of respect, whether he is on site or not.

“I’ve been a cook for a long time, but when you find out you want to own a restaurant, you have to learn the business side of it, and it is a whole different animal,” he says. “Being on your own, you leave the comfort level of working for someone else who is paying the bills, buying supplies, monitoring staffing issues and taking care of the advertising, and you have to decipher these things on your own. I had to take a big chance and make a risky transition to open my own place, but I’ve worked hard my whole life to get this, and it has been rewarding.”

Boyce says his menu offerings always have been inspired by blending the French cooking techniques he mastered in culinary school with the specialties of his current environment—a distinct Southern flair nowadays. He enjoys taking old recipes and combining them with the latest trends in the food industry and inventive ingredients to make unique dishes.

Local produce and fresh seasonal ingredients have played a large role in the success of his restaurants in Huntsville. Boyce supports local farmers and vendors and takes full advantage of what they offer.

“Being in the farmland of the South, I find at certain times of the year, I have everything I need at my fingertips here. We fortify our menu with local cheeses, meats, eggs and vegetables, and the difference it makes in flavor and taste is night and day,” Boyce says.

While he’s enjoying his three current restaurants, he’s always on the lookout for another location that would inspire another venture.

“There is an open market here that has given us the chance to excel at what we do and allowed us to prove that you don’t have to travel to a big city to get great food and service,” Boyce says. “I want to further our footprint and develop a regional following for all of the restaurants and not just be the best in the city or the best in the state, but establish the company as one of the premiere Southern restaurant groups and gain notoriety as where to go in the South.”

Dana Jaffe is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham. 

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