To immerse our makers into the community that surrounds Alabama Chanin, this year chef John Cartwright of Rivertown Coffee, located in downtown Florence, will be joining us at The Factory to bring his own brand of Southern cooking to each workshop. We recently sat down with John to discuss Rivertown Coffee, the food community in the Shoals, cuisine of the “new South,” and his Aunt Donna’s muffins.
Alabama Chanin: Tell us more about who you are and what led you to the food industry. Did you always envision yourself opening your own business?
John Cartwright: I grew up in Corinth, Mississippi. Most of my formative food memories came from home cooking from my mom and grandmother. Eating food from the garden. Shelling peas and shucking corn. Eating most meals at home around a dinner table. If we went out to eat, we ate at diners for breakfast on Saturdays with my grandparents. I would eat at meat and three restaurants with my Dad. When I got a driver’s license, I’d go get a dozen tamales from Dilworth’s Tamales. I love a small, weird restaurant. My first summer job was as a dishwasher at a tiny diner that specialized in slugburgers, which are pretty much native to Corinth and the surrounding areas. It was the first time I got to see how a kitchen works and got to be a part of a weird restaurant family. I didn’t realize how unique it was at the time, but I think it’s what drew me into the industry. I worked in coffee shops in college. I didn’t know that I wanted to open one myself at first, but I thought it was what I wanted to do. Opening a shop of my own was a way of staying in coffee and building another weird restaurant family. I knew I wanted to do food because I didn’t think you could make money in a small town on coffee alone. I didn’t know how to cook but I liked food. Going to restaurants and studying menus really were my only education. I was young and naive and blessed to have parents who supported me.
AC: You once said, “If you don’t provide a good product, obviously you’re not going to be successful in what you do.” That said, it’s not all about the drink in your hand, but about the experience you create. The experience and product you offer at Rivertown Coffee is iconic. Before opening your doors, what elements did you know had to be a top priority for your restaurant?
JC: From the beginning, my goal for Rivertown was to be a coffee shop for everyone. We are located downtown and four blocks from the University of North Alabama. Our location alone is accessible to a lot of different people which was really important to me. Rivertown would not be what it is without the community that we are in. We have never talked “target demographics.” We want everyone to feel like Rivertown was created for them and that they are cared for. Our slogan is “What makes us who we are, is who you are. Coffee For All.”
AC: How has the food scene in The Shoals changed compared to when you first opened? In what ways has Rivertown evolved since then?
JC: The food scene was more or less non-existent when we opened in 2004. If there was one I didn’t know it. What there has always been is an entrepreneurial spirit and an open and accepting community. I believe that the creative industry driven by Billy Reid and Natalie have laid the groundwork for creativity in other industries. It definitely has for the Shoals food scene as far as I’m concerned. Our good friends at Odette opened their restaurant in 2013 and a real food community started to form. Instead of feeling competitive, we work together. Celeste Pillow and Josh Quick and the rest of the staff at Odette have been the best kind of neighbors to have. We have cooked together, eaten together, and if I need a cup of sugar, or ten, they have my back. Besides that, they make all of our bread. The other driving force for the Shoals food scene has come from the Factory Dinners that Natalie curates so perfectly. Those dinners have brought the best chefs from the South and beyond to the Shoals. I don’t know another place that this could take place but here. I have been blessed to eat at many of them and have cooked at a couple too. As these things have changed, new restaurants, new food experiences, etc… I feel like I had the choice to be either intimidated by change, or inspired by it. As a self-taught cook, I know I don’t know how to do everything. To have friends like Odette and Natalie working to move good food forward in our area, I’m happy to join in, learn, and hopefully contribute to that growth. I feel like during the first eight years of Rivertown I had my head down working really hard and unable to look forward. When I was able to lift my head and see other people around working hard and trying to create something unique and special, I felt new life. I felt inspired to grow with those around me. I’m so thankful for this food community.
AC: From a local’s point of view, music seems like an integral part of the Rivertown experience. I’m always learning new artists while I wait on my morning coffee. If you have music in your kitchen, what is your favorite music to cook by?
JC: The soundtrack of Rivertown is as diverse as our community. Like a lot of coffee shops and restaurants, so many of our employees are artists and musicians. Depending on who is working that day, it can cover quite the spectrum of music styles. At some point a long time ago I quit worrying over what our playlist was because if my employees are playing what makes them happy and get through a busy service, then so be it. It’s just another reflection of our community. If I’m in control of music in the kitchen, I’m usually trying to create calm in the face of the storm of a busy lunch, so my go-to’s are a bit more relaxing in nature. Starting local, I can’t be prouder of my friends Andy and Kyle from Penny and Sparrow and their new album Finch. There is a great singer-songwriter, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, who has played in the area a few times. His work with the band Water Liars and his solo albums are extremely well-written and thoughtful. Big Thief is probably the band I’ve listened to the most in the kitchen in the past year and I really can’t get enough. If I want to up the energy, I always put on the band Pup. It’s poppy, punk, and kinda angry, and I love it.
AC: How would you describe your style of cooking?
JC: I definitely feel like I cook a lot of comfort food. I like something that tastes better with time. My style starts with the comforts of home-cooked Southern food by my mom and grandmother, but it has been equally inspired by the more global demographic of a new South. If Southern food as we know it has its roots in Africa and was brought here by slavery, the food of a new South is inspired by immigrants and the foods of their culture. I find that like people, the comfort foods of other cultures calling the South home have more things in common with each other than not. I like to see where the lines cross and live in that world of inspiration. It feels less like appropriation and more of a celebration of how we are all the same. That has fed my obsession with tacos and we serve them on Wednesdays. We make corn tortillas by hand to order. It’s not easy to pull off in our kitchen, but it’s fun.
At Rivertown we mostly serve sandwiches and soups. A couple of years ago I had a logo made that said “Rivertown Coffee Home of the Soup and Sandwich.” I did this because mostly I’m an idiot and I thought it would be funny to claim that we invented the combo of sandwiches and soups. Obviously we didn’t, but I do think we do it pretty well. I learned how to cook on the fly by opening a restaurant which is not the way you are supposed to do it. I started with a few family recipes and then just went from there. We serve a lot of muffins at Rivertown too. The first muffin we ever served was our bran muffin which is my Aunt Donna’s recipe. It is the base recipe for all of our muffins and my Aunt has given me a hard time for 15 years for not giving her credit and maybe some residuals. So here it is Aunt Donna. Thanks for the muffin recipe. Rivertown wouldn’t be here without them.
AC: Let’s talk flavors. What flavor combinations do you look to create in your recipes? Any chefs or restaurants that you’d recommend to our readers for inspiration?
JC: Like I said earlier, I find a lot of inspiration from the flavors of other cultures who have made the South their home. I make a stew with braised chicken thighs, tomatoes, and collards, but then I add red curry and coconut milk. It somehow tastes Southern to me. It’s rich, warm, and comforting.
AC: We’re very excited to offer our workshop attendees the opportunity to experience Rivertown at The Factory this year. When creating a menu, what do you always want to shine through?
JC: I want the menu to feel like Rivertown, so things like our sandwiches and soups will be on there for lunch. I also would like to pay homage to my love for a good Southern meat and three. It will be fresh, comforting food that will make you feel good.
AC: Last but not least, if you were to recommend one thing to our (not so local) readers who visit Rivertown, what would it be?
JC: Our Black Bean Breakfast Wrap. It’s a breakfast burrito with fresh ingredients and a local egg, and it will fill you up and hold you over for a while.
See John in action at a previous Factory Supper Club.
Register for one of our Workshops here.
Find Rivertown on Instagram here.
*Lead image courtesy of John Cartwright.