Firing up a new career: Hines started brick oven pizza business 5 years ago at age 57
By Tim Nail | Living 50 Plus
Susan Hines, 62, of Hartselle, packed her suitcase for an excursion to Italy at the end of March. She wasn’t just getting ready for a vacation. For her, this trip also aimed to further her knowledge of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
“I’m going to take a pasta cooking class over there,” Hines said. “We’re doing a grand tour … plus an excursion to Greece with an interactive Greek cooking class.”
Hines, former president of the Hartselle Chamber of Commerce for 14 years, may now be better known for her on-the-go business Brix & Embers, which has been serving up brick oven pizzas within the confines of a food truck for the past five years.
She said she has always enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen and trying her hands at dishes from around the world, like when she learned to cook German foods while she lived in Germany with her husband stationed there. But Hines didn’t imagine herself operating a pizza business, let alone it being the only wood-fired pizza truck in the Tennessee Valley.
“I like cooking, I like baking and I like making candies,” she said. “I never knew I was a pyromaniac, but I like building the fire in the brick oven and keeping it hot.”
The concept first materialized when Hines helped organize Hartselle’s annual Depot Days celebration and was asked by a friend about bringing a brick oven-style pizzeria back to Morgan County after a previous such business shuttered. With no one else stepping up to fill the void, Hines took it upon herself to learn the craft at the age of 57 after a career in banking and at the chamber.
“I’ve always loved being around people, and if you can feed them with good food that’s quality, they’re going to be happy people,” she said.
She sought the guidance of Stan Stinson and Tina Ford, co-owners of Earth & Stone Wood Fired Pizza in Huntsville, to learn more about pizza baking with brick ovens, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“They had a wood-fired pizza trailer, and they actually knew a guy who was getting rid of one,” Hines said. “I talked with him and was going to buy it, and then they bought it before I did. But they only needed it because they tore down theirs and had a wedding come up … (so) I picked it up from them later.”
Five years on, she’s become one with the oven, producing a variety of pies with toppings ranging from feta cheese to honey to mustard. Sometimes, she’s even had her family help with creating new offerings.
“We have a pizza called the ‘El Fuego’ that’s got Tajín (sauce), Salsa Valentina and fiery Cheetos on it,” Hines said. “The kids added dill pickles to pizza, and it’s really good. I would’ve never thought.”
Other menu items are seasonal, like strawberry pizza in the spring or apple dumpling pizza in the winter.
Hines, maiden name Shelton, said her family has a legacy of entrepreneurship in the area she feels she’s carrying on in running Brix & Embers. Her grandfather, Homer Shelton, owned a Decatur furniture store, and her father, Gene Shelton, was a four-term Morgan County coroner and owner of Shelton Funeral Home in Decatur.
“My grandfather’s sign at his place was that ‘the customer is king,’” Hines said. “Being raised knowing that if your customers aren’t happy, I learned you don’t get a paycheck. If they’re not going to buy with me, they won’t be back.”
With the enterprising spirit she inherited, getting repeat business hasn’t been a problem. Hines said she has plenty of regular customers whose names and preferred pizzas she knows well, and when the pandemic made it difficult for some businesses to operate, hers was a continued mainstay in north Alabama.
She even created a dining area for customers to give them opportunities to eat and socialize outdoors when indoor dining was a concern.
“I had built a pole barn out in front of my property and built a commercial kitchen out there because every food truck has to have one,” Hines said. “When COVID hit, I wasn’t going to not work — I was going to do something. So, we bought picnic tables and set up string lights and created a place where people could come and eat and be distanced, and the community embraced it.”
Before the Hartselle Chamber of Commerce, Hines served in a banking job for Colonial Bank in Hartselle. This combined with her role in leading the chamber has helped her remain financially sound and business-minded, she said, allowing her to network as well as stay competitive as a restaurant.
“A lot of times, I’ll know who to call or know who to call to find out who to call, and having contacts is important,” Hines said. “And when I had a friend and his wife go to Italy, he told me about how they use an Italian pepper oil. He said (he’d) love to get that over here, … so the next time he came to the truck I had made Italian pepper oil.”
As this year’s series of Food Truck Fridays returns to Decatur in April, Hines will be there firing up the oven most weeks. She said she isn’t remotely considering retirement.
“The kids don’t want the business, so when I quit, I’m done,” she said, laughing. “I’ve thought I may need a brick-and-mortar (store) at some point so I don’t have to get out on the road as much and my daughters can drive the truck. For now, my husband’s retired so he takes care of the dogs and I drive the truck, so it works out.”
Brix & Embers is present at most Food Truck Fridays by Decatur’s Old State Bank, but it’s also available to book for events. Hines said the best way to get in contact is via her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/brixandembers, but she may also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-303-8258.