Anthony Clemons has spent the past few weeks putting the finishing touches on Bell Peppers, his forthcoming concept dedicated to low-carb comfort food.
Opening a restaurant– his first restaurant– was already arduous. But the additional challenges of navigating operations in the midst of COVID-19 made the project especially taxing.
“In these last couple of months, I’ve been pretty much scrambling trying to get everything finished because I’ve had a problem with workers and things of that nature due to the pandemic,” said Clemons. “Things just have been that much more difficult.”
But challenges aside, the public is eager to welcome the new eatery with open arms. In fact, when AL.com caught up with Clemons late last week, he was headed to put one of his dishes –a turkey polish sausage topped with Italian-style ground turkey, a mix of sauteéd peppers and onions, and low carb secret sauces– to the test with his local gym members.
“Part of you wants to say, ‘now is not the time.’ But then, when you get out in public, you get (asked) ‘When is it opening?’ So, it’s kind of a back and forth thing. But the people really, really pushed me to keep going,” said Clemons. “I just kept thinking, if I don’t do this, I’m going to let a lot of people down. And it’s bigger than me. So, I kept pushing.”
That anticipation from soon-to-be patrons is one reason Clemons chose to open his restaurant in Hueytown. He lives in nearby Concord and once threw a tailgate party at his gym in the city. The event, he remembers fondly, had a big turn out.
“The people were welcoming. It was just a great experience. I felt like Hueytown was the spot.”
Now, Clemons is in the final sprint of his opening. Bell Peppers, his low-carb and keto take on burgers, pizza, and breakfast food will host its grand opening on July 11.
He’s taken recommended safety protocols for his 1,400 square-foot restaurant. Patrons, he says, must wear masks upon entering and keep them on while ordering. There will be six-foot social distancing markers for customers standing in line. Tables will also be placed six feet apart.
“We’re supposed to have eight tables, but I’ll have six,” said Clemons. “Because I wanted to have them spaced out. So, each individual family will have at least a space in between.”
“I did grow up cooking, but not like I’m cooking right now.”
The first-time restaurateur grew up cooking, but back then, he says, his style was different. “I grew up cooking things that were, of course, very, very bad for you. The typical things you may cook in the kitchen like…I mean… typical American food,” said Clemons. “Nothing on this level right here that you may see with Bell Peppers. I did grow up cooking, but not like I’m cooking right now.”
Bell Peppers is the culmination of a lifestyle change, including a time when Clemons experimented with making versions of his favorite foods that had less sugar but were still packed with flavor.
That change started in June 2019 when Clemons was on a cruise and over-indulged in the ship’s high-carb dining options.
“There were a lot of buffet items like pancakes, waffles, burgers and pizza and stuff like that.”
Clemons, who was diagnosed with type-two diabetes in 2014, says consuming that daily diet caused his blood sugar to rise, making him constantly ill.
“I ate myself into the ground,” he said laughing. “I really did.”
But when Clemons returned to Alabama, he immediately started trying to create healthier versions of all the foods that he enjoyed eating on the trip. His first attempts were his favorite foods– biscuits and waffles.
Naturally, Clemons isn’t giving out all of his secrets, but he says the process involved heavy research and a lot of tweaking.
“Of course, we’re not born knowing everything,” he joked. “First you have to see what everybody else is doing.”
He covered a lot of ground, looking up recipes for low-carb waffles online. But he disliked most of the recipes, including one where the amount of eggs was “just overpowering.”
“It really didn’t taste good at all. It tasted like an egg waffle. Like, they just took a whole bunch of eggs and put them in a waffle maker,” said Clemons. ” At that moment, I knew I had to do something on my own.”
So, he put the online recipes to the side and started experimenting with other ways to get tastes that he loved, incorporating variations of almond and oat flours. Eventually, he made a breakthrough.
“And once I made that waffle and it had a great taste to it, I knew right then that I wanted to turn that into something. Because I felt like the world needed this,” he said. “I felt like there were a lot of people like myself who wanted to eat healthier, but still eat fun food. I mean, boiled chicken and asparagus, we all know that’s healthy, but no one wants that.”
After his breakfast food success, Clemons expanded his methods to work on pizza.
He counted carbohydrates in the dough and measured ingredients, analyzing toppings to determine the number of carbs and calories per slice.
When he started to share his recipes online, an encounter on Facebook would catapult his brand to the next level. It was an experience all too familiar to those who frequent the social network— a run-in with the restrictive, yet vague, rules of Facebook groups.
Clemons had posted a photo of one of his pizzas in a group devoted to food, but he didn’t know the admin’s regulations.
“At the time, it said ‘no advertisements.’ But I really wasn’t advertising, because I didn’t have a business,” Clemons explained. “So, I put it in that group and it had like 400 likes in 10 minutes. It was blowing up, because it was a very, very good looking pizza. And they deleted my post and they blocked me from the group.”
Clemons took note of the reactions and decided to post the photo of the pizza to his personal profile to get feedback from people he knew.
“They were going crazy,” he said. “People were asking like “Hey, you made that? How can I get one? How much is it?”
At the time, Clemons didn’t have either a price or distribution plan for his pizzas. But he took a chance and sold one to a former classmate. When she posted it to her profile, the questions started raining in.
“People started asking her ‘Where did you get that?’ And she was going on about how it only had four or five carbs per slice and it started to blow up from there.”
From that point on, Clemons started selling pizzas. Preparation time took a while in the early stages and he was initially only able to fill about seven to 10 orders per day. But as he nailed down his process, the orders continued to skyrocket.
“That same pizza is still on my Facebook page right now,” said Clemons, proudly. “And I look back on that every now and then to just remind me of how far I came.”
Clemons would name his popular recipe the Red Thunder. The pizza– a pie with traditional red sauce, turkey bacon, turkey sausage, red onions, and red bell peppers– would go on to be his signature dish and lay the foundation for his restaurant and its moniker.
“I use bell peppers in a lot of my food. They have a very high nutritional value. Vitamins, minerals. I use bell peppers in a lot of different items. I also have bell pepper colors scattered throughout my restaurant. The red, the greens, stuff like that,” said Clemons. “Bell peppers are nutritious and I decided to go with the name. It’s a great name.”
Clemons created the Bell Peppers menu of pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and breakfast dishes and he’ll run the restaurant’s kitchen full-time.
Patrons can expect pizzas topped with vegetables and lean meats: the White Thunder is an Alfredo-based pie topped with cheddar cheese, white onion, turkey, and peppers; the A.M. is Clemons’ take on a breakfast pizza with scrambled eggs, smoked sausage, and a signature steak sauce as the base.
For those looking to test the bounds of his breakfast dishes, Clemons recommends the biscuits and gravy.
“It’s not the runny gravy you see anywhere else. You know, the little runny, white gravy. It’s completely different.”
“I have a doughnut waffle. It’s an almond flour waffle with a glaze that I created. And It’s tremendous. It tastes just like a doughnut.”
Since breakfast is on the menu all day at Bell Peppers, diners, he says, shouldn’t be limited by the time.
“I don’t really look at my waffles as breakfast. Because you would want to eat them any time.”
And while his entry points to the low-carb world were pizza and breakfast dishes, Clemons is also a self professed “burger guy.”
“When I used to go out to restaurants, back in the day, it didn’t really matter where I went. If I went to a steakhouse, I was going to get a burger.”
Clemons’ top picks from the grill are the smoked Gouda burger and the steak burger. But for those who prefer to forego red meat, there’s the gobbler– a turkey sandwich with smoked turkey breast, blacked and cooked to a crisp.
“I’ve made everything. I’ve tasted everything. And I like everything,” said Clemons. “The dishes that I called out are the ones that I would throw at somebody like, hey, try this.”
The grand opening of Bell Peppers is on July 11, 2020.
Opening hours| Monday: closed| Tuesday to Thursday: 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. |Friday to Saturday: 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.| Sunday- 1:00 to 7:00 p.m.
144 River Square Shopping Center, Bessemer, AL 35023
(located in the Piggly Wiggly shopping center)