By Christiana Roussel
Photos by Blair Ramsey
Tonya Jones is no stranger to the world of hospitality. In fact, she has been in the business of taking care of people since the first time a client sat down in her stylist’s chair almost two decades ago. In acquiring the English Village eatery, Civitas, Tonya takes that approach to caring for the customer, one step further.
The last title Tonya ever expected to have on a business card might have been “restaurateur.” But when Christie Lowe, owner of Evelyn’s Southern Fare, approached her last fall about buying the business adjacent to her eponymous salon, she thought to herself, “Why not?” It might seem like an unlikely change to the business model she’s grown, but as Tonya says, “In everything we do, we are about taking care of people. We serve people. We listen to people. We please people. That is our passion: making someone’s day. I can change a person’s whole mood in a matter of 30 minutes in my chair at the salon – someone can come in having had the worst day and then through conversation and connection, we turn things around – it is a game changer. In taking over this space, Civitas, I found that we can do that with food, too.”
This passion for serving people has been at the heart of every business decision she has made since arriving in the Magic City in 2004. She left home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to be closer to her brother, who was attending UAB. She adds, “My brother had finished grad school at UAB, got married, had his first child, and I just couldn’t stay away. So I was like, I want to be in the big city too, right?” She took a job with Richard Joseph Salon Spa in English Village, where she worked for five years, building up a robust clientele list before striking out on her own. She purchased Jilbere Salon in Cahaba Village Plaza (next to Whole Foods Market on Highway 280) before rebranding it, to better represent who she is and what she aims to bring to the market. In this time she notes, “I had gotten married – to a wonderful man, Brian Combs, who I actually met the day I moved to Birmingham. But in naming the salon, I chose ‘Tonya Jones’ (not ‘Tonya Combs’) because I had built a name in the city for myself and just couldn’t think of another name I liked. And I just didn’t want to be cheesy with it.”
Success beget success, and her reputation for running outstanding salons, with dedicated professionals in a joy-filled environment, paved the way for what was to come.
Not long after the fruitful launch of the Cahaba Plaza salon, opportunity came knocking again: “I had just opened the salon in 2009, and then a couple of years later, full circle happened with Richard Joseph going out of business in English Village. (English Village retail property owner) Dr. Shirley Khan approached me and said, ‘I need you back in my village. You know, I need you back in this space. If anybody can do it, you can do it.’” The gauntlet thrown, Tonya needed a minute to think about what this could mean for her.
“I was like, that’s a lot of pressure, but I’m very honored and humbled to do that. But let me pray about it. Let me figure out if I could do this.”
She adds that she had just undergone a large remodel project in Cahaba Plaza, taking over the additional former LensCrafters space. But at the end of the day, all she could think was, “I have to go back home. You know, that’s where I started. And I just kind of love English Village.”
The transition felt seamless – like it was always meant to be – and for an entrepreneur, that is an unmistakable and highly covetable feeling. In fact, it is one that pervades her career. Tonya has a history of hard work being complemented by meaningful relationships and being in the right place at the right time. Additional salon-related expansion added space at Saks Fifth Avenue at The Summit, as well as a salon in Huntsville. A member of the Mountain Brook Chamber of Commerce, she assumed the role of chamber president shortly before COVID hit, and the reactions to the pandemic started affecting businesses.
“I just love people. I built my reputation on my brand because I know how to take care of people. We know how to listen, and we know how to provide great service. Eighty percent of what we do every day is with our head and our heart. The remaining 20% is the tradecraft of what we do professionally.”
In her role as chamber president, Tonya worked to create the Merchant Relief Fund to be a sort of life-preserver for local businesses. She recalls thinking, “We’ve got to create a nonprofit for our city, because we never know when something’s going to happen, such as this pandemic or a natural disaster.”
Mountain Brook residents were clamoring for ways to support the local businesses, which make living here so special. She adds, “It’s why we choose to live here; not just for our school system but for these local businesses that make our villages so special.” Local government and merchants rallied together to create something remarkable. “That support and that camaraderie, it was huge. It was just amazing to see how we came together. I know that my team got stronger. I think the community got stronger.”
This is the backdrop that sets the stage for a salon owner to become a restaurant owner. What seems so unlikely from the outset, once you know the story, becomes almost inevitable. From the moment Christie Lowe approached Tonya about taking over the dining space, everything just seemed to fall into place. Chef Chris Melville – an industry veteran held in high regard – wanted to stay on as did most if not all of the existing staff. They could feel the energy and enthusiasm Tonya would bring to the project and were eager to be a part of this new team.
She makes a point to note, “A big part of why I bought the restaurant was it was fully staffed with an amazing team.”
As far as what changes she plans, Tonya says with a laugh, “You know, Brian and I used to eat here three nights a week. And now we’re going to eat here every night.” She told the team, “I don’t want to come in here and change everything immediately. Because I feel that is huge disruption. I want to sprinkle some new leadership and sprinkle some new decor, and a few new ideas.”
New patio furniture and fresh paint were some of the initial changes Tonya made, but she wants to keep everything that the neighborhood has always appreciated about this very intimate gathering space. She was also delighted that bartender Haley Johnson stayed on as well.
English Village is very much having a moment now. The Civitas statue herself, which stands sentinel at the corner of Fairway Drive and Cahaba Road, has certainly seen her share of change in this village. While long-time staples like Billy’s Sports Grill may have closed, new retail outlets like The Travel Studio, Bossi Leisure, Lé Weekend and The Atelier have served to really inject new life into this village. Tonya adds, “I’m so excited about the energy that we have here. I live just up the hill, so this is really my home. It just feels so right.”
Tonya’s Top Picks
Civitas’s Autumn Squash Soup, with crème fraiche, pistachios and fresh sage.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Chris Melville
Serves 4 – 6
2 – 3 butternut squash
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon fennel seed
2 ounces browned butter
1 ounce sage leaves, fried
2 ounces chopped pistachios
4 ounces creme fraiche
2 tablespoons dry sherry
- Preheat oven to 350-degrees F.
- Cut squash lengthwise, remove seeds and place cut-side down on a rimmed roasting pan. Roast until soft, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool. Using a large spoon, remove the flesh from the skin and transfer to a large saucepan.
- While the squash roasts, caramelize the onions by melting the unsalted butter in a large skillet. Add the sliced onion and cook until soft and browned in color. Once caramelized, add the onions to the saucepan with the squash, and cover with chicken or vegetable broth.
- Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool. Working in batches, add the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Return mixture to sauce pan and over low heat add heavy cream, curry powder, fennel seed, browned butter and salt to taste.
- Serve in shallow bowls; garnish with fried sage leaves, chopped pistachios, a dollop of crème fraiche and a dash of dry sherry.