Every Monday night, after closing down shop, Ken Jansen retreats to a small room in the back of Fairhope Tire. There he switches on his corn mill and toils away at the large, loud machine, milling stone-ground grits and cornmeal flour. He only stops when he’s tired, and in the days to come, he’ll sell every zip-top bag of Southern goodness that he fills that night.
Chances are, if you’ve enjoyed dining at the Grand Hotel (scroll to the bottom for the resort's recipe for blackened shrimp and grits), you have already experienced the result of Ken’s second shift. At times, the resort has been known to serve up to 50 gallons of the grits per week. And, if you love the cornbread at Danny’s Fried Chicken, you have Fairhope Tire’s cornmeal to thank. While corn was not in Ken’s original commercial plan when he established his garage in 1967, the oddity of tires and grits merging into one business added a certain charm that has attracted many new customers.
With every echo of the corn mill, Ken carries on the legacy of his father, Claude Jansen. The Jansen men are no strangers to operating a successful local business — or working with their hands. Claude was known for inventing the Easy Cut Lawn Mower that was sold throughout the South from 1950 to 1972. His storefront, Jansen Manufacturing, was located on North Ingleside Drive in Fairhope. (The building later became the family home.) The Easy Cut Lawn Mower is no longer made, but today you will find multiple models of the three-wheeled landscaping equipment painted in Fairhope High School’s colors, blue and gold, suspended from the ceiling of the town’s history museum. Claude passed away in 2006, but not before establishing a new venture in corn — and arguably the best grits you’ll ever taste.
From the Shop to the Stovetop
Funny enough, Claude had a lifelong dream to grind cornmeal, but it wasn’t until the ripe age of 79 that he realized it. “Dad used to grow 5 acres of corn every year, and I would tell him, ‘You cannot make any money with this stuff, ’ but he would tell me how he loved corn, ” Ken says. “We traveled around a little bit looking for equipment, and finally in North Carolina we found a brand new mill. We brought it home and set it up out here at my business, Fairhope Tire.”
After Claude became too ill to work the mill in 2004, he passed it along to Ken for $10. Ken had watched his dad on the machine before but had never operated it himself. “I asked Dad, ‘What do I do?’ He told me, ‘You turn the machine on and put the corn in there. Things are going to start happening fast. You’ll figure it out.’ And when I did, I just blended it right in with my tire business since I have to be here all the time anyway.”
The cornmeal has a fresh, original flavor and that’s likely due to the corn being grown in Illinois. Ken uses corn from the Midwestern state as opposed to local ears, because even though Alabama has a very long growing season, aflatoxin, a natural toxin that infects crops in highly humid climates, limits its use for grits. Aflatoxin turns the silk of the corn brown and forms a mold that is poisonous until you cook the corn to at least 166 degrees, which wouldn’t be good for grits.
The process begins when shucked ears are dropped onto 36-inch stones that grind the kernels down into grits and cornmeal. Then, the variable speed motorized sifter, which was handmade by Claude and Arthur Keller, separates the meal. A 50-pound bag takes a minimum of 30 minutes to grind. The grain all comes out as coarse cornmeal, but Ken separates the grits from the cornmeal to ensure a finely ground texture. It’s a product that customers have grown to know and love. “Every day, folks tell me, ‘This cornmeal is good, ’ and often they stop in just to buy my grits.” While they’re at it, customers can tack on a tire rotation. Where else could a man be so proud to carry on the legacy of his father and one of his very own?
Sampling the Goods
If you’re in the market for a new set of tires, Fairhope Tire is ready to serve. Bonus: Customers receive a complimentary fresh bag of stone-ground grits. Bags of the breakfast starch, as well as cornmeal, can also be purchased at Hazel’s Market in Daphne and Windmill Market in Fairhope. Recipes for dishes like fried green tomatoes, chicken strips, fried fish and cornbread are included with each bag.
Fairhope Tire • 19526 S. Greeno Road, Fairhope. 928-5613.
Danny’s Fried Chicken • 19605 Greeno Road, Fairhope. 928-2828. dannysfriedchicken.com
Hazel’s Market • 26751 U.S. Highway 98, Daphne. 626-9939.
Lucy B. Goode • 202 E. 25th St., Gulf Shores. 948-4101.
Marriott Grand Hotel • 1 Grand Blvd., Point Clear. 928-9201.
Windmill Market • 85 N. Bancroft St., Fairhope. 990-8883. windmillmarket.org
Blackened Shrimp and Grits
Try your hand at this delicious recipe courtesy of The Grand Hotel.
80 (16-to 20-count) shrimp
1/2 cup Cajun seasoning
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons wine
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup white wine
2 1/2 cups grits
2 cups cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1. Combine the shrimp with 1/2 cup cajun seasoning, the olive oil, lemon juice, brandy and wine in a sealable plastic bag, turning to coat evenly. Marinate in the refrigerator for 3 hours or longer.
2. To prepare grits, put grits in a pot and run cold water over them. Some corn fibers will come to the top; skim them off. Leave enough water in the pot so when you put your finger to the top of the grits, the water comes past the second joint of your finger (about 2 – 2 1/2 inches). Place on medium heat and bring to a boil with salt to season. Cook for about 25 – 30 minutes or until done.
3. Sauté the garlic and shallots in the butter in a saucepan. Add Cajun seasoning and wine. Stir in the grits, cheese and cilantro; mix well. Cook just until heated through; keep warm.
4. Drain the shrimp and grill or sauté in a cast-iron skillet or sauté pan until pink and cooked through. Serve with grits. Serves 10.
text by May Laughton • photos by Matt Gates