SheBoss, brought to you by Flourish, chats with Ashley Ryals. Ashley is a Huntsville native who founded Homegrown Huntsville, the stellar mind behind Huntsville’s most sought-after wine festival, Crush. Ashley is a PR and event planning guru and sat down with Flourish over – you guessed it – a glass of wine. Pull up a chair and join us!
She Boss with Ashley Ryals
Megan: Thank you guys so much for tuning in for She Boss. I am joined by Ashley Ryals with Homegrown Huntsville and in case you live in Huntsville and you happen to have heard about little-known Festival called, Crush, which we’ve all been there; it’s amazing, Ashley is the brains and beauty behind that. We wanted to sit down today with her and learn a bit more about her journey so before we jump into Crush why don’t you kind of take us back to the beginning.
Ashley: Well you mentioned that my company is Homegrown Huntsville and that actually is derived from the fact that I’m born and raised here in Huntsville so there is, I guess so far and few between us nowadays but somehow we all end up back here. I don’t really know how that works.
Megan: It’s a great place.
Ashley: Well now it’s growing. It’s a great place to raise a family, so yeah a lot of people in the back here. I went to the University of Alabama, got a PR degree and then moved off to New York where I worked for Weber Shandwick, a PR firm up there.
Megan: Which we learned before this, that I also worked for the same company, under the Interpublic group, McCann Erickson, which is a sister company of Weber, so very small world.
Ashley: So fun. I had these big PR dreams and never thought I would look back to Huntsville. Not that I had bad upbringing here. I love school, like my friends and everything, but I was set on New York, I guess for some reason.
Megan: Did you always have that big city dream in mind?
Ashley: In my sophomore year of high school, we went up with my theater group to New York and we went to see the Broadway show, ‘The Lion King’. I remember this moment. We walked out and I looked at my mom and said “I’m gonna live here one day”. I mean not be cheesy but I’m a goal oriented person and I put that goal in my head and I just went for it. It’s a good lesson to learn to always revisit your goals because I just put my vision and all my work into that and even though I loved it. I got up there and it was like, “I’m homesick.” I wasn’t expecting to get homesick. “Why am i homesick?” And it was just a little bit more cutthroat than maybe I was built for.
Megan: That culture is not even comparable to the South.
Ashley: It is no joke. I always joke about the movie, ‘Devil Wears Prada’ and pretty accurate. I mean that was low on the totem pole, but and we did some really cool things and we worked out our Weber card when we wanted to go straight to the front of the line for stuff, which was fun. But I started looking for jobs back in the Southeast area. And I had a friend of mine from high school say, “Oh my goodness, there’s this Account Coordinator position with Early Works Children’s Museum to help with the Whistle Stop festival, and Santa’s Village and things like that.” She set up this interview for me and I came as a courtesy to the high school friend’s mom. It turns out the lady that interviewed me, Dorothy Havens was interviewing me as a courtesy to the same person, but we just hit it off in the interview. We really connected and I just instantly knew I could learn a lot from her and that she would be a good mentor. I moved back to Huntsville. So she’s kind of who got me back here.
Megan: How old were you when you moved back to Huntsville and started that journey?
Ashley: Oh, gosh was I twenty five?
Megan: Okay, so young
Ashley: I was just in New York for a couple years after college.
Megan: That was not enough time.
Ashley: It was perfect. But it’s a whole other conversation moving to New York. My husband jokes that my stories get more exuberant every time I tell them. He’s like, “wait you what?” I’m like, “yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine.” Anyway, we did that. I did work at Early Works Children’s Museum and that’s where I got a lot of my large-scale event experience. While working with people on the Whistle Stop Festival and Santa’s Village, they threw me into getting involved in the community. So, Huntsville Young Professionals, all of those groups I was a part of. And they just started throwing me into the events role. I had these PR dreams – PR marketing and I kind of slowly started getting more events-oriented.
When my boss, Dorothy left for another company and I followed her into doing inside sales- wrong decision. I instantly was just not a good fit there. I didn’t realize how much I missed doing events and planning and being and feeling a part of the community. So that’s when I came to beau with the idea of starting my own thing and he has supported me from day one of my crazy Diner Dash adventure,
Ashley: It was a lot of fun
Megan: So Diner Dash started in 2012, we were talking earlier, and I’ve been here for a long time, and I remember that coming out. At the time, that was the coolest thing. It really was and what a great way to get people out of their homes downtown to experience the area, because if you don’t live in downtown Huntsville, you just may not get me that often. So at the time then, the Huntsville scene was very different from what it is right now.
Ashley: That was our goal. We wanted to showcase our local restaurants and get locals downtown. So it was definitely something that we produced for people that lived here. And we did it on Thursday nights because Thursday nights were dead. I remember going into our third year, we were like, Thursday nights are kind of busy now. And so we moved it up to Wednesday. And then we did it for four years on a Wednesday night. And then we were like downtown’s busy every night. I don’t think we need this anymore.
Megan: That’s just awesome. And I’m sure that was so well received from the restaurants to welcome you guys in and just being able to take advantage of things on potentially, a slow night. Yeah, it was great. So you said that you started that in 2012, which means next year is technically the tenth year since it’s started. So any big plans to bring it back in some capacity?
Ashley: We have talked about it because we all took a hit last year and I feel like we could use a new fun thing to highlight and get everyone in the restaurants. It would definitely be a different version of Diner Dash. So stay tuned. It will be more like a progressive high end diner.
Megan: The restaurants scene, as we talked about, has totally changed. I live in Madison and trying to keep up with what’s going on, I’m like, “Oh my God”.
Ashley: I can’t keep up. It’s like my job to keep up. When we started, I remember going to Chef James Boyce and I remember asking him if he would participate in Diner Dash because he was three of the five restaurants downtown. Now we have so many restaurants. We were asking restaurants to participate two or three times over the course of the season. And now we have enough restaurants. We could have one tour one month where you’re highlighted.
Megan: I certainly don’t want to give him all the credit nor do I know him personally or that I speak with him before this but I feel like ever since he came here and opened up Cotton Row, and not that he’s the sole reason for this but there’s .just been this desire to have better dining downtown and with DHI and everything that they’ve been doing here. It’s amazing what has happened to the restaurant scene
Ashley: There have been a lot of Trailblazers to get Huntsville where it is.
Megan: That’s a great word for it. Here we go, who else would you say is a Trailblazer here from your perspective?
Ashley: Oh, goodness. You’re going get me in trouble because I’m not going to mention the right the right people. They’re just taking over. I love it. So, Church Street Wine Shop. It’s funny because, we partnered together since the first year of Crush. And so I remember a restaurant friend introducing us and saying, “Hey, they’re opening this wine shop. It’s going to be really cool. Like I promise you. They’re good people. They’re going to do good things”. I’m like, “alright, cool”. I’ll meet with them and I guess she told them the same thing about me, like, she’s doing a wine festival. I mean, neither one of us had anything to go on. They hadn’t opened their wine shop. I hadn’t done Crush yet. And so we met at a full-time at a fold-out table in the middle of a bunch of construction at what is now Church Street Wine Shop and they have jumped in and they have overseen our VIP area of the festival ever since.
Megan: I couldn’t think of a more perfect couple to do that.
Megan: I don’t go out enough either.
Ashley: It’s funny, people think I do but I’m like, “no, I just work”.
Megan: So tell us then flash-forward to Crush so what was the year that it started?
Ashley: So 2012, 13, 14, 2014. This is our seventh annual and it’s supposed to be our eighth annual.
Megan: Yeah, that’ll be 14.
Ashley: I’m a creative not a math geek.
Megan: So I studied event planning in school because event planning would be amazing.
Even though I didn’t follow that path because I was like, “this is so much work”. So there’s a little bit of crazy to think to do event planning because it is so much work. It has such a great result, not everybody can do that. Now, there’s something to be said about your mindset. It’s a very unique skill set.
Ashley: It’s a lot more paperwork and licensing and contracts than I think you realize. I think people think it’s just like this big fun. Like “Hey, bring your wine and let’s have a party”. Insurance and ABC license and all of that stuff is a huge part of it. But I credit that all to the work that I did when I worked at the city. I had to do that with the Whistle Stop at Santa’s Village and if you don’t know who to call to get the permit or who to where to go to get the license- it’s not really laid out there very easily to do.
Megan: Especially if it’s done for the first time. A lot of times people step in the shoes of someone else, they’re like, “oh wait; here’s the binder from last year, so just follow the steps”.
Ashley: That’s a great point. So when we starting the park and I said, I want to do it in Big Spring Park East. It’s a little bit more shaded more, cozy, cool atmosphere and I just liked the ambience there and for an ABC license, you have to have an address. And so I have to lease out the park through the city, and it didn’t have an address. The park didn’t have an address. So we had to go through the process of the city creating an address for the park so that an event could be there because no one had had an event there before or at least a licensed event where you needed an ABC license. And then I remember the second biggest hurdle our first year was the wine glasses if you are really into wine, you know how important the glass of the wine glass is. I would even love to have the fancy write down and everything but the city was dead set on plastic glasses because it’s a park. So that was one thing we had to put our foot down on and say, “We’re not going to be the wine festival in Alabama with plastic glasses. I’m sorry. Like, every festival in the country has tasting glasses.” So there was a lot of firsts.
Megan: You broke down barriers for people who may want to look up to you, or follow your footsteps and other markets, or you know what I mean.
Ashley: Yeah, I hope so.
Megan: Yeah, it has. You face a lot of challenges when you go through things for the first time and I think they can either be really intimidating and you turn around and say that’s just too hard or you plough through it because you have the passion to do.
Ashley: That’s so the best way I can say it. There were so many times I could have stopped.
Megan: You are just like, “forget it, I’m done” but you didn’t. The things that I am probably the most excited about this year are the different experiences that you guys are bringing to Crush Wine Festival. So, obviously, there’s wine which we love and we’ve refilled our glasses. But it’s an experience, it’s not just common during some great wine, but it’s from an experience all these different things which I love because you’re pulling in these local business owners with chocolates and cigars and whiskey. So tell me a little bit about what you guys are doing this year. And I learned that it’s varies year to year. It’s totally different right?
Ashley: It does. Listen. I’m like, if you can’t look back on what you’ve done and make changes and try new things every year- I don’t want it to ever be the same exact thing every year. So if people who have come from the very first year, they always know there’s going to be a little bit of an element of surprise or something different that they can try.
Megan: I love that. One thing I listened to on the way over that complements this perfectly was when you’re thinking about how to improve or measure results of something, you always compete against yourself. So whatever you did last year, compete against. You know what I mean? I just wanted to point that out.
Ashley: And don’t be scared of failures because you’re going to have things that work and things that don’t. And it’s okay. You just have to learn from it. It’s what you do from that mistake- whether you learn from it or not. It goes back to the growth that we were talking about with Huntsville. That’s one of the things that just truly inspire me, because it’s the local artisans and the new small businesses and restaurants and chefs and bakers and all of these people that are making Huntsville so cool that I get to work with and highlight them. So as many people that I can pull in and showcase, it’s just so much fun to do. I also think that that’s what people want, as much fun as like a big Festival is and everyone coming downtown. People really want those more intimate private-like events offset from the festival where they’re meeting with a chocolatier and learning why different wines do or don’t pair with certain chocolates. They’re meeting with the ladies of Curate Huntsville how to curate the perfect cheese board.
Megan: Their charcuterie boards are off the charts.
Ashley: That’s one of the events we added this year where you can go and they’re going to teach you how to make your own little charcuterie board. They can go and enjoy it in the park. So, getting to showcase these small businesses is just a lot of fun to see and you don’t really go, “Oh thank you Ashley” and I’m like, “It’s not me. It’s them” you know, they kind of make it come to life for sure.
Megan: But I think though you’re allowing that opportunity to take place. Yeah. I’m eating a community event and making it about the community and about the small businesses here locally because if they didn’t have the outlet to do something like that and have a creative genius behind it, all that stuff together may not happen and it may not unfold. And I think one of the beauties behind the food and beverage industry is that there really is no limit to creativity there. Think outside the box- what if we did this thing.
Ashley: We’re getting there and I think Boyce, we know, is the first Trailblazer and then what’s really cool is you have like Purveyor starting and now you have these other restaurants coming in and now we just tap. We have a Revivalist, Chef Mohler at Revivalist.
Megan: Are they taking place in the Festival this year? Are they are going to have a role of some sort?
Ashley: Yes, they’re doing a five course Chef dinner Friday night.
Megan: Fun! So Revivalist is one of the restaurants in downtown Huntsville at a new hotel called 106 Jefferson. It is such nod to Huntsville, to the entire property itself as far as the space history and everything like that. Definitely going to check it out.
Ashley: It’s gorgeous and the chef is amazing. That’s kind of what we’ve talked to him about. It’s like all of these chefs coming down, it’s like a friendly competition, because they’re all going to start pushing each other to go a little bit more outside the box.
Megan: Yeah, I love that.
Ashley: I think with Crush, I’m like, we added the word food to it- it’s Crush Wine and Food Festival, bring it.
Megan: So, when is the Festival this year and how can people get tickets?
Ashley: Okay, so we have events that run the 23rd, that Thursday, all the way through that Sunday and September 23rd through the 26th, but the actual Festival is the 25th.
Megan: Perfect. Okay, and also because Ashley loves us so much and we’re so thankful. We have a promo code through Flourish to get it. A percent discount off your ticket price. So we will definitely include the link. Make sure you guys get your tickets. It’s going to be amazing. I’ve been a couple of years and in a row, and I don’t know why, what we ended up at the poppy after the festival. And like, that was not a good idea.
Ashley: Everyone ends up downtown afterwards
Megan: Everybody ends up downtown but it’s just so much fun. It really is even if you are not a huge wine fan. There are so many things to enjoy, and come on, being on the east side of the park, on a nice evening, and September is never a bad thing. So, talking a little bit about you as an individual outside of Crush- so, you are a mom, you have two young boys, right? So what is it like to be an entrepreneur, a mom, a partner, a community leader and influencer; kind of pulling these individuals together. What is a day in the life of Ashley look like?
Ashley: Depends on the day. Depends on which way the wind is blowing. I mean, it’s a lot like the PR world where it’s very glamorous, one day and then one day you’re taking out your boss’ dry cleaning, you know, I mean, I would guess it’s kind of the same way. Sometimes I’m taking care of a three-year-old. And sometimes I’m meeting with the mayor or meeting with you and having a fancy interview. It’s a constant life-work balance, and I’m a planner, and, but them also a creative. So, it’s kind of like perfect because I can plan out my days, but it’s always different.
Megan: Yeah, that’s very exciting, especially in the world that you’re in, because no day is the same as it was before, right?
Ashley: Even though I do the same festival every year, it’s even always different.
Megan: So what would you say, looking at yourself maybe 10 years ago, when you kind of have these ideas and these aspirations and want to go down this path, what’s a piece of advice that you would have given yourself back then?
Ashley: Okay, so a lot of people always have these brilliant things to tell their younger selves and I don’t know. I’ve never really been one to think too much of the past. I’m very big on- if you have intention and you’re living with intention, you’re going to have good and bad things happen and it’s all going to work out, just keep moving forward. I’m not saying I didn’t make my share of mistakes. We all know I’ve had my share of mistakes, but I don’t know if I would change it because it all kind of led me to here. Just don’t be scared of failure.
Megan: Yeah, that’s a great piece of advice.
Ashley: It hurts but it helps. We’ve talked about positions that got us to where we started our own company and a majority of our entrepreneurs, didn’t have the best work experiences beforehand that got them to that point. It just all works out.
Megan: I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do this series. Why I wanted you to be a part of it was, because I think a lot of a lot of individuals especially women look at other women who have started businesses or started initiatives or nonprofits or events, or whatever the case might be, and just put them on this pedestal and think they must have had the best journey and getting there. But it’s true. You don’t know the real story behind the person. It’s easy to just make assumptions about what that journey might have looked like. And I think when you don’t really understand some of those challenges, it creates a little bit of a barrier, like I was made earlier about, “Well, I don’t fall in that same category and have those similar experiences, so how could I ever think that I could get to that place”. When the reality is, we absolutely can.
We didn’t know before we sat down that we both worked for the same company and that’s inside PG. Didn’t work in Manhattan but was up there all the time for the company- different accounts. She was way cooler on M&Ms and Unilever and I was the Army, but the Army was amazing, and it taught me so much and gave me such a great respect. But anyways, you never know where life is going to take you and I agree with you. I think when you’re young you want to have it figured out and you want things to be perfect and you want to fit the mold that you think you should be in and sometimes, that’s not really what you need. It’s just you need to go to through the business experience.
Ashley: That’s so true.
Megan: So thank you so much for allowing me to chitchat with you for a while, and I know you’re not feeling well, but I really appreciate your time. She’s COVID free.
Ashley: I’m COVID free. I’ve been tested.
Megan: We are going to drink our wine to help with our throats a little bit. Cheers to you and cheers to your success. I can’t wait to see how everything unfolds with Crush Homegrown.
Ashley: Thank you.
Megan: I’m so excited. So, thank you guys so much for joining us.