Lake Tuscaloosa Residents Welcome New Chick-fil-A To-Go

Chick-fil-a to-go

Author’s Note: I wrote this story in April 2016 as part of my journalism course work at the University of Alabama. This article was later published in Druid City Living.

Residents of the Lake Tuscaloosa area now have a new but familiar fast-food dining option.

Two area Chick-fil-A franchises have partnered to form a new Chick-fil-A to-go location off New Watermelon Road in Tuscaloosa.

The new location, launched on March 28, sits across from Publix at the Shops at Lake Tuscaloosa and is located less than a mile from Rock Quarry Elementary and Middle Schools.

Chick-fil-A Franchise Operators Ashley Gill and William Boulware partnered to open the restaurant after hearing requests from patrons at their respective stores.

Gill operates Chick-fil-A’s Northport location and Boulware operates the location inside University Mall.

“Nearly seven years after opening our Northport location we were still getting requests nearly every day to expand out towards this area,” Gill said.

The new location is part of Chick-fil-A’s ADP (additional distribution point) Program which aims to serve local communities with limited menu items and store hours.

Items like sandwiches, wraps, fruit and lemonade are all prepared at other locations and brought to the to-go location for pick-up through the drive-thru. Because menu items are cooked off-site, sides like fries are substituted for chips.

“This program allows us to branch out and sell the food in a location other than our traditional store,” Gill said.

Area resident Blake Newman visited the restaurant the week it opened.

“It’s very convenient for me and my wife,” Newman said. “Living on this side of town, it would be awesome to see a full-service location in the future. I think there are enough people to support it.”

The area already features several full-service restaurants including McDonald's, Taco Casa and Jalapeño's Mexican Grill.

Gill said the first few weeks of business have been encouraging.

“We are still trying to educate the public on what we are doing,” she said. “It is encouraging to see repeat customers. That is one sign that people are enjoying it.”

Avid golfer and Tuscaloosa resident Jake Proctor often visits Ol' Colony Golf Course and regularly eats in the area after playing golf.

“I eat at McDonald's and Taco Casa a lot since it is so close to the course,” he said. “It’s great to have more options around. I will definitely be eating here more often.”

Gill stated that the surrounding area played a major role in their property choice.

“This location is different from many traditional Chick-fil-A franchises,” she said. “We are so close to residential areas along with the school, the park and the golf course.”

The Chick-fil-a to-go location is currently open for breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for diner.

Gill said that hours have fluctuated a bit, but patrons can expect the current hours to maintain for a while.

“It has definitely been a learning process,” she said. “We have adjusted our hours based on traffic flow. Our ultimate goal is to just serve the community in the best way possible.”

 

Tuscaloosa Leaders Make Business Decisions with Students in Mind

Fresh Market

Author’s Note: I wrote this story in February 2016 as part of my journalism course work at the University of Alabama.

From the balcony of his third floor apartment, Will Imbusch watches as 5 p.m. traffic once again backs up on Dr. Edward Hillard Drive.

It's unusually mild for February 1 and Imbusch a junior at the University of Alabama has stepped outside for a quick study break.

"This is nothing new," he said. "Everyday around this time traffic always gets bad. I guess it's just rush hour."

Imbusch lives at the East Edge apartment complex on Jackson Avenue, which overlooks DCH Medical Center.

Dr. Edward Hillard Drive connects University and McFarland Boulevards and is a popular route for shoppers accessing The Shoppes at Legacy Park.

The Shoppes at Legacy Park is one of Tuscaloosa's newest retail developments. The shopping center opened in August and brought several new stores to the area.

Headlined by Fresh Market, a specialty grocery store, many of the retail outlets have captured the attention of Tuscaloosa's expanding college demographic.

Alan Spencer, vice president of Economic Development and Public Policy for the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, points out that this is no accident.

"We periodically survey students on their spending habits, so we can present student spending data to retailers interested in this market," he said. "Student spending is important in recruiting retail to a college town like Tuscaloosa."

With the UA's enrollment at a record-high of 37,100 students, developers and city officials have increased project developments to serve local students.

Although student spending can be inconsistent, especially in the summer months, local businesses have found ways to adapt.

"Business definitely slows down when students are not in town, but most retailers have adjusted to those cycles," Spencer said. "In addition to a downturn in sales during the summer months, there is also a disruption of the labor supply. Business slows down which requires fewer employees, but at the same time many students leave the local labor pool."

UA student and local high school football coach Jonathan Paramore welcomes the new development, but worries about the traffic implications.

"I think it's convenient," he said. "I pass it almost everyday. So, it's easy for me to stop there, but traffic is already bad in that area. I couldn't imagine if it gets any worse."

Paramore also recounts a time earlier this summer when The Shoppes at Legacy Park could have been beneficial.

"Before the new Dick's Sporting Goods opened, one of my players needed some new shoulder pads," he said. "Academy didn't have the right size and his parents were forced to drive over an hour to Hoover to get some."

Nearly six months after opening, The Shoppes at Legacy Center have added many new tenants.

Residents can now enjoy a variety of dining options including Chuy's Mexican Food and Nothing But Noodles and large retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond and DSW Shoes.

While the location does have its drawbacks, most residents are satisfied with the added shopping and dining options.

"I could nearly walk there," Imbusch said as he takes one last look at the glowing red taillights in the traffic below. "That's pretty nice."

 

Local Gas Prices Hit New Lows, Consumers Reserved

Mapco

Author’s Note: I wrote this story in January 2016 as part of my journalism course work at the University of Alabama.

Local drivers are now seeing gas prices dip below $1.50 as the price of crude oil continues to fall.

While consumers are enjoying the direct savings at the pump, crude oil's lowest prices in over a decade could signal a larger problem for the national economy.

According to GasBuddy.com, Tuscaloosa residents currently pay the lowest gas prices in Alabama. As nine of the state's 10 cheapest gas stations are located in the Tuscaloosa metro.

Market analysts and economists agree that lower gas prices free up consumer discretionary funds, but the economic impact is often hard to identify.

Tuscaloosa residents enjoy the low gas prices for now, but many are still reserved.

"I enjoy gas prices being low," University of Alabama student Kevin Borden said. "I wouldn't make any changes if prices were much higher. To an extent, driving is just unavoidable, and until the electric car is perfected, I will continue driving my fuel consuming car regardless of gas prices."

Although cities like Tuscaloosa offer other means of transportation, most citizens still choose to drive.

"The price of gas does not affect my travel plans," a local professional Doug Fuller said. "Most of the destinations to which I travel are places I need to go, such as work or church services. I don't travel any more now that gas prices are lower."

But when gas prices reached a record high during the summer of 2008, some drivers decided to explore gas saving alternatives.

"I did have a carpool for a while," Fuller said. "But all my carpool partners retired."

With the average daily commute in Alabama over 24 minutes, most citizens find it difficult to cut day-to-day driving, leaving auxiliary travel to suffer.

"Higher gas prices do affect my travel decisions," said David Flowers, a resident working in the banking industry. "In the past, we took less vacations because it was too expensive to travel long distances."

Flowers is not alone. University of Alabama student Emmanuel Morgan has changed his auxiliary travel plans since gas prices have fallen.

Morgan made trips to see the University of Alabama's football team play in Dallas twice this year.

"I'm not nearly as likely to make a longer trip if gas is too high," Morgan said.

As a student living close to campus, Morgan enjoys a much shorter commute than most Tuscaloosa residents.

"If gas was way too expensive I would start riding a bike," he said.

Even in a city like Tuscaloosa, alternative forms of transportation still aren't accessible for most. Riding a bike can be dangerous as the city doesn't have designated bike lanes outside the University of Alabama campus.

Despite gas prices being roughly the same as they were in the early 1970s, drivers in Alabama often don't change their day-to-day travel plans based on the price of gas.

With the introduction of new car technology this could change in the future, but drivers admit most of their daily travel is non-negotiable.

"It's hard to believe gas is so cheap," said Emmanuel Morgan. "I'm sure it will go back up in no time."

 

Football Goes High-Tech with Hudl

hull

Author’s Note: I wrote this story in March 2015 as part of my journalism course work at the University of Alabama.

Lincoln, Nebraska is over 1,600 miles from the center of Silicon Valley. The state’s capital is most notably home to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, one of college football’s most storied programs.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the company that is changing football as we know it is housed here. What is surprising, though – how they are doing it.

Hudl, a technology company with over 100 full-time employees, is revolutionizing football through video.

Founded in 2006, the video hosting service and software platform aimed at helping coaches win on the field set out to do something unheard of – innovate high school and college football using technology.

The unproven idea had several though roadblocks. Many high school and college football programs run on extremely tight budgets, most coaches are far from tech-savvy and it was 2006, online video was still fairly new. YouTube, now the world’s largest video hosting service, was less than a year old.

That didn’t stop ambitious CEO and founder David Graff.

Graff, a graduate of the University of Nebraska and a former graduate assistant with the Cornhuskers, knew he had a revolutionary idea.

As the years went by, Hudl grew as a company and Graff’s idea became reality. Looking back, his timing was impeccable.

In 2006, it was still fairly uncommon for every household to have a modern computer. Fast forward to 2015 and nearly every coach, parent and player have some type of personal connected device.

A great product coupled with an untapped market and a revolution in mobile computing has propelled the young company to places unimagined nine years ago.

Hudl is now the fastest growing private company in the state of Nebraska and was named the 149th fastest growing company in the United States by Inc. Magazine in 2013.

“Long term, we want to capture and bring value to every moment in sports around the globe," Graff said.

The actual service is an all-inclusive software platform that provides an easy way for coaches and players to collaboratively watch film, game plan and even break down throwing and running mechanics.

Coaches upload raw practice and game film to the service and annotate it allowing every player to see their individual plays and game plans.

The service’s mobile apps allow for easy capture of footage and viewing from anywhere at any time.

Mark Freeman, a seven-time Alabama high school state champion as head coach, was hired over the summer at Alabaster’s Thompson High School. When hired, his $121,000 salary made him the highest-paid high school coach in state history.

Freeman’s teams have utilized Hudl for several years and swears by the service.

“We use Hudl for many different options,” he said. “We film each practice and even use Hudl to draw up all of our practice plans and play sheets. Each player is responsible for watching film and we monitor their activity via the service’s viewing timer.”

Walker Lott, a senior quarterback at Thompson, relies on Hudl to aid in the detail-oriented position that he plays.

“It’s extremely valuable, especially as a quarterback,” he said. “It gives me a chance to scout the other team and look back at past games and analyze myself. It’s very easy to use and very accessible. I can just pull it up on my phone at any time.”

Freeman knows that Hudl is just the beginning of technological innovation in the sport and realizes that the competitive advantage will continue to dwindle as it becomes more mainstream.

“The use of technology will only increase as time goes on,” he said. “We now use iPads and television relays on the sidelines. Technology has made it much tougher on teams because so much data is now instantly available.”

Hudl has changed high school and college football forever, but many believe this is just the beginning.

 

SEC Sports Roundtable 158: Alabama and Kentucky Preview

I join Shane and Britton for our fandom preview episode, as we take a look at Alabama and Kentucky. No starting quarterback? – That’s nothing new for the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban. We discuss Alabama’s causes for concern and Kentucky’s continued talent improvement.

 

SEC Sports Roundtable 157: Missouri Tigers and Arkansas Razorbacks Preview

Have we learned our lesson? After two years of sleeping on Missouri, will they be able to make it to Atlanta for a third straight year? As this year’s media darling, will Arkansas live up to the hype in 2015? I join Shane and Britton to discuss two of the most intriguing teams in the SEC this year.

 

SEC Sports Roundtable 156: University of South Carolina Football Preview

For South Carolina, a disappointing 2014 season raised offseason questions about Steve Spurrier’s longevity as a coach and his future in Columbia. Shane and I continue our preseason walk through the SEC by previewing the Gamecock’s 2015 season and chances at making it back to Atlanta.

 

SEC Sports Roundtable 155: University of Florida Football Preview

After a long break for summer, the SEC Sports Roundtable is back. I join Shane to continue our preseason walk through the SEC by previewing the Florida Gators. Former Alabama offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain, returns to the SEC and we discuss what success looks like for a rebuilding team.

 

À La Carte Streaming: The Sports Fan’s Dream or Nightmare?

sc-set

À la carte cable has been the dream of nearly every digital-minded cable television subscriber for the better part of a decade.

Cable and satellite television providers all loosely share the same business model when it comes to channel diversity. Cash cow channels like ESPN, network news outlets, TNT, TBS and USA all sell subscriptions and allow lesser known channels to exist.

Channel diversity has been a selling point for television providers for years, but eventually the end consumer realized that most of their time is spent watching 10 or fewer channels. With this realization, the dream for À la carte programing was born, but up until the last couple years, gatekeepers and technology restrictions have kept this dream from becoming reality.

Although some took the plunge and cut the cord completely, others have put their dreams on the back burner (most notably sports fans) and remained loyal television subscribers.

As technology has improved and a few cable giants have entered the À la carte space, including HBO, the dream seems to be closer to reality than ever before.

Consumers are now accustomed to on-demand streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu that offer popular cable series, movies and even groundbreaking original content at a relatively low monthly price.

Set-top devices like the Roku, Apple TV, the Amazon Fire Stick and Google’s Chromecast have even bridged the gap from the web to your television.

Dish Network even announced Dish Sling earlier this year which offers streaming rights to top channels (including ESPN) for only $20 per month.

This is what everyone wanted, right? Well…

sec-media-days

Streaming and Sports

Sports viewership drives television subscriptions and ratings. If you aren’t a sports fan, great! There’s a chance you may be able to jump to À la carte offerings today, if you haven’t already.

ESPN is the no-doubt driving force behind cable television subscriptions and despite this, “the Mothership” has sent several influential personalities packing within the last month.

Call it a bet on younger talent, a frugal business decision or a sign of dwindling revenue, these moves have raised some major questions.

Fox Sports’ Clay Travis suggests that it signals hard times ahead as cable subscribers begin to fall at a rapid pace.

So if people start cord cutting – the catch all term for individuals who decide they’d rather not pay for a cable or satellite subscription – ESPN has by far the most to lose of any channel in the country. ESPN has become the most powerful sports company in the world because just about every single cable and satellite subscriber in the country pays in excess of $6 a month for ESPN. That’s despite the fact that only 20% of cable and satellite subscribers would be willing to pay for standalone ESPN according to a 2013 Needham and Company report.

So, what does this all mean? ESPN’s revenue, as with every other cable channel’s, have been falsely inflated for years thanks to the package structure of cable television.

Could this finally lead to ESPN and other sports channels giving in and going direct to consumer with À la carte offerings? Probably not (yet).

Many online publications have thrown around figures stating that an ESPN À la carte offering would cost upwards of $30 per month.

Wait a minute, the À la carte television dream was about lowering your monthly bill, right?

For a diverse sports fan, like myself, who enjoys watching nearly every college sport and most pro sports, À la carte offerings really start to add up.

I devoutly follow three pro teams, major golf championships, NASCAR and would require ESPN, ESPN2, the SEC Network and ESPNU to ensure I didn’t miss a signle University of Alabama sporting event.

Let’s do a little rough math to estimate the total cost of my À la carte offerings (per month) to satisfy my diverse sports taste. Please note, some of these prices are speculations as many À la carte offerings don’t exist. Speculations will be marked with an asterisk (*).

ESPN – $30*
MLB TV – $24.99
NFL – $25*
NBA TV – $129/year, ($10.75 per month)
Fox Sports – $15*
NBC Sports – $10*

TOTAL – $115.74

To gain full access to the sports I want to watch today, À la carte, it would cost $115.74 per month! Granted, you could cancel some league specific offerings during the offseason and there’s no way of knowing how much ESPN, the NFL, Fox Sports and NBC Sports would charge for their offerings, but I consider the estimates above to be reasonable.

Keep in mind, estimates place the average monthly cable bill per household at $65 per month.

I understand that I’m not the average sports fan and many would simply subscribe to ESPN or another network to ensure the best bang for their buck, but that’s a downgrade from cable.

Television Deals and Sports Leagues

It’s no secret that sports league revenues rely heavily on television deals. Take the SEC Network for example. The first-year, niche college network backed by ESPN, is set to pay out $31.2 million to each member school in 2015.

Not to mention the NBA just inked a deal with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting to the tune of $24 billion over nine years.

The success of sports leagues undoubtably hinge on television deals.

Look, the Green Bay Packers aren’t paying Aaron Rodgers $22 million per year thanks to the hot dog you bought at Lambeau Field and the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t floating LeBron James $42.1 million over two years in response to a rise in game program sales.

Big money contracts are thanks to television deals and À la carte offerings could change the economics of sports forever.

To the sports fan, À la carte streaming seems like a dream, but today it’s an expensive and convoluted nightmare with lasting economic effects.

 

An Unexpected Ride on the Fast-Paced College Coaching Carousel

smu

It’s 2 a.m. in the quiet lobby of the Holiday Inn Express off U.S. Highway 75 in Dallas. No one should be up at this hour, but four newly hired coaches are up busily planning their recruiting strategy.

It’s early December, only two months away from National Signing Day. The day when hundreds of the top high school athletes will make their college decisions final.

Former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and some of the first additions to his new coaching staff have no time to spare. Morris was just announced as the 19th head coach of the SMU Mustangs, a team that finished dead last in Division I in 2014.

Joe Craddock, a former graduate assistant with Morris at Clemson, is one of the four men sacrificing sleep on their first day on the job.

“I woke up the next morning at 7 a.m. and was at the school by 8 a.m.,” Craddock said. “We didn’t slow down for the next two weeks.”

Over the next two weeks, Morris, Craddock and the rest of the SMU coaching staff will visit dozens of schools and athletes in and around the Dallas area.

On the job training is a must in this business, as this is Craddock’s first time hitting the recruiting trail as a full-time member of a college coaching staff.

“It was a grind, it was unique, but I had a lot of fun doing it,” he said.

Craddock’s journey to this moment was indirect and unexpected.

His love for football was honed at one of Alabama’s top private school football programs, Briarwood Christian in Birmingham. There, the 5-foot–11 quarterback passed for 6,677 yards, rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 100 touchdowns as a three-year starter.

Craddock led the Lions to the AHSAA Semifinals all three years and brought home the program’s third state championship to end his senior season in 2003.

“Even after we won the state championship, we cried our eyes out,” he said. “We were so close as a unit and we knew that was our final game together.”

Jay Mathews, Craddock’s offensive coordinator at Briarwood, recounts the first time he knew the young quarterback would make a great coach.

“His first drive of his first varsity game he threw a touchdown,” he said. “We had practiced the play all summer and normally throw to one of two receivers. When Joe dropped back and hit a different receiver for the touchdown I asked him how he knew to throw the arrow route. ‘I saw the safeties roll strong side and knew the backside flats were uncovered,’ Craddock said. At that point, I knew he would be special.”

Craddock’s success as a quarterback was just beginning. He signed with Middle Tennessee State only months after the conclusion of his senior season.

Joe Craddock

Joe Craddock

He led the Blue Raiders to their third bowl game in program history and accounted for 4011 passing yards and 27 touchdowns during his time in Murfreesboro.

Craddock was the trigger man for one of the nation’s most exciting fast-paced offenses under Blue Raiders’ head coach Rick Stockstill.

“Joe was a good player for us. He was not the most talented, but he became a really good player because of his work ethic and dedication to the game from a learning standpoint,” Stockstill said. “Those characteristics usually transfer to the coaching profession.”

After a short stint playing professionally in Italy, he returned home to coach at his high school alma mater. Craddock led the Lions to a 25–4 record and the state championship game in two seasons as offensive coordinator.

Following the 2012 season, he was offered a job as an offensive player development coach by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.

“When I got the call from Coach Swinney I didn’t know much about Clemson and Coach Morris,” he said. “I was excited to get my first college job. I thought I knew a little bit about football heading up there, but the amount of knowledge I gained just in that first year was unbelievable.”

Over the next three years, Craddock would be promoted to an on-field graduate assistant role and his relationship with offensive coordinator Chad Morris grew.

“I loved having Joe on our staff. I watched him in high school and followed his career at MTSU. He worked my camp one summer and impressed me greatly with his work ethic,” Swinney said. “I hired him to be a graduate assistant for me and he did a great job for three years. He grew each year and greatly impacted our program during his time here. Chad Morris, just like myself, realized that he was a special young coach.”

As their relationship flourished, so did Morris’ coaching reputation, and by 2011 he would become the highest paid assistant in the country earning $1.3 million per year.

Chad Morris

Chad Morris

During their years at Clemson, Morris’ offenses were known for their fast-paced attack, consistently leading the country in plays per game.

After a 10–3 finish to the 2014 season, Morris was named the head coach at SMU bringing Craddock with him to be his first offensive coordinator.

“I essentially got my Master’s or PhD in football during my time at Clemson,” Craddock said.

Despite an indirect journey to Dallas, Craddock is the third-youngest offensive coordinator and one of the most inexperienced in major college football, but that doesn’t phase him.

“Coach Morris and I know what Coach Swinney brought to Clemson and we are ready to bring that to Dallas,” he said. “We want to bring a family mentality. We will be a true family and live it everyday.”

Craddock and Morris join a long list of successful high school coaches to make the jump to college and he still considers his high school coach, Fred Yancey, his biggest mentor.

“He is everything you want to be as a man,” he said. “Coach Yancey told me one time that we wouldn’t know if we had a winning season at Briarwood until 10 years down the road. I’ll never forget that.”

It’s now mid February, three weeks after National Signing Day. Deep in the heart of Dallas, a first-time head coach and offensive coordinator are once again working long hours. Though the journey was indirect and unexpected, Craddock wouldn’t have it any other way.