This ICE Alumna Opened the Sandwich Shop of Her Dreams on the Alabama Coast
Making the best of a terrible situation, Chef Anna Beth Ryan bet big on her own beachfront sandwich shop
On the short stretch of Alabama coastline that meets the Gulf of Mexico stands a turquoise beach house with large colorful signage that reads “The Beli.”
Inside is Anna Beth Ryan, an Institute of Culinary Education alumna and Birmingham, Alabama native, who opened the popular sandwich shop in April 2021.
Even before she graduated from ICE in 2019 with a Culinary Arts diploma, Chef Anna Beth always knew she wanted to be in the food industry. She credits her passion for cooking and hospitality to her family.
“Good food was always at the center of every family event and every family vacation,” she says.
Chef Anna Beth remembers her father often cooking for company throughout her life. His dishes stuck with her for good reason — her dad is familiar with fine dining concepts, thanks to being friends with chefs such as James Beard Award Winner Chef Chris Hastings, owner of Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham.
Chef Anna Beth says cooking comes naturally to her and her family.
“We just know how to make something good,” she says.
Even though she knew hospitality would be in her future, Chef Anna Beth initially went to Jacksonville State University to major in political science. Her original plan was to establish a career in law in order to earn the means to open a restaurant, but she couldn't wait to start her food journey.
“Two years before I finished my degree, I went online to look up the best culinary school in America — and it was ICE,” she says. “I read a lot of stories of success from ICE alumni compared to other culinary programs available in the US.”
After two more years of working to complete her political science degree she was finally able to move to New York City. She had planned every detail, from her housing arrangements to her enrollment at ICE, ready to embark on a culinary adventure of a lifetime.
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During her time at ICE, Chef Anna Beth says she learned the skills that allowed her to feel comfortable in a professional kitchen, and those skills allowed her to meet people both in and outside of school.
“The biggest thing ICE gave me was connections,” she says. “Not just the connections I made at the school but also the connections I made through the externship.”
The final course of ICE’s Culinary Arts career program is a 210-hour externship; students determine their externship site based on their interests and career goals. Anna Beth completed her externship at Riverpark, a farm-to-table establishment originally opened by Tom Colicchio located in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. When she was hired full-time after the completion of her externship, Chef Anna Beth spent a year working in the kitchen gaining invaluable restaurant experience.
She learned a lot at Riverpark, crediting the line cooks with teaching her about different cultures and the importance of working with other people. She realized that, in the food industry, you have to be a team player and be able to take criticism from others.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Chef Anna Beth suddenly found herself jobless, and saw the hospitality industry reaching a standstill. Unsure of what to do next, she decided to pack her things and drive from New York City back to her home state, riding out the pandemic at her grandparents’ beach house in the quaint town of Gulf Shores.
While driving home from the beach one day, Anna Beth spotted a building for lease. She called the number and was told to come down to the space to check it out. When asked what food concept she would put in the space she without hesitation said a sandwich shop.
To her surprise, Anna Beth ended up winning the lease bid. The plan up until that point was to go back to New York City when things got better, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.
With her professional kitchen experience reassuring her, Chef Anna Beth took the plunge and opened her own sandwich shop. The restaurant’s name, The Beli, is a combination of the words “beach” and “deli.”
Once Anna Beth committed to the project, she knew exactly who to call — her best friend Lauren Bruce. They had always talked about doing business together and once Lauren saw the space, she moved down to Gulf Shores to help. Chef Anna Beth had found her front-of-house manager.
Equipped with knowledge from ICE’s Restaurant and Culinary Management program, Chef Anna Beth was able to plan out her ideal kitchen and design the space. The design of the space was made specifically with the pandemic in mind: the main dining area is an open-air concept with many large windows. The build out went smoothly, and before they knew it, The Beli was ready to open.
The Beli opened on April 20, 2021 — the start of beach season. Friends from all over the state came to help with the opening and because it was a busy summer opening, the extra hands were put to good use. The Beli quickly became a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, and Chef Anna Beth and Lauren were thrilled with the response.
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The customers were constantly expressing their love for the sandwiches, which Chef Anna Beth named after her closest friends, including some of her peers from ICE. The most popular sandwich was and still is the “Miss V,” which was inspired by her friend Vic, who, as a Georgia native, specifically wanted a sandwich that was all about pimento cheese — Anna Beth was happy to oblige.
The second most popular sandwich is one she named after herself called the “Big Momma,” a combination of provolone, feta, turkey, jalapeños, raspberry jam and hot sauce on toasted sourdough. “That’s what we had in the fridge during quarantine,” she says. “It ended up being the best thing I’ve ever had.” The “Nut-Ella,” is named after an ICE peer who “would regularly make [Chef Anna Beth] Nutella sandwiches after a long shift at Riverpark.”
Now, almost two years after opening, Chef Anna Beth is thinking about the future.
“I would hope to do [more] Belis up and down the coast, even up on the East Coast to New York, she says. “There are also so many different ventures I want to do with my hospitality group – Mouth of the South Hospitality. I have a lot of dreams.”
Chef Anna Beth is considering a range of innovative ideas to grow her hospitality business. A pizza joint with a party vibe, a rustic cabin-inspired eatery and even a cereal bar where patrons can combine various flavored milks with different cereal options are among the concepts she has envisioned.
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"Doing something I love as my life's work will be worth any sacrifices I have to make because of places it will take me and the experiences I will have,” Chef Anna Beth says.
Above all, Chef Anna Beth loves what she’s created so far. She says feels like she can be herself at The Beli, and that is a feeling that she cherishes.
"I love this,” she says. “I love everything about it. I love walking in here and looking at it. I love the food. I love the people here. I feel like I can just be."