Georges Launet has been a part of the Little Rock restaurant scene since the early aughts. He’s helped open a handful of restaurants — Hillcrest Artisan Meats, Sauced, ZAZA/ He owns and operates a pizza napoletana food truck called Piccolo Pizza Truck. Hillcrest Artisan Meats named a sandwich after him (“The Georgie”). He’s likely made something delicious that you’ve eaten in town. Or maybe you’ve seen him eating a baguette with butter and jam while sipping his fifth macchiato of the morning at Boulevard Bread Co. He’s currently part of the excellent Hill Station crew. They opened just 10 weeks ago, and, as of Friday, April 3, closed their doors to wait out the pandemic. Launet and I spoke by phone on Sunday.
It’s not easy to open a new restaurant. You can have a great staff, a solid menu, perfect cocktails, but that first time you open and the crowd comes in, you’re going to have to pivot and make adjustments that weren’t planned for. Hill Station opened Feb.1. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic just 40 days later. What was that experience like?
It was kind of strange just because we’d gotten into our full swing. Everything was going really awesome and you see on the news what people across the world are dealing with and you’re like, “Ah, it’ll be fine.” And two weeks go by and you’re thinking “Uh, it might not be fine.” And then everybody in New York, and I guess L.A., and San Francisco are closing up shop, and I was like “Well, that’s no good for them.” And less than a week and a half later they’re saying, “All right, all dining restaurants are going to be closing up” and you’re just like, “Shit.” I think we’d been on an hour[long] wait every single day since we’d opened. We went from that to. “You guys wanna pull up out front and we’ll bring you some burgers, some salads, and some steak frites?”
So you went strictly curbside?
We gave the employees the choice if they wanted to be in there running the stuff out to the curb to the customers. And we let the customers choose if they were brave enough to come inside. We just wanted to make it comfortable for everyone. So we offered that you could walk in and order or you could call and we’d bring it out to your car. We had several customers that asked, “You guys have a huge outdoor eating area. Would you be cool with it if we sat outside?” and we were like “Whatever you want to do with your to-go food is up to you after you buy it.” [Laughs]. You know, take a few minutes and eat some food and hang out if you like.”
You’ve helped open a bunch of restaurants, right?
Yeah, here in Little Rock I think I did ZAZA, H.A.M., Sauced, and now Hill Station. I’ve never seen a restaurant be so excited to open and so many people so excited for it to open, and just to have a pandemic shut it down was pretty awkward.
How rewarding was it to be able to feed people in the community the past few weeks?
Whenever they first told us that they were going to do the no dining in, I was like, “Oh, it’ll be alright, you know. It’s our job to feed people. If we can still feed them to-go, I’ll still feel good about that.” But when they were telling us that they were going to close the restaurant down, it wasn’t mind-melting, but I was just like, “Fuck.” This is the whole point. It’s our job to make sure — it’s our responsibility to help feed people that, you know, have a long day, and have been at home and want to get out and get some food to go. Or any scenario where the end of the day the ritual is to eat dinner. I feel like that’s my job, just like it’s somebody’s job to be a grocery store attendant, or a nurse or something, so … I just want to help feed people.
There’s this photo I saw — I guess right around the time when everything started hitting the fan. I forget what the name is, but it’s during World War II. It’s one of the famous nights after all the cities were bombed in France. All the buildings are just collapsed in the back of the photo, and it’s just a line of people that look somber and sad, and there’s this French chef in the middle of the street, full chef coat, apron, tall hat, huge pot and he’s just cooking food and giving it out to people, and I was just like, “That’s who I want to be”— the guy helping people eat when they can’t eat, you know. I mean, the grocery stores are scary. You don’t know how many people are going to be in there. And the first few weeks they didn’t even have potatoes or onions. You know there’s nothing to eat, so it’s kind of on restaurants to help feed people, so it was kind of sad. But I understand.
What were some of the things you saw from the community that lifted your spirits during that time?
I just saw a lot of people and you could just tell by the genuine look on their faces how appreciative they were to be able to still come and get food … come in and buy some beer or wine to go have a drink in the afternoon and still be able to feel like they’re just not cabin-fevered up. And of course the gratuity that they would leave was probably fivefold. You know, they’d get two cheeseburgers and a steak frite and then leave you a $30 tip. It’s pretty cool, ’cause they’re just trying to do their little part to make sure that people can sustain. Honestly, just the look in people’s eyes being happy they can come in and get something good to eat besides having to go to some drive-thru spot and just eat commercial garbage food, you know. So I think that was the coolest part about it — just people being appreciative that we were there for them and they were there for us.
We’ve all worked a lot of last shifts for normal reasons. Maybe we’re going to work somewhere else, maybe the restaurant’s closing — but never a last shift because of a pandemic where we don’t know when we’re going to go back to work again. What was that last shift like?
For us it was like, “All right, well, let’s put a post up.” Because we decided on Wednesday that we were going to close on Friday. So we put a post up, something like “Second to last day tomorrow and then Friday is our last day and we’ll be done at 8 p.m.” Lunch kind of dwindled on Wednesday. Then Thursday night came around and we got kind of busy. And then the last day was kind of the same, and we said “Well we have a bunch of extra chicken, we can do a fried chicken special.” And about 5:30 p.m. it was like [imitates the all too annoying sound of a restaurant printer printing repeatedly] and it was just “What, what’s going on! What’s happening here?” It just got so busy it was hard to get a grasp on it. It didn’t feel like it was the last night at all. And I think everybody was just excited to come in and get some good food for cheap. And we were happy to try to get rid of everything we had instead of having to throw away a bunch of food — and still be serving quality food. And then all of a sudden the printer stops printing and it’s 8:15 p.m. and you’re just like, “Aw, man.” [Laughs.] “That’s it, huh? That’s it!” So, I just took my time washing dishes and stretched it out as long as I could. And just tried to hang out with my coworkers and just stay positive about it.
And everyone’s like “How long are y’all going to be closed?” And I just have no idea. I feel like it’s more responsible to do the right thing and make sure that everybody’s not passing the virus around. But either way, it’s like a double-edged sword. It sucks that we’re not able to keep feeding people, but I do appreciate the fact that we’re not putting anyone in danger and nobody’s putting us in danger. So I guess it’s kind of both sides of the coin.
So what’s your plan now? Are you going to fire up the pizza oven anytime?
Man, I’m thinking about it. Maybe. I gotta see if I can get my flour from Italy imported. Obviously that’s an issue.
You get your flour from Italy?!
Yeah, pretty much all my tomatoes, almost 100 percent of my ingredients come from Italy. So I need to see if my purveyor is still bringing in stuff and willing to drive to Little Rock, ’cause I get all of my stuff from a specialty place out of Memphis. If they are, I was thinking about setting up shop for maybe one to two days a week in the front yard and just doing everything for $10. But I’m also thinking I might just take the food truck and turn into a mobile skate shop. Just trying to use this stimulus check the best it can be used instead of just sitting at home like a potato.
I’ll probably do a whole bunch of yard work. But I’m gonna miss cooking. What I’m really eager to see is what’s going to happen when they’re like, “All right, everyone can go back to work.” Is it gonna just be like a gold rush scenario where everyone is gonna stampede or are they going to be like, “I’m a little weary, I don’t know if I want to get out there just yet.” Nothing like this has ever happened before. There was Spanish Flu in 1918. But I have no idea. With the way the world is now with social media, there’s no telling. When they open the floodgates, is it just going to trickle out? I mean, I’m eager to get back to work. I’d rather a hundred times over be the guy that’s at work making what I make rather than being at home making more money sitting on the couch. I love cooking, so I’m ready to get back to it already. We’ll be there when we’re there, I guess.