City Director Capi Peck and partner Brent Peterson opened Trio’s in Pavilion in the Park on Cantrell Road in 1986. In three and a half decades, Peck, Peterson and several members of the staff at Trio’s have weathered recessions, 9/11 and now more than a half a year of a global pandemic, which Peck called “the most challenging time I’ve ever had in this industry.”
One of the things Peck is the most proud of when it comes to Trio’s is the lack of employee turnover, something to which she attributes the restaurant’s success.
“I learned about hospitality at a very young age,” Peck said. “I grew up at a hotel. My family were hoteliers.”
Peck’s grandparents, Sam and Henryetta Peck, ran the Hotel Washington in Fayetteville before moving to Little Rock to run the Hotel Freiderica in 1935. They later purchased the hotel and renamed it the Sam Peck Hotel.
“I don’t think they knew they were teaching me a career path because I never really thought I’d be a restaurateur,” Peck said. “I observed how important those relationships with the staff were, and I saw that it really was like one big family. So I knew early on that if I took care of my people, they’d take care of me. … I have two servers that have been there for over 20 years. There are 11 people — front and back of house — that have 25-plus years. So people just don’t leave. And they’re so invested. They all act and operate like they’re ambassadors for the industry and ambassadors for Trio’s. And they knew that we’d take care of them no matter what.”
Trio’s was among the first local restaurants to shut down dining rooms to mitigate the risk of the pandemic. Peck made the decision to close on March 17. Governor Hutchinson announced the mandated shutdown on March 19.
“I sort of had a heads up because my sister lives in New York, and I talk to her quite often,” Peck said. “She was right in the epicenter of things in February and she kept telling me, ‘It’s gonna come your way. Here’s what restaurants are doing around here. You’re going to have to think of a new business model.’
“So basically, we made the decision in mid-March to morph into curbside and home delivery. … You know, being in this business you have to be resilient; you’ve got to think outside the box. I think coming from a catering background, we were used to packing things to go and knowing what would travel and what wouldn’t. We had catering vans and delivery folks, so we had an easier time than some people because of the catering experience.”
Trio’s was doing online ordering, and Peck decided against going with a third party delivery company, offering those jobs to her wait staff instead. She also upped the waiters’ base pay from the standard $2.63 to an even $10 an hour, and the front and back of house shared in a tip pool.
Peck said that during the first couple months of the pandemic, the restaurant did about 80 percent of its usual revenue with curbside and delivery only.
“We’ve had some incredibly generous patrons. There’s one couple for instance, they get to-go every Friday night, they have no intention of coming in any time soon. Every time they pick up, they give a $100 tip because they know we’re going to share it with the staff. The staff gets everything. Way early on, I think it was the very end of March, I had two very regular customers give me a $10,000 check. You see these crazy stories of people tipping $1,000 or something? Well, I broke down and cried. These people eat there three or four times a week, they have for 25 to 30 years. They know we have some vulnerable people; they said, ‘Take care of your people.’ Of course immediately I went and asked my accountant, ‘What do I do here?’
“I was so intent on taking care of the staff, you know, we didn’t keep anything for the restaurant. It all went to payroll and bonuses.”
Trio’s finally opened up for indoor dining on Sept. 30, 196 days after its closing in March.
“We thought we would maybe be open in June or July,” Peck said. “That didn’t happen. And we were pretty stubborn about waiting to open for dine-in. I know there are still some small restaurants that just can’t manage social distancing protocols, so they haven’t opened. But the main reason we didn’t open is because I just felt like it wasn’t safe. … The reason that we finally opened, honestly, is just because most everybody else was, and we were starting to feel it on the bottom line.”
Peck said that while Trio’s was doing 80 percent of its usual business in the first couple of months after the shutdown, now it’s doing about 65 to 70 percent.
“We’re able to make it, but we’re really looking for that RESTAURANT Acts 2020 [a U.S. House proposed $120 billion grant program for independent restaurants]. This industry, we were the first to close and one of the last to open and we need some help,” Peck said.
To seat more people and space everyone out comfortably, Peck hired Larry West Jr. to turn the banquet room at Trio’s into a separate dining room. For now, operating at 2/3 capacity, the room is being used for Friday night overflow and being booked throughout the week for small groups.
“We put a bar in to make it look and feel just like the restaurant,” Peck said. “We did lose the ability to seat people in our bar. One, it’s too tight, but that used to be a really popular place for people to eat and hang out and have a drink. Now that has become our staging area for curbside because curbside is paying the bills,” she said.
“We felt perfectly comfortable and confident after talking to some of my folks in the medical field. I would run everything by [Dr.] Dean Kumpuris, who I serve on the City Board with. He was always my sounding board, and I said, ‘Do you think we can go ahead and safely do it?’ ”
Kumpuris gave her the green light, and Peck said it’s been going smoothly.
Still, “even young people I know — people with families — they’re just not ready to go into a restaurant yet,” Peck said. It’s been hard to orchestrate juggling dine-in with curbside and delivery. “It’s just a business model we’ve never entertained doing in the last 34 years,” she said, “but we’re making it work, and we kept virtually all of our staff with the exception of people who chose to take a break, so to speak.
“People were super generous, initially,” Peck said. “I think there’s sort of some tip fatigue going on. We took some very minor price increases because of all of the to-go things, but we’ve made it work. We’ve done a couple of virtual wine dinners. We’ve done some fundraisers with the [Hunger Relief] Alliance. We’ve done some political fundraisers where meals are delivered to small groups in people’s homes.
“We’re so fortunate, and it’s really been heart-warming. There have been a lot of silver linings throughout this whole thing that kind of have renewed my faith in humanity at a time that I really need that renewal. … It’s working, but I don’t know how long we can sustain it, honestly, without some help.”
Courtesy of Trio's
I asked Peck if she thought that the restaurant industry would eventually come out stronger when this is all over. She said she thinks it will for the restaurants that make it through this.
“But my heart breaks for the little mom and pops and the food trucks and coffeehouses, especially in bigger cities where there’s been so much competition,” she said. “They’re just not going to make it. And restaurants and bars, it’s a huge part of our economy and just local shopping, period. Whether it’s an art gallery, boutique or coffee shop, the little local businesses are really hurting. And we didn’t get very much of the pie when we got our relief from the CARES Act. That all went to making sure we could open safely. I tend to be the eternal optimist, so I’m still in the mode, but I also feel like it’s just going to be a different landscape out there. I think there will definitely be fewer restaurants.
“The best life skills I’ve learned have come from being a business owner,” Peck said, “and I think more than anything I can relate to people that are struggling. Whether they are restaurateurs, they own gift shops, no matter what profession they’re in. So I really try to set an example of following the guidelines [and] be a good role model and be transparent about everything we’re doing. We had a couple of people test positive a couple of months ago, a husband and wife. I didn’t have to close down. I think the rule would be for me to close down for a couple of days and then quarantine those folks. We closed for two weeks and still paid everybody,” Peck said.
I asked Peck what advice she would give to a 20-something year-old Capi Peck who was about to open her first restaurant in 1986.
“The best advice I ever got [is] from an old friend who is long gone now. When I tried to be something for everyone and do too many things and juggle too many balls, he would just tell me, ‘You need to mind the diamonds in your own backyard. Just look at your four walls, eight walls, whatever they are. What can you do right here without trying to overextend and overthink things. Just be here. … Run your business like your family ran the hotel.’
“That’s what I’ve been doing, and it’s worked well,” Peck said, “and the other thing I would tell people to do, because I think this is a big reason so many of my customers were so generous initially and many of them still are, is give back to the community every chance I possibly can. Be an integral part of the community.”
“The other advice I would give to a young Capi Peck is that this doesn’t have to be a 24/7 job. I don’t have to be open seven days a week.” There’s a lot more to life, Peck said, than “work[ing] your ass to the bones. I am much more ready to embrace making a little less and having a day off. I like that. I don’t think that ever would’ve happened without the pandemic. I think I just would’ve kept marching on 24/7, seven days a week. So that was a good life lesson.
“I think that the best life lessons one can learn is working in the service industry,” Peck said. “I bet three-fourths of the people I know, their first job was in a restaurant. It teaches such good skills of observing people, how to handle stress, being part of a team. And you’re so cognizant of that when you’re dining out. You’re thinking ‘I know how much these folks make.’ Someone asked me: ‘Is 15 percent still a good tip?’ I said ‘Hell no, 15 percent isn’t a good tip.’
“I saved all the little notes people wrote me; it really has renewed my faith in part of humanity at any rate,” Peck said. “But restaurants and bars, we’re the freaking lifeblood of the community. People don’t want to wake up and not see us around, so folks have gone above and beyond to make sure we take care of staff and that’s been super rewarding.”
Trio’s, 8201 Cantrell Road, Suite 100
Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Dinner: 5-8 p.m. Mon.-Thu. 5-8:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.