When the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus as a pandemic in March, restaurants all over the country were forced to reinvent themselves. Scaled back menus and staffing, curbside takeout and delivery, mobile trucks, gallons of hand sanitizer, outdoor tents for picnic-style dining, plexiglass dividers and air purifying systems are some of the ways restaurants have dealt with the crisis. Five months later, some spots remain closed, others are operating at 66 percent capacity and some are still just doing takeout and curbside service.
But, despite economic uncertainty and hardship, several brand-new restaurants have popped up. Some had plans to open this year and are still waiting for the right time. Others are looking for an entirely different approach altogether.
Brayan McFadden accepted the position of general manager and kitchen lead of Brood & Barley, the new gastropub at 411 Main St., in Argenta, from the owners of Flyway Brewery. He decided to take the job in North Little Rock despite living in Philadelphia with his family.
“My cousin [Jess McMullen] owns Flyway Brewery,” McFadden said. “We’ve both been in the restaurant business our entire lives.”
Every time he and McMullen got together, McFadden said, they’d always discuss starting a restaurant together. Last year, McMullen called McFadden and informed him that he had the opportunity to open another spot.
“It was a long conversation I had to have with the wife,” McFadden said. “She was like, ‘You want to move … to Arkansas?’ ”
It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing.
“We came down and visited a couple times and my wife fell in love with the area down here,” he said. “We live in North Little Rock and I work in North Little Rock. I mean, this town is awesome.”
McFadden arrived in Arkansas in early January expecting Brood & Barley to open in April. The team at Brood & Barley had already begun ordering inventory and started the hiring process when restaurants were ordered closed on March 19.
“In the back of my head, although I know that we’re going to be successful and we’re going to rock it out down here, you know, it’s tough,” McFadden said. “You’re moving your family halfway across the country and then all a sudden it was just like, boom. It takes the wind out of your sails, you know? So a whole lot of discouragement there. But being part of the Flyway family, it was like, ‘All right, listen, this is what we’re going to do: We’re going to work at Flyway because Flyway’s going to stay open right now.’ ”
McFadden and his counterpart, bar lead and front-of-house manager David Burnette, worked at Flyway doing curbside for a few months.
“Finally we sat down with my cousin [McMullen], and it was just like, ‘You know what, if we’re going to do it, we just need to do it.’ At the time they were letting us seat 33 percent and we were like, ‘Let’s just do it and turn it into a positive thing.’ There’s not many restaurants out there that get a chance to do like a slow roll and kind of see what works and what doesn’t work,” McFadden said.
Despite only being able to seat at 66 percent capacity, McFadden said Brood & Barley has been busier than expected. “It’s certainly been a positive, for sure,” he said. He’s also found the neighborhood welcoming.
“I’ve seen so much business unity,” he said. “We’re right next to Four Quarter [Bar] and I don’t know if you know Conan [Robinson] that owns Four Quarter, but, I mean, the guy is amazing. There’s been a lot of camaraderie through this whole thing. I’ve just been surprised during this unbelievable crazy part of history that we’re going through right now that people are still willing to put a hand out and be like, ‘Hey man, we’re here if you need us.’ It’s just awesome [when you’re] starting a new business.”
Leila King owns the popular downtown breakfast destination @ The Corner with her sister, Helen Grace King, and sister-in-law, Kamiya Merrick. Last August they acquired the space formerly occupied by Andina Cafe at 433 E. Third St. in the River Market district for a new restaurant to be called Henrietta’s.
“We loved the space right off the bat,” Leila King said. “I’ve always loved that space, the garage doors that open. It’s really beautiful and has so much potential.”
They started going into full design and concept mode, anticipating opening in the spring of 2020.
“Henrietta’s is a new concept,” King said. “It’s still in design, as far as I’m still thinking about what I’m going to do, but it’s going to be very health-centric, like food as medicine and just kind of how you need to eat to live a very fulfilled life. I want everyone to be at their best — even the cocktails, I want you to feel good after you’ve consumed them; I want it to have something vital and viable for you. It’s going to be a beautiful concept. I just can’t say when she’s going to open.”
King said they had just nailed the sign on the wall and were gearing up to hit the ground running when COVID-19 hit and put the project on hold.
“I never dreamed that we would encounter this,” she said.
@ The Corner is still closed to indoor dining. The restaurant’s seating capacity is small, and the seating capacity at Henrietta’s is even smaller.
“So that’s another challenge when you can only operate at 66 percent,” she said.
“It’s me and my two sisters and my family. … We’re always here, so it might affect us a little bit differently,” King said. “I don’t want to expose anyone that I love [or] care deeply about. My father’s older as well, so we just have a lot at stake. I don’t know how COVID is going to interact with the flu season, and there’s just so much I feel like we don’t know right now, and that’s just my opinion.
“I don’t know how you set a date right now. Especially with such a tiny, tiny restaurant. You know, if I had a bigger restaurant and I could space people out, that would be one thing. But then, you know, you have a beautiful concept and a beautiful interior that I’ve designed and beautiful tables, and you want to invite people in to experience that right off the bat because you don’t get a lot of chances in restaurants with the clientele.”
Back in the spring, King and her sisters started a program called Cinnamon Roll It Forward.
“It’s kind of a program where people could buy cinnamon rolls from us, we deliver them to hospital workers, especially COVID units, respiratory therapists and just kind of everyone [in] the trenches at the beginning of this,” King said. “It was terrifying times for myself and my family because no one really knew anything about the virus, what it was going to do for the economy or our business. So we just kind of created that so that people could support us and we could support hospitals. Kind of like as a lifeline, if that makes sense.”
Cinnamon Roll It Forward is still going, and King said that @ The Corner is in survival mode.
“I think a lot of restaurants are in survival mode,” she added. “Especially because we’re a super small team, so PPP wasn’t outstanding for us. Like, I’m not a 600-employee restaurant group. I have like 10 to 12 employees. I’m super tiny. But we’ve had beautiful patrons, and we’ve had our followers who support us. And I’ve had record days. It’s amazing to have record days during a pandemic. But I just really want customer service to be perfect. There are even more reasons to make sure everything is great, and there’s not much control with curbside. It’s been challenging, but you just have to keep treading water.”
Chris Tanner’s plan for the Oyster Bar, which has been under renovation and closed since mid-March, is a unique approach that will likely draw people who miss live music.
Tanner intends to open the restaurant two nights a week — Thursday and Saturday. It will be reservations-only, with a prix fixe menu and live music.
“It’s all hinging on getting the final certificate of occupancy from the city because we’ve done all this remodeling,” he said.
Tanner said he just wants to keep things simple and socially distant. Once a customer reserves a table, it’s theirs for the night, and they can arrive and order whenever they want.
“You don’t have to worry about a lot of people coming in and out,” Tanner said. “Whoever’s coming in, they’ve got their table. That’s it. It’s gonna be a chance to get out. Everything will be socially distanced, but because of the size of the building, we’ll be able to get some folks in there and make it worth my while, and a few of my people can make some money.”
Tanner said the menu will change each week, and if there’s something you don’t like on it, check back the next week. No matter what’s on the menu, char-grilled oysters will be available.
As far as opening up the Oyster Bar for regular hours, Tanner said, “We’re just going to play it by ear.”
Tanner added that the target date for reopening Samantha’s Tap Room & Wood Grill is Sept. 10.
Jim Keet’s new destination restaurant, Cypress Social, located in Maumelle in the former home of Cock of the Walk, opened to the public Aug. 18. It was originally slated to open April 14. Opening a new restaurant is challenging in and of itself, but many of Keet’s staff at Cypress Social are transfers from Petit & Keet, which Keet also owns. Petit & Keet needed all hands on deck to reconfigure the restaurant to meet all of the new directives from the health department there before turning their efforts and attention to Cypress Social.
“Well, the challenge was because of the interruption with one-third seating and then two-thirds seating,” Keet said. “When we reopened Petit & Keet with that seating configuration, we wanted to make sure that things were perfect before we opened this restaurant.”
Among the transfers from Petit & Keet are managing partner Brent Lenners and his wife, general manager Tyler Lenners; chef Steve Binotti; sommelier Susie Long; and pastry chef Sara Horton.
Once those employees gave Keet the green light to turn Petit & Keet over to another trusted management team, he wanted to know how long it would take to get Cypress Social ready for the first tasting.
“Brent did an outstanding job at putting an entire critical path together, kind of working forward and setting a date and then working back to say, ‘Here are all of the things that need to be done every day to get to that opening,’ ” Keet said. Keet’s construction company, Keet-O’Gary, deconstructed the building from the roof to the ground — from the inside.
“Every wall, every floor covering, everything you see here is brand new,” Keet said.
Keet said the idea was to retain the iconic nature of the place but offer a pleasant surprise for everybody that enters. For example, the brand-new water fountain in the middle of the lake is visible from the restaurant’s lobby. A lot of the wood lining the walls is reclaimed cypress from Cock of the Walk.
“So that name kind of came one night. I was lying in bed with my wife and I went, ‘We have to call it Cypress something,’ ” Keet said. “So we had a variety of different names, and then Stephanie [Keet, vice president of marketing and Jim’s daughter-in-law] came up with the name Cypress Social, and this kind of preceded COVID.”
Spacing patrons out at Cypress Social shouldn’t be a problem. Keet said the building is 8,000 square feet and the three covered decks that overlook the lake add another 2,000 square feet.
There are a few private rooms, one with its own patio. The bar is two levels, and through the window, patrons will have a nice view of a renovated stone-stacked waterfall.
The delay caused by the pandemic gave the team at Cypress Social more time to perfect the menu. Keet said his staff goes through a very rigorous tasting process before anything is allowed to go on the menu.
“We have taste panels of between eight and 12 people,” Keet said. “For this restaurant, we’ve probably done 20 test panels, maybe 25.”
“I don’t think it would’ve been as many if the pandemic hadn’t happened, but it was very thorough,” Binotti added.
“It gave us extra time to refine each dish,” Brent Lenners said. “We just collectively decided we were going to put every single dish under a microscope and really get it down to the last grain of salt, the last placement of this or that just to make everything as good as we can. You know, it’s unfortunate what happened, but it did provide us a lot of time to really hone these dishes and make them the way we want them.”
Lenners acknowledged how tough of an undertaking it’s been to get Cypress Social ready to go amidst the pandemic.
“In this climate, everything is magnified,” he said. “You have to work that much harder to inspire people. You have to work that much harder to make them feel reassured with our safety protocols. You’ve got to really cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ and create a system for, if something happens, that it doesn’t completely just wash away. The structure is there. It’s not a house of cards. It’s a strong foundation. And doing that has been very challenging. But it’s a rush and this is what we do. This is why we get up every day. This is my life and this is our life. So, yeah, it’s very rewarding but challenging to say the least.”