Some restaurants are more structurally equipped to handle a pandemic than others. Neighborhood spots with ample parking, easy access and delivery options were more prepared for the curbside boom COVID-19 brought, and restaurants with outdoor patios or large indoor spaces are more aligned with the phased restrictions. Now, with more studies suggesting that COVID-19 doesn’t spread as easily outdoors, people are looking for safe outdoor dining options. With the help of city leaders, a few local restaurant owners have found a way to use parking lots to host diners in the open air.
Jess McMullen, co-owner of North Little Rock’s Flyway Brewery, and Chris Kent, executive director of the Argenta Downtown Council, worked together on an outdoor dining strategy for the Flyway parking lot at West Fourth and Maple streets, affectionately called “Tent City.” When the state went into the Phase One directives for reopening, the Flyway team figured that opening the taproom to a third of its capacity might actually cost them money. Flyway had opened its parking lot for festivals in the past, so owners started having conversations about it.
Meanwhile, Kent and the Argenta Downtown Council realized that their tents, tables and chairs — temporarily decommissioned for lack of public gatherings — could be put to immediate use at Flyway.
“I think they started off with 12 tents,” Kent said. “In the first week, it was so successful that they were able to squeeze in three more. So I think they’re at about 15 tents now, and their numbers jumped up to where they were making the same amount of money they were making before the pandemic hit. Every time I go by it, it’s packed with people.”
Two parallel rows of tables line the Flyway parking lot on the north side of the building. The tables are spaced apart and covered by small canopy tents, with a list of rules or “laws” on each table. The team at Flyway has found a playful and serious way to enforce the safety rules. “We tried to make it fun and have a theme,” said Ren Scott, Flyway’s front-of-house manager. “We have Hannah, who’s our sheriff, and all of the other servers are her deputies and we’re slanging beers. We want this to be fun, but we’re also not kidding. My staff is at risk, the customers’ safety is at risk, so we’re trying to make it fun, but we can’t make it too light, you know?”
The community response to Tent City has been emphatically positive.
“It’s crazy,” Scott said. “We’re getting more positive reviews now than we ever got before, even after “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives” aired. It’s so rewarding because we’re working our tails off every day putting these tents up, but people are so happy. They’ve talked about how they feel so comfortable, how they’re so grateful that there’s a spot that’s as safe as it could possibly be, that they see our hard work. So it’s extremely rewarding right now to have that coming from all the people that have been coming to experience Tent City.”
Scott said Flyway has no plans to open the taproom any time soon.
“As long as people will come, we’ll keep setting the [tents] up. It’s a lot of fun. I’m getting more exercise right now than when I was going to the gym.”
A state law passed last year allows the establishment of entertainment districts in which patrons may move about between restaurants, bars and venues with alcoholic beverages in hand. In June, the North Little Rock City Council approved an ordinance to establish an Argenta Outdoor Dining District in order to encourage restaurants “to pursue outdoor dining with minimal red tape from the City.”
“It was something that we’ve been working on for about a year since the state passed the legislation, and we hadn’t really come to an agreement with the city on how we all wanted it to look and what we wanted it to be,” Kent said. “And then when COVID hit, it really pushed it to the forefront and then the success of Flyway’s Tent City really kind of tipped everybody over that the way we need to do this is we need to rebrand it as a dining opportunity versus just a drinking opportunity.”
Originally, the entertainment district was slated to be Friday and Saturday nights for a few hours and during special events. Now, it’s going to be open seven days a week, all day.
“Basically, when the restaurants are open, the entertainment district is open,” Kent said. “If you want to have an event, you can have an event and you don’t have to change anything, you don’t have to go back to the City Council, you don’t have to get any other type of approval. So it was all in place.”
During the early days of Tent City, on the south side of the river in downtown Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood, Jack Sundell, owner of The Root Cafe and Mockingbird Bar and Tacos, was seeking a solution to the takeout issues he and his team were facing at Mockingbird. Unlike The Root, which has a parking lot that facilitates curbside takeout, Mockingbird relies on street parking, foot traffic and parking lots on the opposite side of Main Street.
“Also, it just hasn’t been around as long,” Sundell said. “At Mockingbird, we depend a lot more on alcohol sales. Something like 33 percent of our sales are beer and cocktails, so it’s been a much more difficult process.”
When Sundell heard from a friend about what was going on over at Flyway with Tent City, he thought it sounded like a great idea and thought about the parking lot at 13th and Main streets for a similar project.
“I started thinking we could do this for the neighborhood and really make it a destination,” he said. Sundell got in touch with Gabe Holmstrom, the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.
“He was all about it. He was a huge part of making this happen,” Sundell said. The Downtown Little Rock Partnership provided most of the popup tents, all the tables and chairs and the barricades.
Along with Mockingbird and The Root, five other restaurants are taking part in the SoMa Outdoor Dining Room: Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, Loblolly Creamery, Esters, South on Main and Community Bakery. All seven restaurants are working together to share staffing for the outdoor dining room so it isn’t too burdensome on any one business’ payroll.
“And the idea is, it’s not a service location,” Sundell said. “We’re literally offering a place to sit. We give you your to-go order and instead of sitting in your car or taking it home, you have this third option, which is to take it to the SoMa Outdoor Dining Room and sit in a nice environment that is social but also socially distant.”
For people who are still hunkered down and hesitant about eating in a restaurant dining room, Sundell said it’s an option to get out of the house and eat, but not actually feel like they’re dining in. “People in the neighborhood who have been kind of secluded for months are coming out and eating food from different restaurants and they’re seeing each other for the first time, so we’re seeing a lot of sort of reunions of friends and it’s kind of a neat thing, you know?” he said.
Sundell will speak in favor of making SoMa a temporary entertainment district at the Little Rock’s Board of Directors meeting July 7.
“Along with the sort of appreciation for a place to go, we’ve definitely heard people say it would be great to be able to drink out here,” Sundell said. “So we really feel that and if we can make that happen, I think it will be a game-changer. We are planning to move forward doing live music every Friday, so that will be a fun addition — just looking for other ways to make it a fun outdoor experience.”
Sundell said that it’s something he’d love to keep going, even after the pandemic.
“[It’s a] great opportunity to build community, which is what we’re all about. Make it a fun and interesting and exciting place to be, you know? Create these memorable experiences for Little Rockers and people visiting. So we’ll just have to figure out how we can move this forward.”