Jason Alley has been in the Little Rock foodservice industry since he was 13 years old. In the ’90s, he started working at his father’s store, Joe’s Grocery, on Colonel Glenn Road, “filling Coke boxes and making sandwiches in the deli,” he said.
Alley’s father retired from Joe’s Grocery in December, and now Alley, 39, owns two Tropical Smoothie locations, including the downtown spot on Broadway, and, along with business partner Chris Kramolis, has brought the Rock N Roll Sushi franchise to Little Rock, opening two stores during the pandemic. The franchise has locations throughout the South, including spots in Nashville, Tupelo, Miss., and the greater Memphis area.
Alley and Kramolis opened the Rock N Roll Sushi location at 12800 Chenal Parkway on May 29 during the phase one response to the pandemic.
“We were able to open up at 33 percent,” Alley said. “It went well because we had a lot of excitement. There was a lot of build-up to it.”
Alley said that at the beginning, 70 percent of the restaurant’s sales were to-go and delivery. “From phase one to where we are now, it’s almost completely shifted,” Alley said. “We’re almost at a 50 percent split between to-go/delivery versus dine-in. Friday and Saturday nights, people will actually wait in their cars for a table. It’s been pretty phenomenal these past few weeks.”
Alley said one of the things that he fell in love with about Rock N Roll Sushi was the way it generates nostalgia.
“When you walk in, you’ve got all these TVs that are playing the music videos that you’re listening to,” Alley said. “So you’re listening to the music and you’re watching the videos and it brings back some nostalgia from your childhood. And you see it when you’re in the restaurant; you see parents talking to their kids and saying ‘I remember this video’ or ‘this brings back this memory’ or ‘this is such a great song’ and you’re seeing that connection.”
Rock N Roll Sushi’s food and flavors also left an impression on Alley.
“The food is really good quality. That’s what I liked about it. All of the sauces and toppings are made in-house. We make our own wontons — from the filling to the dough, to folding them, the whole deal,” he said. “It suits a lot of palates and it’s just fun to be there — good atmosphere.”
The Rock N Roll Sushi location at 1224 Main St. in SoMa opened Sat., Aug. 15, in the spot formerly occupied by Atlas Bar. For now, it’s just open for to-go and delivery while they get the lobby and bar in place, and they hope to have that finished in the next month, Alley said.
Alley said that he and Kramolis were originally looking at SoMa for their first Rock N Roll Sushi location.
“I’m familiar with the area,” he said. “I was always watching the storefronts to see what was moving and shaking in the neighborhood. It’s always intrigued me. SoMa was always on our list, but we lucked out with the former Atlas spot; it’s a great spot.”
The pandemic hit Atlas Bar particularly hard, and owner Tony Poe saw no choice but to close the bar on July 1.
“Tony’s a great guy,” Alley said. “We tried to do what we could to make the transition really easy on him. He’s given us a lot of advice and I continue to tell him ‘Hey, always come in and let us know what you think,’ because we felt he had a great spot. I think he would’ve been very successful where he was had it not been for the pandemic.
“We’re lucky to have the SoMa outdoor dining and entertainment district down here,” Alley said. “I want to praise the neighborhood. They have embraced us coming in and taking over the Atlas Bar site and really kind of help mentor us towards the neighborhood. Because South Main is a little bit different from West Little Rock, obviously. It’s a tight-knit community. They’re all really pulling together to get people to come down here and view the entertainment district as an asset to the city. Not only during the pandemic but hopefully post-pandemic.”
Alley said that one thing he learned from opening the West Little Rock store during a pandemic that he could apply to the SoMa location is patience.
“Because I’m not a very patient person,” he said. “That’s just the way I am. I’m kind of instant gratification; I expect results really quickly. I’m a big planner/preparer. I learned to become more patient with guests. Because everybody seemed to be a little frustrated and on edge, including myself. And it’s taught me to be very fluid and not so rigid in my planning. Embrace ideas. Look to see what your colleagues are doing.”
A thoughtful approach to delivery, Alley said, will be crucial for restaurants looking to survive the pandemic’s effects. Alley was never a fan of delivery, he said: too many variables, and too many missed opportunities to connect with customers. “The pandemic has shown me that people are willing to maybe compromise,” he said, “or restaurateurs are willing to really go the extra mile with preparing their menus and packaging their menus to make sure the quality still gets to the customers the way they intend to. It’s been a learning curve, and it’s been an experience that will make me and my partner Chris a lot stronger in the future. We’re able to turn more on a dime now. We’re flexible with what our plans are, and we’ll adjust to whatever we have to adjust to. And I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve taken away from it.”