Ottenheimer Hall, the Little Rock River Market’s public food court-style market, located at 400 President Clinton Ave., has been shuttered for over a year. This Saturday, May 1, Ottenheimer Hall is welcoming back vendors and the public, coinciding with the reopening of the Little Rock Farmers Market held in the adjacent River Market pavilions.
The River Market district has been relatively behind other businesses that have remained open or reopened during the pandemic. Diana Long, director of River Market Operations, said in an interview in January that the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau was assessing the “multifaceted” situation about reopening monthly. Due to pandemic-related closures, cancellations of events, lack of tourism and downtown workers working remotely, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors bureau took an economic hit. Long said that they were waiting for people to return to working in offices downtown, for convention businesses and events to return and for traveling for leisure/school field trips, etc. to resume. A fundamental concern for the market hall vendors, she said, was that there wouldn’t be enough foot traffic to support them.
Angia Cox, owner of Platnum BBQ, which she’s been operating in Ottenheimer Hall since 2017, met the challenge of the indefinite shutdown by changing her business model. Since July, she’s been operating out of a food truck and catering events. Platnum’s first catering job: a pandemic wedding.
Cox was in a rare moment of downtime in a Walmart parking lot when I reached her by phone on Thursday. Platnum has been very busy this week catering events for several Walmarts that were hosting associate appreciation weeks. “We were in Beebe on Saturday, Cabot on Tuesday, yesterday was Jacksonville, today is North Little Rock and tomorrow is Lonoke … It’s bananas but we’re grateful, that’s for sure.”
Platnum won’t be opening back up in Ottenheimer until Thursday of next week because Cox is catering an event this weekend for the National Guard at Camp Robinson. Anytime the food truck is set up in a public space, she announces it on Facebook to the restaurant’s followers.
“That’s worked really well for us because we’re able to continue to be engaged with our customers. We were trying our best during this pandemic to continue to be relevant and to market ourselves in a way to let people know that we’re still here. And with the support of our people that patronize us, we were able to survive so we are super blessed.”
Cox said the food truck is going to come to a screeching halt once operations begin in Ottenheimer next week, at least until she and her team get back in the groove of things operating out of the River Market.
“We will still make the food truck available for catering, and I don’t really anticipate that slowing down,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge for sure, but we’re going to try our absolute best to manage both if that’s even possible. Our main focus on May 6 is going to be to get in there and hit it hard. There’s a lot of folks that are expecting us back. We put out the word on Facebook, so they’re excited and pumped, and we want to keep that going.”
Phoebe Glass, owner of Blue Sage Vegan Bistro & Shambala was in Ottenheimer on Thursday cleaning up the space with her daughter.
“Everything is so dirty. It’s just been sitting, dead, for a year, you know. So I’m honestly not 100 percent sure if I’m going to open on Saturday. If it’s not clean enough, it’s not going to happen. If not, we might be out at the farmers market,” she said.
Glass operated a food truck before she started renting a space out of Ottenheimer around two years ago.
“It’s fantastic,” she said, “but it’s primarily tourists and everybody that worked in the area, they all went home.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Glass sold her food truck and bought a 40 foot-long tour bus.
“It’s the most amazing pandemic deal you can imagine,” she said. “I bought it from this place in Orlando that was renting it out, and the pandemic hit and they couldn’t rent it to people anymore because nobody’s traveling, so I got it for a third of what it’s worth.”
So Glass has been spending time with her two kids who — because of the pandemic — both stayed home an extra year, rather than flying the coop. She’s also been traveling and researching the direction she wants to take Blue Sage, which won’t be too different, she said, but in line with her original concept.
“I want to make old people southern food. You know, like what your grandma made. I like the memories — like food and memories, you know. So I’ve been trying to go in little hole-in-the-wall places and try to figure out what makes nostalgia food.”
I asked Glass if she thought that people have become more thoughtful about their relationship to food and eating meat or not eating meat since the pandemic started.
She said the movement was already underway, but that “people are trying to eat healthier. This pandemic came around and it’s like, ‘Oh crap, we really do need to get healthy if we’re trying to fight stuff off.’ I think there’s a lot more of that. I think it’s so much more mainstream. Even in Arkansas.”
Both Glass and Cox were unable to secure money from the Payroll Protection Program loans. Glass said she’s thankful that the River Market did not charge rent at all since the shutdown took place.
Long said that the Market Hall will require people to wear masks. She also noted that until the Arkansas Department of Health guidance no longer includes mask requirements for outdoor events, vendors will be required to wear masks and patrons will be asked to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Vendors slated to return to Ottenheimer Hall on May 1:
Rock Town River Outfitters
Middle Eastern Cuisine
Bangkok Thai Cuisine
Big on Tokyo
Fresh Bowl N Roll Bar
Blue Sage Vegan Bistro
Platnum BBQ will open Thursday, May 6.
Garden Square Cafe and David’s Burgers are expected to open by June 1.
Ottenheimer Hall will remain open throughout the Farmers Market season. Hours will be 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat. For more information, visit the website here.