When the Capital Hotel suspended operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020, it had not yet announced a new executive chef to replace Jöel Antunes, a Michelin-starred and James Beard award winner, who came to the hotel in 2013 to head up Ashley’s and Capital Bar and Grill. Antunes oversaw the transformation of Ashley’s to One Eleven at the Capital, which was completed in his second year, in August of 2014. Antunes departed his position at the hotel in January 2020, and One Eleven was only serving breakfast after his departure up until the March shutdown.
Brad Izzard, a native of South Africa, has recently been rehired and named executive chef of the entire hotel. Izzard formerly served as chef de cuisine under Antunes at One Eleven, and left the hotel after the shut down to work as a chef at a private high end country club.
The hotel is owned by the Stephens family who, earlier this year, hired Concord Hospitality Enterprises, a hotel and property management and development company to manage the hotel and the reopening. Terry Bechtold was hired by Concord as Capital Hotel’s general manager. He started on May 3, and the hotel reopened two weeks later. Bechtold has been in the hotel business for 39 years and has managed several five star hotels including St. Regis properties for Starwood (now Marriott) and The One and Only Oceans Club in the Bahamas. Bechtold was food and beverage director at Turnberry Isle in Florida, and worked for Manderine Orientale and Little Palm Island in the Florida Keys. Before being hired in Little Rock, he was vice president of operations for AJS Hotels.
Bechtold said staffing has been the biggest challenge in reopening a distinguished hotel that’s been closed for over a year during a pandemic.
“A lot of people have been out for quite some time, some have left the industry and gone into other industries, and unemployment was fruitful for the longest time, if I’m using the right word. So there had been an early challenge. Today you’re starting to recognize more people are applying for positions,” Bechtold said.
When the hotel opened its doors on May 17, less than half of the 94 rooms were available. Capital Bar and Grill was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One Eleven remains closed, as does in-room dining. Bechtold said all the rooms would be available by mid-July. The reason the hotel couldn’t make all of its rooms available initially was the lack of housekeepers on staff, Bechtold said.
Bechtold said the elegant rooms at the Capital Hotel require more time in a day for housekeepers to service than rooms at mid-level hotels or the Capital’s competitors.
“Where housekeepers here would do 10 to 12 [a day], they might do 14 to 16 at our other competitive hotels around us,” he said.
Bechtold said staffing limitations are starting to improve, something he attributes to pandemic federal unemployment assistance ending in Arkansas and the prestige of working at the “most historic and recognized, highest luxury hotel in Little Rock.”
The first people that were called when the Capital Hotel started staffing were the former employees that were working at the hotel pre-pandemic, and Bechtold said that many of the staff currently working were previously employed by the hotel. Some of the previous members of the staff have found other jobs, or left the industry, Bechtold said.
All of the menus for the hotel’s restaurants are currently being rewritten, Bechtold said, but many popular items will remain. “Hopefully in September we’ll open One Eleven for dinner,” he said. Breakfast at One Eleven is being slated for the first week of August.
Asked if the hotel industry will have lasting changes due to the pandemic, Bechtold said things like more stringent sanitation and cleaning are likely here to stay.
“It puts more of a comfort in the guests that come in when they see it because they’ve kind of gotten used to that as being the new norm,” he said. Bechtold said that hand sanitation stations in the hotel will remain and that throughout the pandemic, many hotels removed in-room literature — like hotel directories and restaurant guides — and transitioned to digital collateral, like QR codes. Guests will be able to use their smartphones to scan a QR code to find the TV channel lineup, phone directories and order room service.
“Think of a building that was built in 1870, became a hotel in 1877 having high tech,” he said. “But luxury and technology go together today.”