An acclaimed Little Rock chef, speaking on the litany of challenges the pandemic created for food service, recently told me that if you’re weak-willed you shouldn’t open a restaurant.
The three women who opened Rosie’s Pot & Kettle are anything but.
Alisha Black, Liz Maxey and Katie McDaniel previously worked together as waitresses in East Little Rock and wanted to open a restaurant in the area east of I-30 offering breakfast, daily plate lunch specials and desserts.
“We wanted to be out in the industry area,” McDaniel said. The concept centers around being fast and affordable “so people can afford to eat there five days a week because there’s not a lot out there,” McDaniel said.
Located in the East Village neighborhood in the former Calvin’s Soul Food at 423 Bond Ave., Rosie’s was scheduled to be cleared by the health department and fire marshal in March 2020, the same week Governor Hutchinson shut down all the restaurant dining rooms in the state. “That put us back an entire month,” McDaniel said. “The fire marshals weren’t allowed to come out, the health inspector got moved into the lab doing testing, so she came on her own time.”
Rosie’s was able to open for to-go service in April 2020. The three owners papered the neighborhood with flyers, and some customers from their previous gigs knew about Rosie’s opening.
“We have people that have been there since day one,” McDaniel said. “We’ve got a great, grassy front yard and a beautiful tree to sit under. People would picnic and bring lawn chairs or blankets.” Eventually McDaniel filled the yard with card tables, but everything had to be served in to-go boxes due to the dining room closure.
“We had to rethink all of our specials,” she said. “What would stay hot, you don’t want to send out bone-in fried chicken with plastic cutlery.”
Black, Maxey and McDaniel also had help from friends and family who were suddenly unemployed.
“Some were just bored from being out of work for so long,” McDaniel said. “[It] definitely helped bridge the gap until we were able to hire them on.”
Without bills or payroll from the prior year, the restaurant did not qualify for the first round of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loan. “It was definitely different for us because we only had a month or two under our belts when the help started surfacing,” McDaniel said.
In the beginning the official staff consisted of the three owners and a friend with a little more kitchen experience to help get the daily specials going, McDaniel said.
“We kept him on for as long as we could, and then it got to the point where we couldn’t afford him anymore.”
McDaniel said that both Black and Maxey had no choice but to assume full responsibility for the daily specials and vegetables, taking their cooking skills to new heights.
Specials such as the meatloaf and pot roast are very popular, as are the salmon croquettes, catfish and footlong chili dog, McDaniel said. Rosie’s cheeseburger features locally sourced beef from Leis Creek Cattle in Clinton (Van Buren County).
We visited on a recent Friday and tried the chili dog, catfish and the cheeseburger, all excellent, piping hot and nicely plated. There’s no way you’re going to leave hungry. I found myself nearly blurting out for the first time in my life, “Aw, that chili dog is cute,” when the waitress set it down in front of me. I had to awkwardly stand over the table to photograph it, paranoid that I was catching looks from customers who were not trying to photograph footlong chili dogs.
In addition to a thick beef chili, which helps keep the messiness to a minimum, the dog comes topped with cheese, mustard and fresh coleslaw. Also impressive were the vegetables; I could’ve just eaten from the veggie menu and been happy. We tried hashbrown casserole, purple hull peas, northern beans and turnip greens. The service was fast and welcoming, and I got the impression that even if you’re new to Rosie’s, you’ll never feel like a stranger.
McDaniel said situations have come up where a customer will request a special, like someone asking when they could get meatloaf.
“We’re like, ‘What day do you want meatloaf? Wednesday? OK, we’ll do it next Wednesday for you.’ You know things like that definitely help make people feel special, that they can ask for things. They feel like it’s their little place, too.”
Often, to my disappointment, I don’t see fresh, scratch-made pie on many Little Rock menus. You can get your fix at Rosie’s. Coconut cream pie, Arkansas possum pie (a layered chocolate and cream cheese concoction, no possum included) and apple dumplings were on the menu when we visited. McDaniel said that they couldn’t afford to source premade desserts so Black and Maxey spent time researching and fine-tuning recipes, often spending their weekend time at Rosie’s baking pies and cheesecakes.
Pie has become so popular that customers order their slices with lunch to reserve it should they sell out, McDaniel said. Rosie’s offers several dessert pies for holiday orders, including coconut cream, blueberry buttermilk, pecan and a slew of others. McDaniel said Black recently made a honey-bun-flavored cheesecake and did a Christmas tree special cheesecake that featured a layer of Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes. Whole pies are available for preorder at Rosie’s year-round, McDaniel said.
Despite the myriad of pandemic challenges, McDaniel said sales have increased along with Rosie’s customer base.
“Knowing that we probably had the hardest year that any restaurant has ever had and corporate restaurants were closing, and here we were continuing to grow and still continuing to grow. We’ve been very fortunate. And a lot of people that come down support us and have been supporting us, they’ll do anything for us,” she said.
That includes customers donating a counter for their cash register and refrigerators (Rosie’s doesn’t have a walk-in).
In the early days of the pandemic, to boost sales and also give back to the community, Rosie’s would promote its sausage biscuits for people to purchase and they would donate the biscuits to The Van [The One Inc.]. Recently, Rosie’s started donating to Potluck Food Rescue.
“That was always our goal to try to help give back as well,” McDaniel said.
Named after the World War II cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, the restaurant was originally going to be called Pot & Kettle Cafe, but the circumstances surrounding the opening inspired the Rosie addition.
“What’s more Rosie the Riveter than three women opening a restaurant during the middle of a global pandemic to serve the industry that didn’t shut down out there?” McDaniel said. “It personified us and really clicked.”