GROWING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC: Flyway owner Jess McMullen (left) convinced his cousin Brayan McFadden to move to Arkansas to open a new specialty taproom, Brood & Barley. Brian Chilson

The summer of 2019 was supposed to mark a significant expansion for Flyway Brewing: It planned to introduce Early Bird IPA, one of its flagship beers, to statewide distribution. Its Bluewing Berry Wheat, introduced in 2017 with a memorable can design — a namesake blue-winged teal silhouetted against the sun over a spread of water — has been a massive hit throughout the state, and co-owner Jess McMullen was hoping to build on that momentum with a fourth, widely distributed beer (to go along with Bluewing, Honeybird Blonde Ale and Flying Duck Amber Ale). But transferring the recipe for Early Bird IPA to the can took longer than expected. “We poured a lot of batches out,” McMullen said. “We spent all of 2019 trying to perfect that beer.”

In another industry, the introduction of a major product in March 2020 might have been catastrophic. But it turns out people drink a lot of beer amid a pandemic, and the rollout of Early Bird IPA was a boon for the North Little Rock brewery at an uncertain time, helping Flyway not just survive, but thrive in 2020.

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In a January interview, McMullen was reluctant to quantify Flyway’s success in 2020 while many of his colleagues in the restaurant industry are struggling. And, yes, having a growing distributed beer operation that accounts for roughly 50 percent of the company’s revenue provides it with a structural advantage over typical bars and restaurants, but Flyway has also distinguished itself for its willingness to experiment.

“Pivot” and “evolve” were words McMullen said he used constantly in the early days of COVID-19. 

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“I know now people say, ‘If I hear the word ‘pivot’ one more time, I’m going to scream,” he said, laughing. “But COVID gave us some opportunities that we probably would have never explored. The forced creativity has been refreshing.”

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, Governor Hutchinson ordered on March 19 the closure of all bars and restaurants in the state, so Flyway worked to fine-tune its takeaway and curbside operation, coming up with a drive-thru to sell its pretzels and sliders along with growlers and cans. Under Phase I of the state’s reopening plan, which went into effect May 11, restaurants were limited to one-third capacity. Under that requirement, McMullen figured that reopening Flyway’s brewpub to indoor customers would actually cost it money. So he decided to expand its outdoor offerings. Working with the Argenta Downtown Council, which owns tents, tables and chairs for special events, items that weren’t being used amid the pandemic, Flyway was able to erect what it dubbed Tent City, with tables and well-spaced chairs set up in the brewery’s parking lot along West Fourth and Maple streets. On each table was a printed list of rules or “laws” for health safety. 

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“We tried to make it fun and have a theme,” Ren Scott, Flyway’s front-of-house manager, told the Arkansas Times in July. “We have … 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?” 

Scott said the positive reception from customers rivaled the number of glowing reviews it got after it appeared on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

In fact, Tent City was so successful it helped the city of North Little Rock and the Argenta Downtown Council reimagine its plans for branding a newly established entertainment district, a defined area where patrons can carry alcoholic beverages in public and between venues. The City Council approved the creation of the district in June. Instead of focusing on the drinking component, the new entertainment district became the Argenta Outdoor Dining District, and the Argenta Downtown Council began regularly blocking off sections of Main Street and setting up more tents and tables and hosting music. 

The cold weather months put a pause on tents in the middle of the street, but Flyway’s Tent City never closed, even after Hutchinson allowed restaurants in June to open inside with 66 percent capacity. It just evolved: Late last year, Flyway added outdoor firepits and what it called Chalet Lane, a row of small greenhouses warmed by space heaters. 

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Flyway operates under an Arkansas small brewery permit, which allows for three separate taprooms. For much of 2019, McMullen had been working toward opening Brood & Barley, a satellite gastropub around the corner at 411 N. Main St., the former home of Core Brewing and, before that, Starving Artist Cafe. He convinced his cousin Brayan McFadden to move with his family from Philadelphia to Arkansas to run the new location and hired respected bartender David Burnette, well known for his time at the Capital Hotel and South on Main, to manage Brood & Barley’s bar program and the front of the house. 

The plan was to open in the spring. McFadden arrived in Arkansas in January 2020, but it soon became clear that COVID would put a wrench in the opening timetable. McMullen brought McFadden and Burnett over to Flyway to help with its curbside operation for several months. 

McFadden said he was worried, but he figured things would work out. “My cousin and I are really close. I’m not going to let anything happen to him, and he’s not going to let anything happen to me. I knew it was only a setback.”

In June, with no end to the pandemic in sight and restaurants still limited to 66 percent capacity, McMullen and McFadden decided to press ahead and launch Brood & Barley with what McMullen called a “slow-roll opening.”

“We spent four different weeks releasing different parts of the menu,” McMullen said. “We opened for three days and then shut down for four days. Then opened for two days and shut down for five days.”

McFadden admitted he wasn’t sure about the plan. “To be honest, when we sat down and talked about [the slow-roll opening], I said, ‘I don’t know if this is a good idea.’ ” But it worked, allowing the restaurant to methodically fine-tune its offerings. “That’s the positive,” McFadden said. “We’re trying things you wouldn’t normally try.” 

Forming a coalition with other Argenta restaurants to brainstorm ways to get customers to the Argenta Outdoor Dining District was another example of trying new things and a great introduction to the restaurant scene for McFadden. “We all got together and sat down every week and talked about what we were going to do that week to help each other out — businesses in direct competition.” McFadden credits the dining district to getting Brood & Barley through the summer months.

Lately, Brood & Barley’s new “kick-ass curbside” has been the key innovation. McFadden created a special takeaway menu, which includes fried chicken, a blackened salmon salad, fried jumbo duck wings, a spicy falafel and a chicken sandwich. But the big sellers have been authentic Philly cheesesteaks and poke bowls. McFadden’s background in Philadelphia informs the cheesesteak. Sous chef Melanie Wood grew up in Hawaii, where poke is one of the state’s most recognizable dishes. Brood & Barley sells family packs of each, too. “I’ve done some Googling,” McFadden said. “I think we may be the only restaurant serving authentic Philly cheesesteaks and poke bowls.”

Meanwhile, Burnette has been crafting cocktail kits to go. His latest is a riff on a Fireball. In December, McFadden said Brood & Barley sold Burnette’s eggnog recipe, a repeat winner at the Historic Arkansas Museum’s Nog Off competition, “by the vat.” 

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McFadden and McMullen can’t wait for patrons to check out Brood & Barley in its full glory. McMullen calls it Central Arkansas’s first true gastropub. “Upscale pub food that’s fun” is how McFadden describes the vibe. “I’m putting popcorn on mussels right now. I love it.” Deviled eggs have become ubiquitous on menus in Central Arkansas and beyond; Brood & Barley’s tweak of the formula is a Scotch deviled egg. “They fly out the door,” McFadden said. 

Four fermenters in the back of Flyway’s brewing facility feed Brood & Barley. The beers, including a European-style slow-pour pilsner that takes 5-7 minutes to pour, are only available at Brood & Barley. There’s no draft tap crossover between the two. “Everyone’s like, ‘You’re not going to have Bluewing on tap?’ No Bluewing,” McMullen said, though it is available by the can. 

McFadden is looking forward to doing special beer dinners in the not-too-distant future. He and Wood are planning a Hawaiian-themed menu for one of those special events.

Meanwhile, Flyway continues to tweak and grow. It recently announced the hiring of respected local chef Gilbert Alaquinez Jr. McMullen expects a lot of the company’s changes to stick post-pandemic. To-go offerings will remain a focus. “We will continue to have as much outside service as people want,” he said. “We proved that people will sit outside and drink a beer in a tent in 100-degree weather. We know some of that is because of COVID, but we kind of think a lot of it will stick.” 

Perhaps a little farther down the line, according to McMullen? The third taproom allowed under Flyway’s brewery permit.