What was once a city of quaint burger places and mom and pop staples, Conway has grown to offer a variety of multicultural fare and finer dining establishments.
Last month, Forbes Travel Guide recognized Little Rock as one of Five Secret Foodie Cities.
The magazine said the city, “once a land dominated by chain restaurants and barbecue joints ... has thoroughly expanded its palate.”
Among the restaurants listed are Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel, Ciao Baci in the Hillcrest District and rounding out the list are two restaurants that can also be found in Conway — Zaza’s Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co. and Whole Hog Cafe.
Restaurant Prohibition Brings Restaurant Revolution
While Conway doesn’t quite have the high-end fare of Ashley’s, it does have Mike’s Place.
A nice restaurant — sure, says Mike’s Place Owner Mike Coats, but he wouldn’t consider his restaurant to be fine dining.
“Fine dining to me is a little pompous,” Coats said. “Sure there are beautiful surroundings, professional staff and food made from scratch, but there’s nothing pompous about it.”
Coats ran restaurants from Kentucky and Tennessee to Arkansas and Louisiana, but eventually settled in Conway to open a signature restaurant of his own.
In 2004, a committee approached him about seeking the first private club license that would allow his restaurant to serve alcohol to “members only” who paid a fee and signed a membership book upon entry. Citizens for a Progressive Arkansas, a local nonprofit group formed in support of Faulkner County restaurants obtaining private club licenses, gathered 3,600 signatures for a petition.
On Aug. 25, 2004, the Arkansas Alcohol Beverage Control Board unanimously approved Coats’ application for a private club license for Mike’s Place.
“Because it was so hard to get that first license, this place got adopted as Conway’s,” Coats said. “Your downtown is the heart and soul of the community and we needed a place where we could bring people and say ‘this is Conway.’”
Soon after, a fifteen-minute meeting with Home BancShares Inc. Chairman Johnny Allison was the beginning of what would become a cornerstone for Downtown Conway.
Allison gave Coats the small business loan he needed to spend more than $1 million to renovate a more-than-100-year-old building.
Coats secured the “perfect location” in the bottom floor of Steve Strange’s American Management Inc. on Front Street.
Coats said there wasn’t anything like Mike’s Place in the market at the time and Conway needed a steak and seafood house.
“Conway already had Stoby’s — it already had the burger places — so we tried to bring something that wasn’t there,” he said. “If someone wanted a burger for lunch they could get that, but if they wanted something really nice like steak, lobster or salmon, we’ve got that too.”
Since Mike’s Place opened as the first independently owned and operated restaurant with a private club license, national chains whose business model includes a bar, such as TGI Friday’s, Chili’s and Old Chicago Pizza, have been able to establish restaurants in the county.
As President of the Hospitality Association, Coats said there are currently about 40 private clubs operating in the city today.
“Conway is just now becoming a city like other cities throughout the country,” Coats said.
Restaurants by the Millions
Conway’s restaurant scene has developed into a profitable industry bringing in millions of dollars in sales tax each year and employing hundreds of people.
The most successful restaurants in Faulkner County are national chains, according to figures compiled by local economist Roger Lewis.
Chick-Fil-A was the county’s most successful restaurant last year, with more than $4 million in sales.
Closely following, with about $3.6 million, was Chick-Fil-A’s neighbor at Conway Commons, Chili’s Bar and Grill.
In at third place is Golden Corral, fourth is Cracker Barrel, and McDonald’s on Salem Road comes in fifth.
Mike Coats, owner of Mike’s Place, got most of his early experience with chains and said he would tell somebody starting in the industry to do just that.
“People see the most value in chains when it comes to raising capitol,” he said.
The remaining top 10 include TGI Friday’s at sixth place, followed by three McDonald’s locations at Dave Ward Drive, Oak Street and Highway 65.
Aramark Services, the food vendor for the University of Central Arkansas, finishes the top 10 in sales at about $2.5 million.
Stoby’s, the first locally owned and operated restaurant to appear on the list, just misses the top 10 at No. 11 with about $2.4 million.
The small Arkansas chain Marketplace Grill is at No. 12, followed by Outback Steakhouse, a national chain.
Mike’s Place is at No. 14 with $2.1 million in sales.
“The money that comes in this place gets spent seven or eight times,” Coats said.
With a $1 million payroll, most Mike’s Place employees live in Conway recycling the money spent at the restaurant back into the community.
The next Arkansas based restaurant doesn’t place again for the next 15 rankings.
The list extends to 230 establishments that serve food in Faulkner County, and sales for the venues in 2013 totaled $144,116,900.
A full economic report and more sales figures are available at Lewis’ website, pulseofconway.com.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Within a stone’s throw, Conway has modern Latin cuisine at Table Mesa Bistro, homemade Italian entrees from Pasta Grill and classic southern cooking at Bob’s Grill — and that’s just downtown.
Steve Shuler, a journalist from Little Rock, recently started a blog and Arkansas’ first podcast devoted to encouraging further growth in the food community called the Little Rock Foodcast.
With a love for quality food and a background in journalism, Shuler wanted to make a contribution to the Central Arkansas food scene.
“I think Conway, much like all of Central Arkansas, is benefiting from a boom in local restaurants,” he said.
Shuler said just a few years ago Little Rock didn’t have nearly as many local independent restaurants as it does today.
“Now we have a new independent restaurant opening five times a year,” he said. “Because people aren’t relying on the same old same old, it’s driving new, innovative restaurants.”
On Shuler’s blog, a panel of writers, critics and foodies in Little Rock came together to determine the city’s Top Fives, and some familiar Conway names made the list.
In the Best Burger category, David’s Burgers takes the No. 2 spot and Zaza’s wraps up the Best Pizza category at No. 5.
Shuler said David’s made the Top Fives for its commitment to freshness and flawless execution.
“David’s Burgers is really unique because they do something that is traditional — the greasy flat top burger — but they execute it so perfectly,” he said.
Zaza’s also made the list for putting a fresh new spin on a traditional favorite, Shuler said.
“Scott McGehee has a fantastic palette for flavors that work well together,” he said. “When he mixes ingredients together he maximizes flavor. They sing when you take a bite.”
At this year’s second annual Minority Enterprise Development Awards Gala, Brad Lacy, CEO and president of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Conway Development Corporation, said his new favorite cheeseburger in town is Umami Sushi Lounge and Grill Fusion’s Kobe beef burger.
Owner Johnny Hò received the Outstanding Young Minority Professional Award, presented to an individual between the ages of 21-39 who has committed him or herself to business and community service.
The person who nominated Hò said he has taken Conway by storm with his strong team and amazing food. Even as the owner of a restaurant, he never minds to step behind the counter and serve a customer with his employees. He shows great management and leadership, and is a welcomed addition to Conway.
The online restaurant information and review website Urbanspoon shows online food critics, both locally and nationally, with an appreciation for Conway restaurants of all types and prices.
The two local restaurants with the highest percent in the “like” or “doesn’t like” rating system are Cross Creek Sandwich Shop downtown and Oriental Kitchen at 1000 Morningside Dr., both with a 95 percent.
Closely following are Umami and Pitza 42 on Dave Ward Drive with 95 percent.
Ranking third are two Italian eateries with a score of 93 percent are Pasta Grill and Faby’s Restaurant 2.
Bob’s Grill, Layla’s Gyros & Pizzeria and US Pizza Co. take the fourth spot with a score of 91 percent, and Zaza Fine Salad & Wood-Oven Pizza, Blackwood’s Gyros and Grill and Holly’s Country Cooking complete the top five local restaurants with a score of 90 percent.
La Princesa and Saigon Cuisine just missed the top five with a score of 89 percent.
The average score for chains was slightly less than local restaurants with Tropical Smoothie Cafe ranking the highest at 94 percent.
Firehouse Subs and Marcos Pizza follow with 90 percent.
Ranking third are Wingstop and Cracker Barrel with 88 percent.
Pizza Hut comes in fourth with a score of 87 percent and Old Chicago Pizza completes the top five most popular chains at 85 percent.
Chick-Fil-A missed the top five with a score of 81 percent.
“There isn’t going to be one place in Conway where all the restaurants are,” Coats said. “It’s already kind of separated into areas and we’re going to see those, but hopefully they will connect together pretty well and people will have choices because that’s really what it’s all about.”
(Bakeries and ice cream stands were not included in the Urbanspoon top five restaurant lists)
Fostering a Community of Good Food
Michael Rasmussen, a CPA who specializes in the restaurant industry, said with the announcement of major developments like Central Landing, a $90 million mixed-use redevelopment of Conway’s former airport site Cantrell Field, people will see Conway as a life style, and restaurant chains will want to locate here.
I think what you’ll see is all the chains are going to move in from the Olive Gardens to the Red Lobsters, Rasmussen said.
“Every time Conway’s population grows by 10,000 here comes another chain because they feel more comfortable in that environment,” said Mike Coats, owner of Mike’s Place.
“It’s not going to get any easier for independents,” he continued. “We’re going to have to shoulder that mantle. We’ve got to be better.”
Being President of the Hospitality Association and staying connected to the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Partnership creates a network that has helped him succeed, Coats said, but without a third party pulling resources for the restaurant, like most chains have, it is more difficult for an independent restaurant to be successful.
“We have to be that place that knows your name, that takes your reservation ... as long as we keep the quality of the food high and also understand that we’re not going to be perfect — we’re going to break some eggs sometimes — but we have to step up and take care of those situations,” Coats said.
Steve Shuler, host of the Little Rock Foodcast, says the restaurant industry has razor thin margins and if you’re not focused with a plan, it’s going to hurt.
“Whenever you talk about small businesses, if they don’t have passion and focus on quality, the product will suffer more than a large restaurant that rides on a big name and advertising outlets,” Shuler said.
Planning, execution and having enough capitol are the three best things an independent restaurant owner can do to prepare, he said.
Rasmussen said he anticipates the population will go to Central Landing instead of driving to the Promenade at Chenal for their dining needs.
Though people are beginning to compare Central Landing to the Promenade, it isn’t solely home to commercial chains. Yellow Rocket Concepts, the partners who founded Zaza’s, Big Orange and Local Lime have two local restaurants there.
“I think cool, electric restaurants that come downtown and come to the Landing will enhance the overall picture,” Coats said.
“At the end of the day, every town of different populations has the same chains — there’s a Friday’s, there’s a Chili’s — in the independent, electrics you’ve got the chance for some different flavors, different thoughts, and that rounds it out,” he said.
Shuler said it’s important in any city to develop a community of food and food lovers.
“Not only does it drive business, but it creates a community of food lovers that will sustain those businesses that are new and doing things no one else is doing,” he said. “When you have a group of people who are interested in eating good food, restaurants will meet that demand.”
Courtney Spradlin and Joe Lamb contributed to this report