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Less than a week before her restaurant, Nu Cuisine Lounge, was to open, Rebekah Hardin led me through the bustle of painters, plasterers, upholsterers, drapery hangers and appliance installers, looking like the calmest woman in the world. The kitchen was far from finished. The suede benches that were to line the walls were — God willing — on a truck somewhere between Memphis and Little Rock. Outside, as they had been all week, workmen were noisily jackhammering up the sidewalk. The restrooms were still bare concrete, cell-like enough to sire comments about the fate of deadbeat diners. Though executive chef and co-owner Paul Novicky looked like a man with a train to catch and designer Garry Mertins spoke constantly at auctioneer speed into a cell phone that seemed fused to his ear, if Hardin herself was feeling any pressure, you surely couldn’t tell it by looking at her.
She’s a woman who knows something about pressure. Almost a decade ago, she defied naysayers by helping create the lifestyle magazine market in Little Rock, growing “At Home in Arkansas” from a monthly publication targeted at builders into a regional player. After leaving her position as publisher with At Home in spring of this year, Hardin went looking for a new challenge. True to form, she picked the one field of endeavor that might be more risky than magazine publishing: life as a restaurateur.
In the narrow passageway between the lounge and the dining room at Nu, a painter was perched at the top of a ladder, applying a coat of cobalt blue — the color that acts as a counterpoint to the restaurant’s overall scheme of white — to one of the floating ceiling panels. Hardin never missed a beat as she swerved around the foot of the ladder to avoid walking under it — a move so quick that only someone studying her intently for flaws in her flawless calm might have noticed it.
While those who know her will tell you she has a proven track record when it comes to accomplishing what others say can’t be done in Little Rock, she knows better than to tempt the will of the gods. Then again, given what a leap Nu is beyond anything ever seen in this town, her latest venture might just need Lady Luck the most.
Funny and blonde, thin as a dandelion stem, even though she’s closing in on 40, Rebekah Hardin still has the air of a cheerleader about her. It fits. She has made a career out of rooting for Number One. As one of Little Rock’s rare female entrepreneurs, Hardin has proven the market wrong so often that she has developed a reputation as a Golden Girl about herself (and — said at least one person I talked to — a small but significant group of those who have clashed over the years with her no-excuses business style). While she seems not to have let that praise go to her head, in all things — even ordering a slice of goat-cheese pizza for lunch when we sat down recently for a chat — she has the infectious good humor of a woman who has somehow wrangled a peek at the Book of Life, and knows it turns out Happily Ever After for her.
Then again, her friends will tell you, that’s just Rebekah. She has always been the ambitious sort. A small town girl from northern Louisiana, the daughter of a Presbyterian lay minister, after graduating from Louisiana Tech in 1988, Hardin set her sights on breaking into the fashion industry. Not wanting to move to New York, she went to Dallas instead. After working a few years in the marketing end of the apparel business, she met her husband Keith, who was originally from Arkansas. After a year and a half of dating, they were married. In 1992, they decided to move to Little Rock to start a construction business, a career Keith knew through his family.
Though she calls herself a “believer” in Little Rock, ranking herself up there with River Market developer and friend Jimmy Moses as to her faith in the viability of the Little Rock scene, her friends in Big D weren’t enthusiastic about the move.
“People said to me, oh, you’re going to Little Rock. Goodbye,” she said. “It’s the end of the earth. There [supposedly] wasn’t anything of beauty or style or character here. I was from a very small town in Louisiana, and when I got here, I thought these people have obviously never lived in a small town.”
Soon after moving to Arkansas, her restless energy found her looking for a new challenge. Though she didn’t know the first thing about publishing, her husband’s work in the construction industry revealed what she saw as a gap in the media market. Within a few months, she started a small magazine called “Builder’s Showcase.”
“It was something just to promote builders in Little Rock,” Keith Hardin said. “And it just evolved into something that continued to grow. We realized that there was a much larger market out there for the home industry than just [catering to] the builders.” After quickly outgrowing its sawdust-covered roots, in fall 1996 Builder’s Showcase evolved into At Home in Arkansas, the state’s only slick monthly decor and lifestyle publication.
Though there were some lean years at first, Hardin says she was determined to make it work, attending seminars in New York and Chicago on what made good “lifestyle magazines” tick. “I went through the school of hard knocks,” she laughed. “I went to every course that I could to learn to be better and to understand the business — the margins, the business plan, the quality, certainly the technology.”
By growing the magazine slowly and developing good relationships with her advertisers, Hardin’s shoestring creation slowly overcame the gravity of failure. Nine years worth of midnight oil later, it’s coffee table fare in many of Arkansas’s finest homes, with a current circulation that hovers around 30,000, with 10 percent of that heading to subscribers out of state. (As if that weren’t enough, in 2001Hardin also founded “Build for the Cure” — a program that calls on the construction and interior design communities to build and decorate luxury homes, with proceeds from tours going to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The $1.5 million home that husband Keith built the first year was the most expensive on-spec house ever constructed in Little Rock up to that time, and raised more than $195,000 for the Komen Foundation.)
As with any successful businessperson, Hardin has rubbed a few people the wrong way over the years. Shelly Fowler is an account executive with At Home in Arkansas and still close friends with Hardin. One of Hardin’s diehard supporters, Fowler describes her friend as very “matter-of-fact” when it comes to business, a style she admits has pushed some people away in the past.
“Not everybody’s going to like everybody,” Fowler said. “But she can’t worry about those people because when people don’t like you, they’re usually jealous. It’s because [with] some people, whatever they touch doesn’t always turn to gold the way it does for her.”
Any detractors she might have aside, for Rebekah Hardin her days at At Home in Arkansas were a good time that had to come to an end. Her son Keith Jr. was born in fall 1997, and the following spring, Hardin sold two-thirds of her interest in At Home in Arkansas to then-editor Ruth Mitchell and the Jonesboro publishing firm of McNabb, Kelley and Barré. After a few more years of growth for the magazine — and the shuffling of a few more partners — Mitchell sold her shares to Little Rock entrepreneur Russ McDonough III, who had been one of Hardin’s first advertisers with At Home in Arkansas. Together with other investors, McDonough formed the At Home Media Group.
As friends and business associates, Hardin and McDonough had often discussed transplanting the At Home model to other cities, using the original as a template. After McDonough became a partner in the magazine, they did just that, creating satellite magazines At Home in Memphis and At Home in New Orleans, as well as the city magazine Little Rock Monthly. It was also during this time that McDonough became a partner in the Oxford American, bringing the defunct magazine of Southern culture to Little Rock and relaunching it with a splash in summer 2002.
“All this was going on in this kind of blur that I remember to be the years between 2002 and the end of 2003,” Hardin said. “About a year and a half of really busy activity there.”
In hindsight, Hardin admits, they were spreading themselves awfully thin. Where At Home in Arkansas had taken nearly half a decade to become successful, she said, they expected their new magazines “to work right out of the gate.” One by one, the magazines in the At Home Media Group stables began to tank, with At Home in Memphis and At Home in New Orleans eventually sold off to investors. After Hardin’s departure from the company, Little Rock Monthly and the Little Rock incarnation of the Oxford American were shuttered (the OA has since been restarted in Conway with the help of money from University of Central Arkansas).
For Hardin, that time in her professional life still seems a bit raw to the touch. She is vague when she talks about the events that led to her leaving At Home in Arkansas. After working as president and chief marketing officer since the formation of At Home Media Group with Russ McDonough, Hardin was given the title of publisher of At Home in Arkansas — a title she held for her last few months at the magazine before resigning in April of this year. She talked of those last few months as a time of putting away, of making sure the magazine could survive without her. Hardin cried a bit at this point in the story, looking flushed and embarrassed and pushing at the tears with the tips of her fingers. “I’m such a girl,” she said apologetically. It is sad to lose a thing you’ve made with your own hands. At various points in our conversation, Hardin talked metaphorically of the magazine she built as a child, a home, an old boyfriend, and a fledgling bird that she loved enough to let go. Still, Hardin said that she hasn’t experienced any of the bitterness she feared she might after leaving.
“I loved it so much,” she said. “But I just had to make some decisions. I needed to move on. I needed to find a way to have my family but to take that unbridled energy and passion that I always throw into everything and just move it to another place.”
Shelly Fowler says that Hardin’s departure from the magazine was painful, but dismisses the often-repeated rumors that Hardin left under any kind of pressure. The decision to leave, Fowler says, was Hardin’s own, and she did it her way.
Rather than be the center of attention at a going-away party, the kind of party the magazine regularly hosted for departing staffers, from ad reps all the way down to summer interns, Fowler said Hardin simply called the staff together one morning and said that it would be her last day. Fowler remembers that moment as one full of tears, and not just for Hardin. “I wanted it to be a celebration,” Fowler said, “to acknowledge everything she had done. She has poured her heart and soul into it and it seemed like we were just there and she said she was leaving.”
Fowler said that she respects the fact that Hardin had accomplished what she set out to do in her last few months at At Home, and that Hardin understood that it was time to go. “Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time,” Fowler said. “But it was on her time. That’s when she was supposed to do it.”
Now that she has moved on, the thing Rebekah Hardin has helped create at the corner of Cumberland and Markham in Little Rock is just as pioneering as anything she ever created in print. Just looking in the window at Nu Cuisine Lounge is enough to let you know it is unlike anything ever seen in Arkansas. Inside, Nu looks like minimalist installation art. White tables, white plates, white walls, a bit of off-white, all offset by a refrain of deep blue — cobalt glasses, soft blue light at crucial points in the room, blue doors leading away to private spaces. Powdery white drapes hang on tracks sunk into the floating ceiling, ready to subdivide the dining room into any configuration. The week of the Clinton library opening found the restaurant and lounge area perpetually full of the Beautiful People, all too cordial to get stuck with the “elbowing their way to the bar” cliche, but standing shoulder to shoulder nonetheless to partake of Novicky’s “world fusion” cuisine, rare vodkas and $100 bottles of wine.
The up-to-the-second style suits the personalities behind it. Admitted lovers of the nightlife in Dallas and Miami, the Hardins had long wished for a place in Little Rock that was like one of the chic clubs they loved in other cities. After Hardin made the decision to leave At Home, the idea grew more solid than it ever had during her hectic years of running the magazine, and they decided to go though with it.
Though Hardin’s close friend Jane Arnold said she has absolute faith in Hardin’s ability to succeed at anything she tries her hand at, that wasn’t enough to still the flutter of trepidation when her friend told her she was going to start a restaurant. “I was like, ‘This is big. This is really big,’ ” Arnold said. “And yeah, as a friend, I was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ But I also know that she wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t right. She wouldn’t open the doors if it wasn’t ready.”
She was ready, and pushed forward with typical speed. They already had the name, something Hardin came up with while driving home from visiting relatives last Thanksgiving
“[Keith] was throwing names out,” she said, “and I thought, gosh, you know what would be neat? Because it’s new, just call it Nu, N-U. We wanted to get away from the idea of a restaurant, so we called it ‘Nu Cuisine Lounge.’ ”
With the perfect name already picked out and time on her hands after leaving At Home in Arkansas, the project soon got into high gear. The Hardins shanghaied friends Paul Novicky, who’d piloted Spaule through a number of successful years in the Heights before selling the restaurant, and designer Garry Mertins for a tour of bars and restaurants in Dallas, visiting over 30 in less than 24 hours. (“We had a designated driver,” she laughs.) In looking for what worked and what didn’t in order to reach a final design, their goal was simple: Give Little Rock the kind of place the “believers” like Hardin thought it deserved.
“We wanted to kind of raise the bar in Little Rock,” said Keith Hardin. “We wanted a restaurant-lounge combination with a metropolitan feel to it that would be able to stand on its own against any place in the country.”
After looking at space in all areas of Little Rock, in May of last year they settled on the space at the corner of Markham and Cumberland, an intersection that Rebekah Hardin said she sees as the “gateway” to the energetic part of the city. The location has a kind of serendipity to it as well. The building has housed several restaurants over the years, including the Cafe Saint Moritz. It’s one of those cosmic coincidences that Cafe Saint Moritz was the first place Keith ever took Rebekah to eat in Little Rock.
If she had any sentimental attachment, she didn’t let that hold them back. Seeking to remove every trace of the old restaurants that had once occupied the space, the entire bottom floor of the Stone Ward Building was gutted and then rebuilt (with the entrance to the advertising firm upstairs tunneling cleverly between the lounge and the restaurant). It was a process that took months, and which was completed only bare hours before the Nu’s grand opening in early November.
The results are stunning and beautiful by anyone’s measure. For those who want to see how it’s done, however, there is a private, reservations only chef’s table where Novicky will prepare multi-course meals before them.
“With Paul being such an amazing chef,” said designer Garry Mertins, “he wanted to create an area that would allow him to do off-the-menu, spontaneous, major ‘event’ meals. I think it’s going to allow people to experience something they haven’t had here [in Little Rock] in a restaurant.”
Between the lounge and the dining room, a climate-controlled wine room holds floor-to-ceiling bottles of wine and champagne — with prices ranging from night on-the-town reasonable, to-once-in a-lifetime outrageous. For those who can get on the list to reserve it, Nu’s exclusive Blue Room is where a good bit of that expensive vino ends up. Tucked away in the rear of the restaurant, with special seating, a dedicated wait staff, and its own sound system, it’s the private heart of the restaurant. (The night before the Clinton library opened, actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson held their private VIP party there, much to the delight of the throngs of people who lined the windows, trying to get a glimpse of the stars.)
In the kitchen, co-owner and executive chef Paul Novicky has made a commitment that Nu will be a kind of teaching restaurant, with apprentices signing on for two or three years to learn every aspect of the business. He said the “global” menu he came up with for Nu, which often fuses culinary elements and spices from around the world, owes a lot to the idea of teaching his apprentices to work with as many different kinds of cuisine as they possibly can. “If you corner yourself with Italian, French, Mediterranean, it’s real easy to get burned out. Our menu will consist of a wide variety. We’ll have Polynesian, Asian, Pacific Rim, French, we’ll span the gamut.” As the staff becomes more proficient, Novicky promises that the menu will change often, with the apprentices being called on for new and innovative menu items.
“What we want to do is to kind of bring back the experience of dinner,” Novicky said, adding that it’s a goal that doesn’t have to be a bank-breaking experience. “Our average check will be consistent with places like Red Lobster,” he said. “But we want to give people the ability to experience more, experiment more, and give them the finer things to make it an experience.”
After such an ambitious and extensive tear-out and reconstruction, Nu undoubtedly has a lot of climbing to do to before it sees its first dollar of profit. When I asked her what it all cost, Hardin quickly spun the conversation away from the topic of money, though I eventually got her and Mertins to hem and haw around a number in the mid-to-high six figures. The swarm of activity — expensive, skilled-labor intensity — that has enveloped the space since high summer might make one shudder at the final tally. But given how it all turned out — ritzy and dripping with class, a fact undeniable to even those cynical few who have lately been overheard calling its ripped-from-Vogue style and “pretty food” cuisine a bit over the top for our deep-fried city — one easily gets the idea that Rebekah Hardin’s checkbook could probably use a long sojourn on a windowsill to cool off.
With all those dollars and cents flying, the question has to be asked: Given the fickleness of Little Rock diners and how big a leap Hardin and Company have made in terms of both style and taste, will Nu stay the new thing?
Only time will tell. But if she’s worried, Hardin isn’t letting even the most observant among us see her sweat. (She’s already on to her next dream: she wants to buy a house in the desert Southwest, and is well along in writing a funny and inspirational book for new mothers.) As in her magazine days, she says that it helps to actually be a part of the day-to-day operation of the restaurant and lounge. Walk by anytime the place is open, and you’re likely to see her inside, chatting up diners or bustling around amongst the tables with her characteristic speed. And speaking to her, you can’t help but end up in her corner. As always, she talks like a woman with a crystal ball on her dresser, a song in her heart, and a rabbit’s foot on her keychain, and you soon get the idea that it will all work out for the best. Why? Because she says so.
“It’s like a party,” she said. “The worst nightmare is, nobody shows up … But we understand the market and we understand the risk and we’re willing to do that. I guess that’s just the cowboy in me — the part of me that knows that if you create something that people really will enjoy, it usually works.”