Judging by the crowds that regularly congregate outside Big Orange, Local Lime and ZAZA and the number of awards they won in our Readers Choice survey (six first places between them), John Beachboard owns three of the most popular restaurants in Central Arkansas.
Beachboard, 33, oversees the operations for his restaurant group, which means doing everything from repairing an oven at ZAZA to offering hands-on training to all kitchen employees (currently there are around 125 of them). It's a job to which he's especially well suited: His rise, from having no professional cooking experience to becoming one of Central Arkansas's top restaurateurs, came solely under the guidance of his business partner Scott McGehee, the godfather of the local approachable gourmet movement.
After spending the first several years of his post-collegiate life working in the music business in New York, Beachboard returned home to Little Rock, took a job in the kitchen at Boulevard Bread Co. and rose to sous chef under McGehee. Before long, the two were partnering on the Napoli-style pizza and salad restaurant, ZAZA, in the Heights. Ben Brainard, chef and co-owner of gourmet Mexican restaurant Local Lime, followed a similar path. Adam Sweet, co-owner of the ZAZA in Conway, started working at Boulevard as a dishwasher.
"I like being able to bring new people into the fold. I like watching the 18, 19-year-old kid do the same thing I did, which is learn a little bit and turn it into something else," Beachboard said.
He'll have a new class of kitchen/prep employees to train — and possibly groom for more responsibility — when he and his partners open a second Big Orange in the Midtowne Little Rock shopping complex on the corner of Markham and University in June or July.
From the outside, Beachboard, McGehee and co. appear to be opening restaurants at a fevered pace — ZAZA in 2008, ZAZA Conway in 2010, Big Orange in 2011, Local Lime late last year — but Beachboard said the goal is to "grow meaningfully and responsibly."
"We're not just passionate about burgers, pizza and tacos. We're doing what we feel is going to make the market excited. Sometimes it feels trendy. But it's really just a question of reading the market and giving the people what they want."
Beachboard's restaurants have also thrived because they give people things they might not have known they wanted. Little Rock didn't know it craved the likes of a pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula or Kennebec potato French fries before ZAZA and Big Orange came along, but now that we do, there's no going back.
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