It’s a sleepy Saturday afternoon in the quiet town of Johnson. The sky is gray, the roads are empty and everything seems to be at a complete standstill. But not at James at the Mill, where Nirvana’s “Nevermind” pulsates through an empty restaurant as the hostess begins taking telephone dinner reservations.
“Is that for tonight?” she asks with Kurt Cobain’s voice in the background. After a long pause and a guitar riff, she says, “Okay.”
It’s a strange scene — after all, grunge music isn’t supposed to bounce off walls decorated with tapestries and gilded mirrors. But the clash of sight and sound at James at the Mill was strangely perfect, especially for a restaurant that has already made its mark by bringing together two things once not exactly synonymous — fine dining and Northwest Arkansas.
Credit a then-26-year-old entrepreneur for that. Ten years ago, Miles James brought a cosmopolitan concept to a rural setting and established James at the Mill in Johnson. At the time, upscale restaurants were virtually non-existent in Northwest Arkansas. Now they are everywhere. From Sassafras and Chloe’s in Fayetteville to the River Grille in Bentonville, it’s easier than ever to drop big money on high-quality food.
“We were the only fine dining restaurant besides Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock in the state of Arkansas in 1994,” says James, a native of Fayetteville and a graduate of New England Culinary School. “So, the landscape of the fine-dining scene in Northwest Arkansas and Arkansas as a whole has completely changed since then. I felt like we really had no competition in 1994 and now there’s a number of people.” (Actually, a few other restaurateurs might beg to differ with James’ 1994 assessment, particularly several who spun off the pioneering Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne in Little Rock and Peter Brave, already in business in Little Rock.)
With the growth of the economy in Northwest Arkansas, the fine-dining industry has followed suit. As Wal-Mart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt, among others, have expanded, the population and business visitors have exploded. Between 1990 and 2000, the Fayetteville-Springdale-Bentonville metropolitan area not only grew 45 percent, but also became more diversified. Fifty-four percent of the people in the region are not Arkansas natives. James, for one, believes that has encouraged better restaurants.
“The customers are more educated,” he said. “They’ve been around. They’ve been to Chicago. They’ve been to New York City. They’ve been to Los Angeles. People are more cultured right now in Northwest Arkansas, so the fine dining scene is very strong.”
Kathy Nelson tried to capitalize on that when she opened the Plaza two years ago. Located in an upscale shopping center in Rogers that has modern terra cotta roofing and arcades, her restaurant has achieved a certain cachet despite the fact that it is difficult to find.
In the restaurant’s octagonal waiting room, Yoshi Yamamoto, the Plaza’s general manager, takes a break. Originally from Japan, he moved to the area from St. Louis. Now he is trying to move diners past the local tastes of an area that had been known more for its down-home cooking than its creme anglaise.
“It’s Arkansas — you think biscuits and gravy,” he said. “But we want to be different now. We have French food and have American cuisine with Asian tendencies. We have paella. We also are putting out a new menu that is more international. We are not heavy on any one culture or country.”
Eclectic dishes (beef Wellington, macaroni and cheese and a croque monsieur are on the same menu) combined with a casual dining experience have attracted many business people.
With a rise in disposable income, Tom Ginn, who works in business development in the Rogers and Lowell areas, says that is only natural for other restaurants to want to capitalize on the success that the Plaza has achieved.
Although the Rogers/Lowell government does not levy a restaurant tax and thus cannot monitor the exact number of eateries in the two cities, Ginn said that the dining industry has grown considerably. That is reflected in the statistics kept by the Advertising and Promotion Commission of Bentonville. Between 1999 and 2004, 45 new restaurants set up shop in the city — a 59 percent increase.
“Let’s face it. Northwest Arkansas is growing at exponential rates,” Miles James says. “It’s constantly rated as one of the best places to retire or live or raise children. There are incredible job opportunities here. So, businesses around Arkansas that have had success in their restaurants are going to want a piece of the pie.”
Belle Arti, the popular Italian restaurant in Hot Springs, is one of them. It is opening a restaurant in Rogers. According to owner Joe Gargano, the chance to take advantage of a rich market like the one in Northwest Arkansas was too much to pass up.
The growing number and prosperity of local residents is a lure to operators. But expense account business may be even better. Scott Van Laningham, the executive director and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, says about a million people fly in and out of the region each year. Seventy-five percent of those passengers are on business.
As a result, many restaurants cater to the vendors at Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods — in particular chains hoping to capitalize on the familiarity of their name and offerings. Copeland’s is one of them. As one of the few chain restaurants that has made the crossover to fine dining, Copeland’s has carved out a big niche in Rogers, though positioned in the middle of a big development that also includes Chili’s, Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que and O’Charley’s. The building that houses Copeland’s could easily do the same for a Bennigan’s or On the Border. But Joe Lisuzzo doesn’t care. All he knows is that it is home to a cash cow. Lisuzzo opened Copeland’s in 2002 and one year later it generated the highest revenue of any restaurant in the state when it raked in $5.3 million. As a manager of the photo division at Wal-Mart, Lisuzzo doubles as an entrepreneur and says he has had success because he understands the needs of his two main customers — the business traveler and the local resident.
Lisuzzo says he considered starting a restaurant on his own, but found security in buying into a proven brand.
“We never thought of it as we were going to be the destination of the business travelers,” Lisuzzo says. “But Monday through Thursday, we usually see quite a bit of the supplier groups and the business travelers from the businesses in the area like Wal-Mart and Tyson and George’s.”
Miles James is not as surprised to see the good suits coming into his restaurant. He said a party from Tyson has dinner or lunch there nearly every other day.
“Ten years ago, we were seeing vendors from Wal-Mart but not at a rate that we’re seeing them today,” he says. “It’s business travelers almost every day of the week. Some come on Saturday to take in Northwest Arkansas and spend the weekend here and then do their business here on Monday. Also, with the direct flights, some people come for the day and do their business and go home.”
James, whose blond hair creeps out from under his black baseball cap with MOMA, the acronym for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, stitched in white on the front, says the future of the fine dining industry in Northwest Arkansas is bright. In fact, he is so confident of what lies ahead that he has invested in its future. James is one of the supporters for the University of Arkansas’s newly developed Hotel and Restaurant Management School based in Carnall Hall. In the old dormitory that has been converted to an inn is Ella’s, a restaurant that is the younger sibling of James at the Mill. Students are trained there to learn how to handle the fine dining industry.
“We feel that it’s just going to continue to evolve, even more rapidly than what’s happened in the last 10 years,” he says. “That’s my opinion.”
James should know. He can claim some of the responsibility for it.