Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Your Mama's Good Food, one of Little Rock's most beloved meat and threes, has been serving up some of our favorite home cooking for two decades. I met recently with owner Fleming Stockton, who runs and co-owns the business with his wife Barbara, to talk about his early days of veganism (!), flipping burgers, serving political celebrities during the Clinton campaign days and much more.
Tell me a little about your background. Did you grow up eating good food?
I'm actually writing a book called "So You Think You Can Own a Restaurant," and my first chapter is about how the fry oil and hamburgers got in my blood. I was about 16 years old and worked in a Dairy Queen, making burgers, shakes and malts, and it kind of got in my blood. Then about nine years later I was up in Fayetteville and started with this pizza company called Kids Pizza Parlor, on Dickson Street, the biggest place in town, so I got the pizza in my blood. Then I moved back down to Little Rock and worked for Pizza Hut and I started the first delivery system in Little Rock — this was like 1972 — and then I became the manager of Shakey's Pizza Parlor, which is where Dixie Cafe is now. So basically I've kind of stayed in the restaurant business.
Were you always cooking at these places?
No, no. I've done everything. Most of the pizza places I managed, but I've done door hosting, bartending, dessert shift — I've done it all. In the mid-'70s in Fayetteville I was a strict vegetarian. I was into Eastern religion and meditation.
You were such a hippie!
I am a hippie! I had to learn how to cook because nobody else cooked vegan food at that time.
What were you cooking then?
Spanish rice, vegetables, peas, beans, rice, tofu. The first thing I did when I [quit being vegan] was buy the juiciest steak I could get my hands on.
In 1989, I had been waiting tables, made a really good living at it and worked for The Terrace, back when the Terrace was one of the places. And I just got tired of working for other people so I said, 'Hey, I want to open my own restaurant,' and I hooked up with this guy I had met waiting tables at The Terrace. His name was Chuck Pointer, who also like me, had been in the restaurant business most all of his life. He was an outstanding cook and invited me over one night and served me his meatloaf, and I hated meatloaf, but it was the best meatloaf I had ever put in my mouth, and that's how it all got started. I would say that 60 percent of our recipes are his and 40 percent I either got from somebody else or developed on my own. But I never started out to be the cook. I always wanted to be the entrepreneur. I wanted to own this restaurant and count all the chips. But it didn't work out that way.How did y'all get started?
We opened July 1st of 1990 and our original concept was pick up and delivery home cooking. We put in a restaurant about a third of the size we have now. So the restaurant was kind of like an extra. We got so we much good press from the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette that it turned into a restaurant and we didn't get that much delivery or pickup business.
Then, in September — we'd only been in business for two months — Operation Desert Storm started. There was one of these diversified post offices next door to us and there were so many people sending packages to soldiers that our parking lot was packed and people couldn't get in there to park. Our business went down and on top of that, a Black Eyed Pea was built right in front of us. So by December of that year I was facing bankruptcy. I talked to my dad and my brother and they both put in $20,000 between them and I opened this place down here, where I had built in traffic. See back in 1991, everybody was downtown. You could look out the window and there'd be all kinds of people walking down the sidewalks, there were crowds of people down here and its not like that anymore. There were four home cookin' places at that time, and we're the only one that’s left.
Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to serve at your restaurant?
Yeah, I read an article — it was a bad mistake — in the Arkansas Gazette, where they said comfort food, or "soul" food, was going to be the next cuisine of the '90s. And I said, 'Well, maybe that's not a bad idea. Maybe I'll do that.' But what I didn't understand was that your food costs for this kind of operation are much higher than say for pizza or hamburgers. Food costs for hamburgers and pizza are only like 15 or 20 percent and we were like 35 percent.