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Yellow Rocket's secret weapon 

Amber Brewer explains how a restaurant comes together.

GETTING CREATIVE: Amber Brewer is the mind behind Yellow Rocket's successful blend of decor with food image
  • Nancy Nolan
  • GETTING CREATIVE: Amber Brewer is the mind behind Yellow Rocket's successful blend of decor with food.

Yellow Rocket Concepts, the Little Rock restaurant partnership, is Central Arkansas's culinary juggernaut. The group, led by principal partners John Beachboard, Scott McGehee and Russ McDonough, owns Little Rock's most popular restaurants according to Arkansas Times readers. Yellow Rocket's Big Orange was voted Best Overall restaurant and it, Local Lime and ZAZA won more than half a dozen other awards. Look for their new brewery and pub, Lost Forty, and forthcoming "Ark-Mex" restaurant, Heights Taco & Tamale Co., to figure in next year's results. These guys can do no wrong.

McGehee, Times' readers pick for best chef, and Beachboard tend to get most of the attention for their food and now beer. And justifiably. But the unsung hero in the group's success is Amber Brewer, Yellow Rocket's creative director. Her hand is on every part of the group's restaurants, from concept, to construction, to interior design, to presentation, to promotion. She and Beachboard are married, though no one who knows her work would ever suggest that she is in her position because of nepotism.

Below, as told to the Times, Brewer offers a window into her process.

How to design a restaurant

To be a good designer, you have to be part hoarder. You cannot be a designer and not have little stuff everywhere. Do I need another vintage safari hat? No, but I'm going to get it because, "Look at it. I could use this one day."

At Local Lime, I had the white steer head that sits above the bar about a year before Local Lime was a concept. I was at an antique store, and I saw it and I had to have it. There was something about the expression on that cow's face. John was so mad at me! A $800 crate had to be built to ship it to the house because it was so unwieldy. I just knew I was going to use it one day.

It's all about just collecting things that are true to your aesthetic. The food and concept inspire my restaurant design, but a lot of it is my taste. I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama — pecans, beef cattle, soybeans, cotton, corn and peaches — and I drove tractors. So I have this love for industrial elements and rustic elements just because that's what I grew up around, and I went to design school, so I have a real love for modern design and clean design. I can't get away from myself: I'll try to modern it up, and then I'll buy a big pile of wood.

I love food. I take a lot of pictures of food. But that doesn't qualify me to be a chef. I don't have a lot of understanding of food's history like my partners. The first thing I do when we're starting a new restaurant is hit the books. That was really important for Heights Taco & Tamale Co.: It's a historic space for Arkansas and for the neighborhood [in the former home of Browning's], and I wanted to understand a little bit more about it and its lineage.

So I read Rick Bayless' book "Mexican Kitchen." I talked to people about what they liked when they went out to eat Tex-Mex and what they didn't like. And something the Yellow Rocket team always does is go out to eat together, here and out of town.

The second part is understanding what the chefs want to do and delving into every aspect of that for an inspiration point and to understand it aesthetically. With Big Orange it was the modern interpretation of a classic American favorite, and that's what I tried to do with the interior. With ZAZA, it's a simple interpretation of a very rustic process in a very modern serving style, which is what I did with the interior.

I start to try to imagine the food on the plate, on the table and what it looks like, and try to flesh it from there. I don't think I'd ever say, "We need light fixtures," and go online and look for light fixtures. You have to know what you're doing conceptually first, so that slows me down a lot. Until I nail it and really make a decision, I won't move. That may be what eventually gets me fired. Because we're three weeks behind because I can't match a light fixture to a taco.

This concept, food and aesthetic, is based on something we are calling Ark-Mex. As Texas stands for Texas-styled Mexican food, we are hoping to present Arkansas-style Mexican food. Mexican food in Arkansas is a result of Mexican and Tex-Mex food traveling north and east, including through the Delta. We're taking inspiration from every stopping point along the way. We have dishes that are very Mexican in nature. Then we have some dishes that are very Tex-Mex. Then we have some dishes that are very Delta in nature. We are creating these Tex-Mex favorites and Delta-Mex favorites using things that are available in Arkansas and our own food culture and lore to create Ark-Mex. And the design follows suit. Everything takes an inspiration point from that journey.

Usually before we sign a lease, we'll start to doing exploratory stuff with an architect. Typically, and this makes us a little different, we search out spaces that are awesome and then feel out what could go there. The first step is finding a space we like. Then determining what would go there best. Then coming up with the loose ideas. Then I create mood boards. The chefs think about food and menu. Then I talk to architects and explore possibilities and cost. Then we take that full package to the building owners and tell them, "This is what we want to do. This is how much it's going to cost. What can you offer us?" Then the day we sign the lease, that's when I go back to architects to firm up that foundation. They release the drawings, then we choose a contractor and move forward.

It's sort of like "Mission: Impossible"-style. You've got to bring the budget in from over here and bring the architects in from over there and draw down what you've got in your mind. I usually have a running list of numbers we have for budget. Before we pick light fixtures, before we pick logos, we have to get the cake made: Where are the walls? Can we afford to put the bar here, because we're going to have to run the plumbing 20 feet?

After we've started setting that foundation, that's when I start the icing on the cake. That includes working with local craftsmen, deciding whether we're going to do custom tables or custom seating or we're going to order stuff. I work with the chefs hand in hand the whole way through. Sometimes what happens is they'll start seeing the interior and get an idea for a dish.

It's been kind of happenstance finding craftspeople. There are very few people who've done something for me in each concept. Situations changes. A lot of the people I work with, they do one thing. I work with this one guy who's an awesome welder, but he's got a weird sense of style, so I can only call on him to do things when I can draw out and lay out every single piece. I've got a painter who I love who I can only call on for certain things because he only does small stuff.

When we started ZAZA in 2008, there was no Instagram. Twitter wasn't even a deal and Facebook was in its infancy. That was zero percent of my job. It really kicked up about the time we opened Local Lime. That's when everything was taking off and we had to get in the game. That fell to me. I wanted to do it, being the person who styles the spaces, I knew how to style the images and create the copy and the words to showcase the brand the best.

In the last concepts, I've tried to set the stores up for success visually as interpreted by photographs. Because that is a huge part of getting the message out. So with Big Orange Midtown and the brewery and Heights Taco & Tamale, I've tried to set up spaces with the right kind of lighting for photos. So if we've got a person who's amazing at taking photos in Instagram, I can show her where the best lighting is and she's set up for the best success. And it saves us time. I have these different settings. At the brewery there are pockets of exposed wood that I purposely didn't put anything on because that's where we stand to hold our specials. We have certain spots marked off on the floor where we shoot specials straight down. Then there are certain areas where they know they're not supposed to take photographs because the light's bad or because it's where people pass by the most. That comes from being an art director for almost 15 years now. That's what I've done the most is art directing photo shoots for ad campaigns or fashion. I've learned from the very best photographers like Jason Masters and Rett Peek and Arshia Khan. I try to set it up like, what would Jason do.

It feels like sometimes I don't so much design the restaurants as curate them, pulling all these little pieces together. It takes a village.

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