The coronavirus pandemic has tested the creativity and resourcefulness of restaurateurs and small-business owners unlike any other crisis in my memory. As I’ve noted before, when your reason for being is to bring people together, a contagious illness fought through isolation poses unique challenges to your business model.
Time and again, however, Arkansas restaurant owners have proved themselves up to the challenge. One example of restaurateurs coming together and rising to the occasion is the SoMa Outdoor Dining Room at the parking lot at the southeast corner of 13th and Main streets in downtown Little Rock.
Eight neighborhood restaurants banded together in June to provide service at the dining room: the Root, Mockingbird Bar & Tacos, Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, Esters, South on Main, Community Bakery, Loblolly Creamery and Rock Town Distillery. Since then, Rock N Roll Sushi, which opened earlier this month at 1224 Main St., the former site of the Atlas Bar, has also joined the endeavor. (Rock N Roll Sushi, a franchise operation based in Alabama, opened its first Little Rock location at 12800 Chenal Parkway in May.)
Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, helped persuade the Little Rock Board of Directors to approve in July a temporary entertainment district in SoMa. The district, bounded by 12th Street on the north and 17th Street to the south, runs along Main.
Although the district is scheduled to expire Tuesday, the board is scheduled to vote that same day on permitting the district to run until Oct. 31.
“We were hearing from customers that there was a big interest in outdoor dining because of the pandemic,” Jack Sundell, owner of the Root and Mockingbird Bar & Tacos, said of the evolution of the dining room idea. But many of the businesses in the neighborhood don’t have the space for it.
The parking lot at 13th and Main, however, stood largely empty because of the dearth of traffic during the pandemic. Sundell met with Holmstrom and they began brainstorming.
The Downtown Partnership provided tables, tents, chairs and barricades to establish the dining room and worked with the area’s businesses to provide entertainment district-appropriate cups and wristbands.
The parking lot’s owner, Rusty Thompson, is a neighborhood property owner and has donated use of the lot.
The SoMa Outdoor Dining Room opened when the state was still in Phase 1 of restaurant reopening, meaning eateries could host only 33% of their usual capacity. Arkansas has since moved to Phase 2, and 66% of capacity, but the dining room only continues to grow in popularity, Sundell said.
Obtaining the temporary entertainment designation allowed the businesses to serve mixed drinks, and alcohol is a big portion of many restaurants’ revenue. Before the pandemic, for example, about a third of his sales at Mockingbird came from bar sales, Sundell said. Those disappeared with the pandemic, but since the opening of the outdoor dining room and the establishment of the entertainment district, “we are seeing about a 50% sales increase,” he said.
“We’re really hopeful that that can help us and other restaurants just sort of suffer through,” Sundell said. “We’re just all trying to hang on long enough for things to get back to whatever normal eventually looks like.”
The customer response has been so positive that the SoMa Outdoor Dining Room has added programming, with open mic night on Thursdays, live music on Friday night, trivia games on Saturday night and chess on Tuesday night.
Sundell and Holmstrom said patrons have largely adhered to the pandemic guidelines with little fuss.
“What we’ve done here is proved that this can be done in a safe and responsible way and that there is a demand for it,” Holmstrom said. “As long as we can continue doing this, I think there’s a possibility to extend this and make it even permanent.”