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Restaurateur Capi Peck Mixes Warmth with StrengthLock Icon

8 min read

The outlines of Capi Peck’s story are well-known.

Member of a family prominent in the hospitality business. Founder of Trio’s, a popular, long-lived restaurant. Industry leader, once president of the Arkansas Restaurant Association. Civic leader, a former chairman of the Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission, where she helped lead the campaign for a bond referendum to pay for the Robinson Center’s $69 million renovation.

And now political leader, having won a seat in 2016 on the Little Rock Board of Directors, serving Ward 4.

What’s less apparent is the secret to her success. Peck, perhaps without quite realizing she was doing it, has learned to reconcile the irreconcilable — what the Harvard Business Review in a November article called the “double bind” faced by women leaders: to be both warm and tough, kind and competent.

Her friend Kathy Webb explains:

“I think she cares about every plate that they send out of the kitchen,” said Webb, herself a former restaurateur and state legislator and a current city director. “She wants to nourish people’s bodies as well as their souls, and she treats every customer as if they’re a guest in her home. And she instills that in her employees.”

“And the other thing is, she’s a real sharp businessperson,” Webb said. The restaurant industry is, like most, male-dominated. To navigate that environment successfully, “I think you have to be assertive,” said Webb, a former restaurateur. “You’re never given your place at the table. You have to take your place at the table.”

Peck’s family and upbringing offered her examples of both toughness and compassion. Before coming to Little Rock in 1935, her grandparents, Sam and Henryetta Peck, operated the Washington Hotel in Fayetteville, owned by Roberta Fulbright, herself a successful businesswoman and mother of Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. Peck’s great-grandmother Eulah ran the Washington while Sam and Henryetta were in Little Rock.

“She scared me to death,” Peck, 66, said of Eulah Peck, who died when Peck was 4 or 5. “She was just one tough woman.” But she was also “a very smart businesswoman, as was my grandmother,” Henryetta.

Sam and Henryetta Peck moved to Little Rock to operate what was then the Hotel Freiderica, at 625 W. Capitol Ave. They eventually bought it, changing the name to the Hotel Sam Peck. The hotel became known for its fine dining and figured prominently in Little Rock’s community life and Arkansas history. Future Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller lived in the hotel while he was constructing his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain.

(The Peck family sold the hotel in 1972, after which it experienced a string of owners, operating for a number of years as the Legacy Hotel. In 2016, it was sold to SHG Management LLC of Sherwood, which has rebranded it to the Hotel Frederica, a slightly altered spelling of its original name.)

Capi Peck’s grandparents lived at the Sam Peck and when she was a child, her father, Robert, was the manager on duty at the hotel every other night. “I spent as much time there as I did at home,” home being a residence in the Heights. “Every other night, from my earliest memories through high school, I was there” at the hotel. “I would do my homework, get to order from the menu, wreak havoc in the kitchen.”

After her grandfather Sam died in 1967, Capi spent a lot of time with her grandmother, Henryetta. And, Peck said, she did all kinds of jobs at the hotel, including garnishing diners’ plates with the then-obligatory sprig of parsley. At 14, she worked her first summer at the hotel, as the switchboard operator, “which I loved.” It was Peck’s summer job for a number of years.

At the hotel, she learned to be an observer, and she learned “people skills, more than anything,” Peck said. “How to make people feel welcome. Hospitality, genuine hospitality. Also just getting along with all sorts of people.”

At that time, the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the hotel staff was African-American, and Peck’s grandparents and parents raised her to be inclusive. Before the Civil Rights Act, the Sam Peck was known as the only white hotel that hosted meetings of black civic and social groups.

“So the primary thing I learned was just how to treat people and the true nature of being hospitable and welcoming and accepting,” Peck said.

And, she said, there was one other thing she learned from her grandparents, the main thing: “to treat those who work, not for me, but with me, as a member of the family and don’t ask them to do something that I’m not willing to do. I attribute a big part of my success because of that life lesson. And that’s why people stay here,” Peck said, referring to longtime Trio’s employees.

Trio’s Founding
Despite the hospitality background, Peck didn’t start out to be a restaurateur. She’d earned an art history degree in college, had various jobs, but wasn’t really happy in most of them.

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“But the thing that always made me happy was cooking — cooking for friends, nurturing people, inviting people to my home and getting to feed my creativity by creating these wonderful meals. But I never thought about going into business.”

After Peck catered a party for her sister, she received rave reviews and the suggestion from a family friend that she enter the restaurant business. Peck didn’t want to ask her family for money. The family friend said, “I’ll back you.”

And she did. Peck opened Trio’s in 1986 at 8201 Cantrell Road with partners including the family friend and Peck’s then-husband, Brent Peterson, “not knowing what in the world I was doing or getting into.

(Although they are no longer married, Peterson and Peck remained business partners. And after 12 years apart, they are again life partners, once more living together.)

“And it was a struggle for several years. It really was,” Peck said of Trio’s beginning. “Just trying to figure things out.”

“It really took five or six years for us to kind of get it,” she said. “At the end of year seven, we bought out our partners and Brent and I became the sole owners.”

They had to learn everything about the restaurant business: food costs, recipe development. In the beginning Trio’s had a retail component, selling jams, jellies, knives and cookware. They got rid of that fast. “That’s not what the draw was,” Peck said. “People wanted the food.”

At first, Trio’s had only counter service and offered delicatessen items. That aspect didn’t last long either.

“I think one thing that has helped me be successful is really listening and observing what people want,” she said. “They didn’t want that. They wanted casual, not fast, food. They liked the idea that the menu would change a lot. They liked the variety. They liked the whole farm-to-table thing before that was the cool thing. They were willing to pay for that. And then it morphed into catering, and then we added a private dining room.

“Thirty-two-and-a-half years later, we are finally seeing numbers that are approaching the pre-recession numbers. That took a while. But we had a really strong year last year.

“And I, frankly, didn’t think we’d ever see those numbers again, because there’s so much more competition now than there was before the recession.”

Those numbers? “Between $2.2 million and $2.5 million annually,” Peck said, “which I’m proud of.

“I sometimes get discouraged when I look at the big-box restaurants, but you know, that’s a lot of Peck salads,” the customer favorite whose recipe originated at the Hotel Sam Peck.

Trio’s now has 50 employees, 25 of those full time. Catering accounts for about 18 percent of the business, Peck said.

There have been a couple of business stumbles, as well. The first was the short-lived Markham 225 downtown, opened by a couple of Trio’s employees who had bought the restaurant’s recipes. “It was a huge disaster,” Peck said. “We empowered the wrong people.”

In 2008, Peck and Peterson opened Capi’s, a tapas restaurant, in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center. The timing, at the beginning of the Great Recession, was bad, and Capi’s closed in 2011.

Peck learned a lesson from Capi’s: “I’m a one-restaurant kind of woman.”

Leading in a Man’s World
Asked whether she’d been treated differently during her career because of her gender, Peck said, “I still feel like this industry is still a man’s world. I don’t think we’ve made much progress locally.” There aren’t, for example, many restaurants in the area owned and operated by women.

The executive chef at Trio’s is a woman, Shanna Merriweather, whom Peck hired out of high school and has mentored. Peck and Peterson brought on as a business partner Stephanie Caruthers, who started at the restaurant in 1987 as a baker and now runs the catering operation.

As for Peck herself, “I feel like I’ve definitely paid my dues.”

Gene Fortson is a Little Rock city director who also served with Peck on the Advertising & Promotion Commission. Asked about what makes her a leader, Fortson said, “Capi has boundless energy. When she gets engaged she has the ability to generate a lot of activity from other people as well.”

In addition, he said, Peck has a variety of friends from all kinds of “spheres of influence, some from her restaurant business, some lifelong friends, some from her public activities, and she’s able to call on all those when she puts her mind to a project, whether it was Robinson or getting elected to the board.”

“She loves her city,” Webb said of Peck. “I don’t know many people who are more passionate about Little Rock than Capi Peck.”

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