A city grows in Bentonville

Rome wasn't built in a day. But Bentonville? It's growing like a sunflower in summer

 

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Chef Luke Wetzel (that’s him, above) cut his teeth at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, where he learned how to make the most of local produce.

Luke Wetzel and I are making the rounds of the Bentonville Farmers’ Market on a shockingly cool Saturday morning in late June, and as we weave our way through the maze of tented stalls, my heretofore laid-back shopping companion becomes prone to sudden outbursts.

I’ve been waiting on eggplant! Beautiful!

It’s really exciting to see black-eyed peas in their hulls!

Man, this is a really exciting farmers’ market! I just saw peaches back there!

Corn!

“Corn is very exciting,” Luke tells me, holding up an ear tightly wrapped in its husk for my inspection. “You have to wait until the peak of summer to get the best corn, and Arkansas corn is delicious—once it hits the point where it’s ready to pick, it’s perfectly sweet and succulent.”

Luke is tall with broad shoulders and an open, good-natured face, and as he leads the way, rushing from booth to booth, I scurry behind to keep up. When he’s not pointing out specific attributes of the produce on display—the whimsical stripes of a green zebra tomato, the elegant length of long beans, the delicate yellow flowers on the broccolini—he’s chatting up the farmers, many of whom know him by name. About two hours into our spree, weighed down by a mountain of black kale, five bundles of turnips, a bushel of corn and half-a-dozen cabbages, we hit the mother lode: purple hull peas. So. Many. Peas. After a bit of negotiation with the farmer, we walk away with the entire lot, crate and all.

165There’s a reason for Luke’s kid-in-a-candy-store excitement this morning. Ever since he opened the doors to Oven & Tap, his farm-to-table eatery on South Main Street just off the downtown square, in May, he’s been waiting to snatch up the best locally grown produce at its peak—waiting until just the right moment to make the most of what the region has to offer.

Originally from Little Rock, he left Arkansas for California back in 2006 at the age of 25 to pursue his culinary education at what was then the California Culinary Academy. It was during a five-year stint working in the kitchen of the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley—the mecca of farm-to-table cuisine—that he set down the goal of opening his own restaurant by the time he was 33. Back then, he didn’t think he’d be able to pursue that dream in Arkansas. Sleepy downtown Bentonville? Didn’t even cross his mind.

Fast forward to 2012. After leaving California to help launch Metropole at the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati, he was recruited to be the executive sous chef for The Hive, the in-house restaurant of the hotel chain’s Bentonville iteration. Upon arriving, he was delighted to find that a local food movement had taken root in Northwest Arkansas, and he was eager to immerse himself in it.

To that end, in the spring of 2013—still intent on opening his own restaurant, and working full time in The Hive’s kitchen—he opened a fresh-pasta stand at the very farmers’ market where we’re shopping today. His homemade pasta was the perfect calling card. Not only did it pay homage to Italian cuisine, one of the culinary inspirations that underpin his cooking, it showcased his cooking philosophy to a tee: that simple, locally sourced ingredients—War Eagle Mill flour from Rogers combined with eggs and milk from local farms—could be made to sing.

It was while manning his stand at the farmers’ market that the narrative, the story he wanted to tell at this restaurant, began to take shape. Surrounded by the market’s spectrum-spanning produce, he imagined a from-scratch eatery where Arkansas ingredients could be highlighted simply and deliciously on the plate. And last fall, he felt like the time was right—the landscape was ripe enough, so to speak—to do what he’d been wanting to do. In fact, he feared if he waited much longer, he’d be left behind. New restaurants were cropping up at a quickening pace in the area, and there were only so many “perfect” locations up for grabs. So in May of this year at the age of 33, with the help of two partners—Mollie Mullis, a sous chef he had hired at The Hive, and Cash East, a life-long friend from Little Rock—he opened the doors to Oven & Tap, choosing the name for its back-to-the-basics simplicity.

It’s an endeavor not without its risks. Research shows that about one in four restaurants close or change ownership within the first year of opening. Three years in, that number jumps to three in five. But not so in downtown Bentonville: Of the 16 restaurants that have opened their doors since 2008, when the idea of cultivating a restaurant scene first began to gain traction, just two have closed their doors. And it’s not just restaurateurs finding success in downtown Bentonville. Retail and real estate are also blossoming—to say nothing of the tech, design and marketing firms that have made their way downtown, attracted by its increasingly cosmopolitan vibe.

So how exactly did a sleepy, all-but-forsaken downtown become the place to be and to do business? For that, one need only look to where it’s been.

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Cranes. Cranes, heavy machinery and swarms of hard-hatted construction workers—that’s what I see as I round the corner of the square after leaving Luke at Oven & Tap. In fact, just about any direction you look in downtown Bentonville nowadays you can see the tinkering tools of development. There’s the nearly completed Midtown Center, 83,500 square feet of soon-to-be-filled mixed-use space, anchored by a Walmart Neighborhood Market. Across the street, construction is underway as a 111-year-old church becomes a much-anticipated new restaurant, now tentatively called “The Belfry.” The surrounding residential neighborhoods are also a hive of new construction. New houses are going up and old houses are getting face-lifts or being razed to make way for sleek, urban townhomes.

The flurry of new construction coupled with the seemingly weekly reports charting the opening of new businesses—a new brewery here, a new restaurant there, food trucks everywhere—seems to signal a downtown very much on the rise. And considering where it was but a relatively short time ago, it’s fair to say Bentonville’s taken the fast track. Less than a decade ago, the only time you went to downtown Bentonville was if you had business with the city or a legal issue to hash out at the courthouse. These days, it’s a place to admire works by world-famous artists, dine at nationally acclaimed restaurants, meet up with friends for a craft cocktail or attend a star-studded film festival. And with a population that’s more than double what it was 15 years ago, there are plenty of people to take advantage of it all.

464A couple of days after my stroll, I’m chatting about all of this fast-track growth with economist Kathy Deck. (She’s who you go to if you want to make sense of—well, pretty much anything.) Blond-haired and blue-eyed, she has a warm way about her, the kind of manner that makes you believe there’s some truth to that old aphorism about there not being any such thing as a stupid question. As the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, she’s spent more than a decade conducting research and providing analysis on the growth of Northwest Arkansas. Needless to say, she knows the story of downtown Bentonville well.

“When we moved to Northwest Arkansas from Arizona [15 years ago], we were young, and there wasn’t even a question as to where we were going to live,” she begins. “Fayetteville was the place with the farmers’ market, Fayetteville was the place with the kind of funky culture.”

Back then, Bentonville was a bit of a rural backwater. Sure, it had Walmart’s headquarters, but the folks moving to Northwest Arkansas as a result of a mass migration of Walmart vendors to the area—a process that began in earnest in the late ’80s and continued into the early 2000s—weren’t choosing Bentonville first. They were choosing Fayetteville or Rogers or even Springdale because those cities were experiencing a growth in amenities that Bentonville just wasn’t. And those who were choosing Bentonville felt drawn to newly developed subdivisions, not the downtown area.

Rumblings of a shift began to take place downtown in 2004. That’s when the Bentonville Planning Commission-led Master Plan, which offered up a blueprint for what city planners, business people and citizens alike wanted the downtown’s 1,790-acre footprint to become, was released. It imagined “a downtown filled with people sitting, chatting, strolling.” On the wish list? Restaurants. Kids. Beautiful buildings. Trees. A refurbished square. Community events.

Then, in the spring of 2005, the spark set off by the Master Plan caught fire when the public got wind that a swirling rumor was actually going to materialize. Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was building her world-class art museum, and she was going to do it on 120 acres of property within walking distance of downtown Bentonville.

Deck draws the big picture for me, explaining that the museum’s presence helped transform Bentonville into a place that could compete to attract and retain talent—talent to work at Walmart, long a major economic force in the region. Such a desire, she says, was one motivating factor in the efforts of the Walton family to be active participants in the revitalization of downtown Bentonville. “They attacked the idea of place very systematically,” she says.

But what makes a downtown a place?

A thriving culinary scene, for starters. Neighborhood watering holes, pedestrian-oriented shopping, and accessible walking and riding trails also help. And the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization led by Sam Walton’s heirs, played a role in providing downtown Bentonville with some of these place-making things. For instance, the system of bike trails that feed into downtown Bentonville? Funded in part by the Foundation. The 21c Museum Hotel? Assisted by a family investment arm. The newly christened RopeSwing Group putting up the restaurant in that old church? Sam’s grandson, Tom, is one of its investors. The Midtown Center? Backed by Walton Enterprises, a Walton family holding company. Walton heirs even financed a committee that successfully pushed for an election to legalize retail alcohol sales in Benton County.

But it would be a vast oversimplification to attribute the revitalization of downtown Bentonville to Walmart’s legatees alone. “There’s never just one reason for anything,” Deck stresses. “There are always a lot of reasons why things happen.”

A few days later, I’m sitting at the Pressroom on West Central Avenue, a popular downtown hub that’s one block off the square, with Daniel Hintz, the former executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. (DBI), and he’s telling me he once dressed as a chicken to help promote downtown businesses. True story. He also transformed himself into a hotdog. And a leprechaun.

A Seattle transplant, Hintz became executive director of DBI in 2007. He left the organization in 2013 to take his show on the road with The Velocity Group, a consulting firm that specializes in the development of “great places.” Today, his firm is actively involved in downtown revitalization efforts in Rogers and Springdale, among other projects both in and out of state.

“No one sector—public or private—can carry the weight of overcoming all of the challenges involved with revitalizing a downtown,” he says, taking a sip of his iced tea. “It takes a community willing to collaborate, communicate and contribute to move the needle.”

For their parts, Hintz explains, the city’s elected officials and planners, as well as local civic organizations—namely, DBI and Visit Bentonville, the city’s tourism promoter—were integral in setting a vision for downtown and working to push it forward. “But it was up to the private market to fuel the vision,” he adds. “And those individuals that have invested their dollars have really pushed far beyond what was thought possible.”

233And nowhere has the effect of private investment been more overt than in the growth of the area’s restaurant scene, which like so much of what has come to pass in downtown Bentonville, was preceded by a strategy. Dubbed the “Culinary Development Strategy,” the game plan to turn downtown Bentonville into a culinary destination was conceived of by Hintz and his team at DBI four years after the town’s Master Plan was drafted. A big piece of that strategy? Convincing independent investors to open up restaurants downtown. It was Hintz’s efforts on this front that earned him the nickname “the godfather of the downtown culinary scene.” Just ask Rob and Sarah Nelson, the folks behind the nationally acclaimed “snout-to-tail” eatery Tusk & Trotter about who helped them secure backing from a local investment group. Or chat with Rob and Bea Apple about who talked them out of a coffee cart at the farmers’ market and into the brick-and-mortar establishment where Hintz and I (and half of downtown Bentonville, it seems) are now chatting over caffeine.

Two James Beard Award nominations, national media coverage and a handful of chef-driven restaurants were among the results of the strategy to foster a downtown culinary scene. Luke and Mollie over at Oven & Tap represent a second wave of culinary talent continuing to fuel that scene, Hintz tells me. Among this new class, he also names the likes of Mike Robertshaw, who recently relocated to Bentonville from Seattle to take the reins in the kitchen at the soon-to-relocate Pressroom; Matt Cooper, who departed Cache in Little Rock to head up the restaurant that will be housed in that restored church off the square; and Bill Lyle, the executive chef at Eleven, the museum restaurant at Crystal Bridges.

“To go from where we were in ‘07 to having a robust culinary scene where a talent like Luke now has his own place?” Hintz says. “That’s legacy building.”

Taking a pea pod from the crate between us, Luke deftly splits the seam of the hull, showing me the treasure of green-tinted, purple-eyed pearls nestled inside.

“Just the satisfaction of this is what I look for,” he says.

I grab my cellphone to snap a picture—the guy’s enthusiasm for produce has clearly rubbed off—before I too get to work shelling the peas at a table in front of Oven & Tap’s open kitchen. It’s relaxing; almost meditative. As we make our way through the crate, Luke begins riffing on recipes, imagining how he’ll bring the peas to life on the plate.

“One of my favorite things to do with peas is to blanch them really quickly in salt and water, and serve them over some freshly sliced heirloom tomatoes,” he says. “And maybe drizzle some garlicky mayo, like an aioli, on top.”

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After seeing what a fixture he was at the Bentonville Farmers’ Market earlier this afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that when he and his partners initially banded together at the end of 2014 to get Oven & Tap off the ground, they had their sights set on finding a location in Fayetteville. But after shopping around a bit on Dickson Street and weighing the pros and cons between the two cities, Bentonville won out.

What put Bentonville over the edge? The partners realized that a college town might not be the best market for what they had in mind. At the end of the day, locally sourcing ingredients drives menu prices up, Luke explains. “And I don’t think a college market could necessarily bear that.” But downtown Bentonville—a place that made a national name for itself as a culinary destination, where thousands of cultural tourists were now flocking, and which had civic organizations committed to nurturing a chef-driven culinary scene—certainly could.

When they first went to check out the South Main Street space, which at the time was a generic, cubicled vendor’s office, they learned that three other parties were in line to put a restaurant there, which immediately validated their choice of Bentonville over Fayetteville.

“It showed us that the Bentonville market really was growing and really was the right place for us just because so many people were eager to be here,” Luke says.

Now they’re all in. Not only with Oven & Tap, but also as a registered hospitality group, Township Provisions—Bentonville being the town in “Township”—with plans to expand into other food-related endeavors in the city. Although there are no definitive plans for future projects under Township Provisions, additional restaurants and the sale of prepared foodstuffs are a possibility.

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Whatever the trajectory of the hospitality group, one thing is certain: It will further manifest Luke’s cooking philosophy, one that he adopted during his time at Chez Panisse.

For Luke, the kitchen at Chez Panisse was “a magical place,” one where mixing a vinaigrette and washing and sorting lettuces was every bit as important as preparing a foie gras torchon. With Oven & Tap, Luke is striving to put those same principles into practice. He’s developed partnerships with area chicken, beef, lamb and pork farmers. Other ingredients, like ghee, flour, cheese, even tasso ham, are sourced from local producers. And the vast majority of the beverages on tap—the tap being Cash’s domain—are local, as well, from the kombucha tea and ginger beer from Moniker Ferments in Fayetteville to the coffee from Onyx Coffee Lab and the Ozark Beer Company brews.

“It’s not always possible [to buy local],” he says, “but when it is, we do it.” And where it’s not yet possible, Luke and Mollie are committed to doing what they can to make it so. For instance, right now they’re working with a farmer in Southern Arkansas on the possibility of having her provide them with a canned version of her tomato crop. It’s worth the trouble, Luke tells me, because there’s nothing like an Arkansas tomato.

While we’re working our way through the Arkansas peas, the restaurant’s bar manager drops by the table to snatch up a few for a display she’s putting together at a downtown craft cocktail event that’ll be held this June evening at a historic downtown house. It’s one of many food-centric events organized by DBI for the first-ever month-long, downtown Art Culinary Festival. Just two months open, Oven & Tap has already become a fixture at such events. The weekend before, the restaurant hosted a farm-to-table lunch in honor of Father’s Day. And Luke has scored an invite to participate in the upcoming “Friends of James Beard” benefit dinner, a ticketed event held to showcase downtown chefs.

He’s also involved in the Visit Bentonville-organized “Chef’s Alliance,” founded to give downtown chefs a forum to hash out issues that affect them all, like the challenges involved with staffing their restaurants, front and back. Luke tells me that ideally Oven & Tap would have seven cooks, and to date, he’s just hired his fourth. Right now, the restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday only for dinner service; operating at 100 percent, they’d expand to include lunch and Sunday brunch.

But line cooks and waitstaff aren’t the only things Luke and his fellow Bentonville restaurateurs are competing for. While Northwest Arkansas has reached a half million people, that’s not half a million people in downtown Bentonville on a day-to-day basis, which is a point that Deck made during our meeting.

“I mean, you don’t have to elbow your way through like you would in New York City,” she said. “As a result, businesses will fail. So the challenge is to keep the momentum going.”

The key to that, she told me, is to continue to draw foot traffic to the downtown. And how to do that? Entice people to live there. Which is why those cranes downtown have been such a welcome sign of late. At least three residential developments—the nearly complete Lamplighter project, four single-family townhomes three blocks from the square; a development of 11 single-family townhomes adjacent to the Crystal Bridges trails; and a 44,000-square foot, mixed-use development complex called “Thrive” in the area south of the square—are a promising start to the kind of residential density that will spark more foot traffic downtown. As a testament to the demand for downtown living, the Thrive building, which houses 62 units, reached full occupancy in just one month. The building will also house a soon-to-open neighborhood watering hole, the Fox Hole, as well as the brick-and-mortar expansion of Crepes Paulette, a favorite downtown food truck.

Another way city planners are trying to keep the momentum going is by fostering growth to the south of downtown. At the beginning of 2014, the city adopted a plan to grow 300 acres to the southeast of the square, including a plan to cultivate two “experience districts,” the “Market District” and the “Arts District,” both of which are already starting to gel. A brewery, a pizzeria, the Thrive building, and even the DBI offices have set up shop in the Arts District. The adjacent Market District is now home to Blu Fresh Fish Marketplace. And reports are that it is here that Northwest Arkansas Community College’s culinary arts program, which is the process of expanding to help support the growing regional culinary scene, will be relocating here.

This southward expansion is exactly why the Oven & Tap team chose their location, Luke says: “The square is already such a center of activity. We thought this was the right path in the right direction of where the downtown is growing.”

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Tart, citrusy, woodsy, dangerous.

That’s how I would describe the cocktail I’m sipping as I sit at a table near the “tap” at Oven & Tap on a Wednesday night a few days after my market outing with Luke. Called a “garden mule,” it’s a combination of vodka, grapefruit, lime, rosemary and Maineroot Ginger Brew. It tastes like summer, which I think is the point. In fact, it’s starting to sink in that everything about Oven & Tap, from the bar to the menu to the space itself is meant to act as a canvas for what’s in season.

For its part, the restaurant’s stripped-down aesthetic—think white-washed blocks, unfinished concrete floors, earthy hardwood tabletops and slat wood walls—offers the perfect backdrop for the main event: the food. In fact, the first thing you see when you walk in the place that flaming, wood-fired oven.

Tonight, Luke is tending to that oven. As I watch him maneuver around it, talking and laughing in turn with his compatriots in the kitchen and the staff and diners who’ve sidled up to the counter, it becomes obvious that the guy is in his element. Tonight, the dining room is packed. Couples on date night. A large group enjoying a girl’s night out. A party of business folks hovering over a laptop. Even though nearly every table is full, I’m told it’s a “slow” night, meaning that it’s the first Wednesday since opening day that there hasn’t been a one-hour wait.

I start to understand why folks have been standing in line for Luke’s food, right about the time my waiter sets down the dish, which after one bite I’ve not-so-silently dubbed The Best Salad I’ve Ever Had. It’s that salad of fresh heirloom tomatoes and blanched purple hull peas, topped with the garlicky aioli mayo that Luke had thrown out as a possible endgame to our purple hull pea score. The tomato is bright and sweet, and the peas add a bit of texture to the creamy aioli. Sourdough croutons and fresh basil bring the whole thing down to earth.

While I’m scraping my plate with a spoon to get at the last drops of tomato-tinged goodness, my waiter brings the next course: a “small plate” of corn stew. Beneath the perfectly roasted corn—which is from that bushel of “peaches and cream” corn Luke and I nabbed at the market—is a vibrant zucchini puree. Mixed in with the corn is some of the best tasso ham I’ve ever tasted, which I’m told is from Butcher & Public in Bryant. Crowning the dish are pods of fire-roasted okra and a dollop of herb butter. The corn is succulent, just as Luke promised it would be, and roasting the okra has left it silky, yet crunchy.

Next up, I’m facing a broccolini cannelloni served with those peaches Luke was so excited about, roasted. At first I’m skeptical—peaches and pasta? But not only do they work, they make the dish. I devour it.

After further gorging myself on a plate of pork meatballs and a summer berry cobbler, I stagger out the door. In an effort to stave off the food coma I feel coming on—and fast—I decide to take a stroll around the square. By now, it’s 10 p.m. The air practically shakes with the buzz of cicadas, and a day’s worth of Arkansas thunderstorms has left the streets shining.

Groups of diners linger at their cars saying long goodbyes. Two neighborhood boys weave their bikes in and out of the square. A trio of 20-somethings sits on the fountain, laughing and joking.

I walk along, and my mind inevitably wanders to the time I was lucky enough to have dinner at Chez Panisse some eight years ago. I can’t help but compare the dinner I just finished at Oven & Tap to the meal I had that night, long at the top of my Best Dinner Ever list. As I take my turn on the square, I realize that not only did this Bentonville-made meal stand up to the one I had in Berkeley, it flat-out surpassed it. Every bit as delicious and interesting, what put it over the edge was the perfectly married flavors of a chef’s journey and a community’s future.