Beyond Southern Hospitality

... Or how Tomas Bohm has perfected the art of welcome at The Pantry

Photography by Arshia Khan

southernhospitality

I arrive at The Pantry in West Little Rock just before the doors open for lunch at 11 a.m. Owner Tomas Bohm, 38, comes out from behind the bar, his smile broad, his handshake ready.

“Thank you so much for coming!” he says as he shakes my hand, recognizing me immediately. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Espresso?” he asks with a slight Czech accent.

“Coffee would be great,” I say. He asks a waitress to get two coffees for us and then ushers me into the lounge. “I think this would be most comfortable,” he says. “Will this work?” He gestures with his hands at the couches and cushy chairs; the whole effect is welcoming.

He’s wearing jeans, a V-neck sweater that looks cozy, a leather Road ID bracelet that marks him as the serious cyclist he is—a mountain biker who rides hundreds of miles on the trails in marathon mountain bike races. He has the ease of someone at home in his living room more than a restaurant owner just before the lunch rush. But everything is in its place, the system is set, and Tomas is ready. Almost.

As I settle into a cushy chair in the lounge, he says apologetically, “Excuse me, I need to run my truck around back. There were deliveries this morning, so I had to keep the alley clear.” He pulls his keys from his pocket. “I hate it when owners of restaurants park in front. It explains the whole persona of those places.” He gets in his Toyota Land Cruiser FJ, with a big bike rack attached, and pulls around back as I wait with my coffee.

The windows are big and the place feels warm—textured walls painted a rusty orange with simple paintings and decor that seem at once homey and elegant. The lounge consists of several cozy chairs and a couch with a big coffee table. The upholstery is slightly worn, like comfortable jeans—not the kind of posh microfiber or leather that is better suited to a gallery.

This is a lounge in which you feel that you could actually lounge.

Tomas sits down and we begin to talk, his eyes bright with a sense of excitement about what he’s doing. “What I love about this business,” he says, “is being a part of someone’s life.” He talks about the customers who pass away, the customers who come in with their new babies. “We have the happy stories and the sad stories.” This is exactly as Tomas wanted it. He wanted a restaurant that would feel as welcoming as his own house—a place where friends could gather. “I want a place where people can come celebrate successes, and when they have problems to be able to talk about them over good food and a glass of wine,” he says.

This, then, is a restaurant for all the parts of life.

For anyone who has been to The Pantry more than once, you know the feeling of being there. How Tomas makes it a point to walk the tables each night, smiling and asking how everything is. “I really want to know,” he says. “I want everything to be just right.”

Many restaurateurs may say they want a “homey” kind of hospitality, but few deliver the way Tomas does. It comes down to his motivation, his character. “I’ll never have two restaurants, three restaurants—I’m not that kind of guy. I have to have the instant gratification of seeing people’s faces and saying ‘hi’ to them as they come to eat at my place.”

Having a restaurant, showing hospitality—it’s in Tomas’ blood.  He grew up in Marianske Lazne, a spa town in the Czech Republic where his father was a hotelier. Tomas followed in his footsteps, attending a hotel-management school, but, he says, “I was always drawn to the restaurant within the hotel.” That attraction led him to culinary school and a year in Asia, where he managed restaurants at a resort in Thailand. It was after that year that he decided he’d like to see the United States, and so he came to Eureka Springs where his relatives own the Bavarian Inn restaurant. He fell in love with Arkansas, and drove across the country that summer with his brother to take in all of the U.S.  The only way he could come back after that year was as a student, so he applied for a student visa and enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

It was while at UALR that Tomas began working at local restaurants as a manager. He worked at Little Rock’s Izzy’s for many years and credits owner Robert Isbell with teaching him how to be a good business person. He went to 1620 and then to So Restaurant-Bar, where he met Titus Holly, The Pantry’s longtime chef whom Tomas calls the “heart of place.” All the while Tomas was dreaming of a restaurant that would be comfortable for all kinds of people, that would offer a menu of familiar items like lasagna and yet also offer something for the well-traveled foodie. He wanted people to be comfortable in a T-shirt with flip flops and yet not feel out of place in a suit. He wanted the prices to be reasonable for what was served, mid-range with “options for a full, fine-dining experience or a brat and pint.”

It was a long wait, mostly because he knew that this restaurant also had to be his own.

“My dad always told me, never have a partner,” Tomas says, sipping his coffee. “The hotel and restaurant business are just so hard and it’s very rare that partnerships work out. My dad said to work for someone else just until I could open my own place.” Tomas wanted to step into an existing restaurant—a place with a built-out kitchen that didn’t require an entire remodel. He found it when he heard that Gypsies was closing as owner Danny Sayer moved to the Cayman Islands. “It’s kind of like buying a house and it took a while to find a place that just felt right to me,” he says. “This space felt good.”  He got a loan on his home equity, he took out credit cards, he did whatever he could to pull together the money, but he still came up short. He told Sayer that he was going to have to step away, but Sayer told him, “I like you and I like what you’re doing. I can work with you on financing.” The deal went through and Tomas got to work on building his long-dreamed restaurant.

That was four years ago.  The whole experience of the place is refined and consistent—it is warmth and welcome without surprises. “We are very organized,” Tomas says. “We have everything labeled, charted. We pay attention to the small things. I want everything to be clean and ready, whether it’s someone coming to eat or someone coming with a delivery.”

That attention to detail is clear in the dining experience. His is a restaurant where you can come and enjoy food and conversation without noticing many of the elements that make the experience great. When waiters are interruptive, when decor is distracting, then the experience of the meal is diluted. Tomas knows this better than most, and he has swept away all of the barriers. The only interruption one might have at The Pantry is a welcome one, one my wife and I have experienced many times: A friendly “hello” from Tomas, or perhaps something special, like an apple strudel appearing unannounced at the end of a meal, the waiter noting that “Tomas wanted you to have this.” By the time the check comes, always accompanied with a little cookie, you invariably feel better, more relaxed.

“There’s something special about The Pantry,” we said from our first visit the summer it opened.

Talking with Tomas, I realize it is no accident.

“I just hope that I make a little drop of difference in this town,” Tomas says. “When The Pantry’s done, I want it to be that I opened up people’s experience, welcomed them and gave an example to other restaurants that will want to do the same thing.”

When it comes to hospitality, no Southerner could do it better.

Posted in Food

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