Today is Mike Robertshaw's last day of work in Seattle. Over the course of a decade, the chef has become something of a fixture in the Seattle restaurant community, and Robertshaw says that his departure is "a little bittersweet," especially in light of the fast-approaching Pacific Northwest spring bounty. But he has a big move ahead of him: Mike Robertshaw is heading to Arkansas.
More specifically, the chef will work with a new hospitality group "focused on redeveloping downtowns with iconic restaurants, entertainment venues, art houses, and private clubs." And RopeSwing, the boutique group that convinced Robertshaw to step away from his post in Seattle, is starting its work in a town uniquely ready for a new breed of restaurant options: Bentonville, in northwest Arkansas. Though Robertshaw admits his move was partially prompted by the fact his girlfriend lives in the state, he's intrigued at the opportunities that may come from a town best known as home to Walmart's world headquarters. "I love the city, I love the nightlife, I love all of that," Robertshaw says of Seattle. "But to be able to get back to the basics: Help farmers reach out, and help people see food in a new light... that's all very exciting to every chef."
Bentonville is best known as the longtime home base of Walmart, the cheap stuff emporium that has become the world's largest company by revenue. Per the town's official literature, Bentonville's current population numbers just over 40,000 people, representing a 15-percent population increase in four years. Along with Walmart, the town is also home to an impressive (and relatively new) museum, the Walmart-sponsored Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. After the museum debuted in 2011, the 21C Museum Hotel followed suit two years later. "We're having unprecedented growth to the region," says RopeSwing creative lead Mike Abb. "We've been growing at a 45 percent growth rate over the past seven years, nearly doubling the population and the region. Between Benton and Washington County, now we're over half a million people... You have to go all the way to Tulsa, Little Rock, or Kansas City to find that many people."
According to Abb, Bentonville's dining scene is booming. "I can tell you the dining scene right now is on the up and up," he says, pointing out that Bentonville chef Matthew McClure of the Hive was a James Beard Award semifinalist last year. But Abb believes downtown Bentonville is ripe for a new kind of hospitality company. "With that growing rise in tourism and business travel here in the region, the ability to upgrade the hospitality services that were here in the area became paramount," he says. "There's been initiatives from a city-wide, a region-wide, and a state-wide level to see those hospitality services catch up to the times, essentially."
"They expect and demand a higher caliber of dining experiences and so we're here to deliver."
With more and more workers — and yes, "millennials" — moving to Bentonville to work at Walmart and other nearby Fortune 500 companies (Tyson Foods's headquarters sits just 30 minutes away, in Springdale, AR), Abb posits that "what the people want is [the] high-quality experience that they're used to. A lot of these people are from major urban cores and cities... They expect and demand a higher quality and caliber of dining and cultural and entertainment experiences," he says, "and so we're here to deliver."
While Arkansas has not necessarily been on the national radar for its food offerings, both Abb and Robertshaw are excited by the local products. "Our ability to source food from the region is amazing," Abb says, citing a recent food council assessment when he explains the bounty of the region. "We have water, we have the largest deciduous forest in the United States," he says. "We've got fantastic farming land... We've got incredible rivers that have a surplus of trout." Abb and Robertshaw are also interested in exploring the world of wild game.
Restaurants in the Works
RopeSwing's first efforts are under construction now. First up is the Belfry, which is located in what Abb describes as "an 111-year-old historic church" in downtown Bentonville that "has been an icon of the square for years, but had been in disrepair." On its website, RopeSwing describes the Belfry as a "contemporary restaurant" that will serve "clean, fresh, and local food," offering "a unique take on cuisine and service the region has yet to experience." In the basement below the Belfry, RopeSwing is developing the Old 71 Club, an establishment serving drinks and food that Abb hopes will foster "a late-night scene." "That's been a major need and concern from the city and the citizens for a number of years," Abb says of the city's current gap in after-hours socializing.
The RopeSwing team hopes to softly open both concepts in the early summer, and "truly be opened and established" later that season. It's a tall order, and Abb says anticipation in the area is mounting: "It couldn't be higher right now, where every day is [about] fielding questions, inquiries, about what's happening and when's it going to be opening."
RopeSwing is also in process of acquiring downtown cafe/restaurant the Pressroom, which happens to be owned by their operations lead Rob Apple. Apple's wife and Pressroom co-owner Bea Apple told the New York Times in 2011 that "the opening of Crystal Bridges was the reason we opened downtown when we did... We wanted to be part of the revitalization of downtown Bentonville." Abb describes the important role that the Pressroom has played downtown since its 2011 opening: "They were the coffee shop, they were the meeting place, they were the cool bar scene," he says. "They were the breakfast, they were the lunch, they were the dinner."
Pressroom 2.0, as Abb refers to it, will be Mike Robertshaw's first project with the group when he arrives from Seattle. Abb explains that Robertshaw will be charged with taking over the concept and moving it into a new location in Midtown Center, a new downtown shopping center with backing, of course, from Walmart. "He's got a nice existing infrastructure that's been laid in place, that has a lot of local champions for it," says Abb of what Robertshaw is walking into with the Pressroom. "We're looking to have him basically take it to the next level."
"The most exciting part of it is being a part of something that's growing."
But that's not all the group has in store for Robertshaw. "Once [Robertshaw] gets the Pressroom established and moving forward, we're going to unleash him on a number of other concepts," Abb says. Robertshaw is also tight-lipped about what those future projects might be, but says one of his main goals is to bring a new, creative culinary energy to the area. "To me, that's the most exciting part of it, you know? To be part of something that's growing."
While Abb is unabashedly optimistic about RopeSwing's prospects, it's clear that the group will face certain challenges. Abb notes that despite Bentonville's strong Walmart connections, the retail giant is not an investor in the restaurant group, making RopeSwing subject to the usual restaurant-industry difficulties — making the numbers work in a field with tight margins. But one of RopeSwing's largest obstacles might be staffing. Abb notes the number of hospitality jobs is on the rise in Bentonville, but won't directly say that there is a lack of qualified candidates to fill the roles. Instead, he offers a pitch: "We're excited to offer up those positions, and RopeSwing is going to have a number of them. I [would] love to have people contact us... we're ready and willing to look at talent from across the nation and the globe."
If RopeSwing's stated mission of "redeveloping downtowns" is any indication, then expansion beyond Bentonville seems to be on the table. But Abb and his partners first have to see if their gamble on sophisticated, hip dining in Bentonville pays off. With the summer fast approaching, now more than ever Abb is embracing the meaning behind his company's name. "A rope swing," he says, "is a leap of faith."