Plans are being finalized to revive iconic Fred’s Hickory Inn, an enduring Bentonville restaurant which has been closed since October, after the business was significantly damaged by a late-night fire.
Randy Lawson is part of the group of local businessmen who own the hillside restaurant at 1502 N. Walton Blvd., known for its hickory smoked pit barbecue meals, hand-cut steaks, smoked meats, pastas and homemade desserts.
Lawson said the reconstruction could begin in less than a month, putting the restaurant on a timeline to re-open this summer.
“We are working on plans as we speak,” said Lawson, the founder and CEO of Lawco Exploration Inc. of Bentonville, an oil and gas exploration company which has several interests in the Fayetteville Shale area. “We’ve had multiple meetings with the city of Bentonville and are working through all the entitlement processes and building plans. As soon as we can, we’ll start the renovation.”
Lawson, Dick Mahan, Steve Trolinger and George Kitchens (who no longer is part of the ownership picture) combined to buy the restaurant property in July 2005 for $775,000.
Brian “Hootie” Moore has since joined the ownership group, whose investment was damaged significantly when it caught fire around 11 p.m. on Oct. 22, after the restaurant had closed for the night.
The fire, Lawson said, is thought to have started outside by an employee’s cigarette that was not properly extinguished.
“There was a policeman working an accident on North Walton where a car had hit a deer that night,” Lawson explained, “and he spotted the fire. Had he not been there, we probably would’ve lost [the restaurant].”
The historic log cabin wing of the restaurant, which houses the lounge and bar area of the business, did not suffer the extensive damage absorbed by the building that houses the main dining area, Lawson said. That’s where most of the rebuild will be needed.
He declined to say how much the project will cost, other than to say it will take “quite a bit” of money.
“The fire did a lot of damage,” he said. “The whole roof will need to be replaced, the water damage is pretty major. It will basically be a whole new restaurant.”
Bentonville firm Harrison French & Associates is handling the design work for the rebuild, and Sellers Properties Inc., of Springdale will be the general contractor.
GREAT RESTAURANT, GREAT LEGACY
Dating to its opening in 1970, when Bentonville’s population was about 5,500, Fred’s Hickory Inn is one of the oldest sit-down restaurants in Benton County, and certainly one of its most noted.
Fred’s was mentioned on the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with host Robin Leach as the favorite restaurant of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton.
Bud Walton, his younger brother, the retailer’s co-founder and namesake of the University of Arkansas basketball arena, dined there each Friday night, according to Arkansas travel and food author Kat Robinson.
In her 2013 book, “Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley,” Robinson wrote that Walton agreed to donate a significant portion of the money needed to construct the arena while having dinner at Fred’s.
“It’s a great restaurant with a great legacy,” Lawson said.
Fred’s was founded and previously owned by Fred and Lucia “Lou” Gaye. They had traveled the world, Lawson said, for Fred’s job as a petroleum engineer, oftentimes in remote locations, so they would entertain clients and customers in their home.
“Lou is Italian and both of them were great cooks,” Lawson recalled.
When they retired to Bella Vista in 1969, Gaye worked for Cooper Homes before he and Lou gave the restaurant business a try. They purchased an historic Presbyterian Church camp that was no longer operational, and it became Fred’s.
The owners made many additions and renovations to the property through the years, but when Fred Gay died on June 20, 2005, Lou was left to face the restaurant’s bankruptcy, the result of several years of poor management that was undiscovered by the Gayes.
Lawson rounded up a group of investors to rescue the business, with three goals in mind: help Gaye avoid bankruptcy, keep the restaurant going and make it a profitable venture.
“[Gaye] was 90 and facing bankruptcy and a couple of friends and I didn’t want her to have to deal with that,” Lawson explained. “We bought the restaurant and paid off the taxes.”
Fred’s has consistently been a million-dollar restaurant since the new owners entered the picture. The business had sales of $1.17 million in 2013, according to the to the 1-percent restaurant tax collected by the Bentonville Advertising & Promotion Commission. The tax is collected on prepared foods and non-alcoholic beverages.
That’s the best year for the business since 2006 ($1.21 million), according to A&P records.
The restaurant had sales of $808,600 this year up until the Oct. 22 fire.
Lawson said Gaye will celebrate her 100th birthday Feb. 26. As a gift, he is eager to re-open Fred’s with an enhanced dining experience, while also recreating the business’s original atmosphere.
“We’re envisioning keeping it the historic, rustic Fred’s that people know,” he said.