Brightwater: Community vision to spur economic development around food

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,507 views 

Dr. Glenn Mack, director of the new Brightwater culinary school in Bentonville, recently gave the Bentonville Chef’s Alliance a tour of the facility. The $15 million Brightwater project funded by the Walton Family Foundation is slated to open in January 2017. The school will anchor the Market Center, which civic leaders say will be the food hub of the region.

Northwest Arkansas in January 2017 will be home to Brightwater, a facility some are saying is a unique culinary school that will put the region on the map for food enthusiasts and professionals around the world.

The growing region has long been known as the home to Wal-Mart Stores, the University of Arkansas (and Razorback sports), and more recently Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Officials with NorthWest Arkansas Community College and the Walton Family Foundation believe Brightwater will prove a necessary addition to the list.

Brightwater, to be managed by NWACC, will open in the former Tyson Foods fry plant in downtown Bentonville. NWACC has run an accredited culinary school at the Center for NonProfits in Rogers for the past seven years, but that program is being turned on its head and expanded into Brightwater, which has been in the works for the past three years.

Made possible by more than $15 million in seed money from the Walton Family Foundation, NWACC in concert with city and civic leaders in Bentonville, regional stakeholders as well as local restaurant owners and farmers have all had input in the planning process of this venture.

“These generous investments will enable the college to become a world-class training provider of culinary education better equipped to respond to the rapidly growing needs of tourism-related industries in the region. The grants, made to two supporting organizations, will provide for new facilities to house the program, enhanced programming, professional development, rebranding for a fresh identity, state-of-the art equipment, as well as the onboarding of new leadership and additional faculty to accommodate the growth,” said Meredith Brunen, executive director of development for the NWACC Foundation.

More specifically, Brunen said the Walton Family Foundation grants supporting the region’s culinary vision total $15,072,247. A two-year grant of $8,352,885 is funding the Community Development Corporation (CDC) to redevelop a portion of the former industrial plant to accommodate the college’s expanded offerings.

The new Brightwater culinary school will be open to the public for viewing through an expansive corridor through the middle of the facility. Kitchens are located on either side of the wide hallway, according to this rendering of the inside of the Brightwater campus.
The new Brightwater culinary school will be open to the public for viewing through an expansive corridor through the middle of the facility. Kitchens are located on either side of the wide hallway, according to this rendering of the inside of the Brightwater campus.

The CDC plans to lease 27,500 square feet to NWACC. A three-year grant of $2,114,728 to NWACC’s Foundation will allow for the necessary growth of the college’s culinary operations and curriculum development. A one-year grant of up to $4,604,634 also awarded to the college’s foundation will assist in purchasing and installing furniture, fixtures and equipment.

Brunen said Brightwater will continue to have ongoing needs that require additional investment to fuel its chances for success.

In 2013, the Northwest Arkansas Council sponsored a regional food assessment by New York City-based Karen Karp & Partners out of New York. This comprehensive findings of that study found that the region was missing out on an opportunity to articulate a “food story” that reflects the local food system and resonates with longtime Arkansans, new residents and tourists.

Karp found the region had a food foundation but no central food story to tell. They found that local agriculture had a good reputation for quality but local produce purchases were constrained by acreage and direct marketing opportunities. Karp saw an opportunity for Northwest Arkansas to leverage its large-scale business infrastructure to support local food entrepreneurs. Karp recommended the region cultivate a new food identity and establish a regional brand, which became High South Cuisine rolled out in 2014. The vision was to grow the culinary school and transform the way food is viewed with a local, farm-to-table approach. The curriculum at the new culinary school has been completely changed with emphasis on local ingredients and techniques.

Karp recently told Talk Business & Politics that having worked on various food projects around the country, she had never seen one community come together so cohesively to support a venture as in Brightwater.

Prior to the 2013 regional food assessment, the city of Bentonville was planning for the impact of Crystal Bridges which opened in November 2011. The city had found out about the museum after it completed its 2006 master plan for downtown. City leaders went back to the drawing board working with Daniel Hintz who was then CEO of Downtown Bentonville Inc. to expand the downtown area well beyond the square. Two districts were created and revealed to the public in December 2013 that extended downtown redevelopment over 18 acres southeast of the town square.

The Arts and Market Districts in downtown Bentonville have taken on millions of dollars in investments since that time. The Market District, where the former Tyson Foods plant on 8th Street was tagged at the time as a food hub, is designed as a market place where farmers could gather and sell their products and food vendors could set up shop. The NWACC culinary school will anchor this venture and the market district when it opens next year.

The name Brightwater comes from an extinct variety of a Southern apple that appears to have been unique to Northwest Arkansas. The heirloom variety of apple was named from a community near Bentonville also named Brightwater, according to Shayne Hart, chief creative officer at Blkbox, the marketing company for the project. He said while the Brightwater apple and the community for which it is named have faded into history, the apple was known as a “good keeper,” a term given to apples that canned well.

Stakeholders chose the name Brightwater because it has local roots and relevance, which is also symbolic for the school’s mission.

In 2006, NWACC’s small culinary school was in Fayetteville but it’s been in Rogers for the past seven years at the Center for NonProfits – the old St. Mary’s hospital. The school kitchen can only accommodate about 12 students in the old hospital kitchen renovated with updated equipment. The new school can handle up to 350 students. Brightwater will have four large kitchens, a butchery and demo theater with 54 seats.

“When the Brightwater Culinary School opens in early 2017, everybody will forget all of the present facility but it’s important to our history,” said Dr. Glenn Mack, Brightwater director and head of the existing NWACC culinary school.

Mack took over the culinary school on June 1, 2015. He was no stranger to the school because he had visited two and half years ago as the team lead for the American Culinary Federation, which was responsible for accreditation.

“I saw the strategic plan created by Karen Karp & (Partners) and thought this does not match up with what I am seeing here. Whoever wrote this plan knew what was going on in the world of food and food systems. I was intrigued from the beginning by the level of community support. I have visited many culinary schools around the world and I have never seen this level of community support for a culinary school. After 20 years in culinary education, 10 years with La Cordon Bleu and working around the world and I have never seen a plan that fundamentally changed the way the farm-to-table principle was taught,” Mack said.

Mack said he had already accepted a job in Singapore when he heard about the opportunity to run the new culinary school.

“I sent notice to all my colleagues in the business about the job in Bentonville, but no one bit because it was Arkansas. Four months into my job in Singapore, the company I was working for changed their game plan and wanted me to travel across Asia to set up culinary schools, which was not what I signed up for. Lucky me, the job in Bentonville was still open. I saw this as a great opportunity and relocated my family to Northwest Arkansas a year ago,” Mack said.

Continuing, he said: “The visionary leadership out of Northwest Arkansas who saw food as part of our history wanted to explore what could be done to make food a center point of economic development for the region. This plan was very intentional.”

Mack said Brightwater’s curriculum will feature nearly something for every foodie, from community classes to degreed programs and specialty classes for working chefs to hone their skills. He said the school’s mission is to teach food systems and food preparation techniques as well as basic nutrition and cooking fundamentals, but equally important the school will use food to help unite the community.

He said with Crystal Bridges taking over the former Kraft cheese plant a couple of blocks away one of the area of focus in that facility will be culinary arts. Mack said Brightwater will work with Crystal Bridges on various projects whether Crystal Bridges uses the schools’s kitchens or the school puts its students to work at the museum there will be partnerships.

Mack said at least two-thirds of the student’s time will be spent in a kitchen making the instruction at Brightwater hands-on. He also envisions local chefs in the area teaching various courses either in community education efforts or in training their own staffs and other chefs.

Case Dighero, chef at 11 at Crystal Bridges, told Talk Business & Politics that he and other chefs in the Bentonville Chef’s Alliance have taught culinary skills to their own staffs for several years. He said there is not enough qualified chefs for the demand in Northwest Arkansas. He said Brightwater will help attract more chefs and foodies to the region.

Matt McClure, lead chef at the Hive at 21C in Bentonville, said Brightwater will have an immediate impact on the food scene in Northwest Arkansas.

“It’s not just the quality and value of education that will bring bright students to our area, it also immediately helps out current restaurant sector with higher quality job candidates. It’s a true food hub which will be a resource for the entire community,” McClure said.

He said there is pent up demand for restaurants cooking from raw ingredients, like whole apples or whole hogs. McClure said Brightwater can educate the community at large.

“It’s not just about me being qualified to work in a kitchen, but it’s equally about family cooks not being intimidated by cooking whole foods. There will be opportunities for the public to take fun classes around food preparation, brewing, butchery and baking as well,” he said.

Hart said the school’s mission encompasses making programs available to the community and Brightwater will meet that obligation on many levels. He said the school’s presence as an anchor for the Market District will be a unifying feature in the community.

“The programming at Brightwater is beyond next generation. It seeks to help the community understand food at its social and historical levels. So many of the culinary schools are rooted in ‘La Grande’ cuisine and they turn out amazing chefs but Brightwater is taking another approach. It’s the first culinary school to connect to the land. Mason Wells in Charleston has tried to adapt their curriculum, but no one has totally revamped the curriculum with a local farm-to-table approach,” Hart said.

Mack said several food companies have already leased retail space in the 10 acre Market Center where Brightwater will locate. There will be a large garden on the back grounds maintained by the Cobbleston Project and the produce will be used by the school’s kitchens. Brightwater’s kitchens will be open to the public via a glass corridor hallway that runs the length of the building. The school will also serve and sell food made in the kitchen to the public at various times through the day.

Mack envisions this venue as a gathering place for all ages who want to learn more about the food grown, prepared and consumed in this High South Region.