Rafael Rios and family work to create a sustainable food model in Northwest Arkansas with farm-to-table approach

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,152 views 

Produce from the Rios family farm in Little Flock, Ark.

Rafael Rios and family members were up early Thursday (July 21) harvesting radishes, onions and gathering fresh greens for an order with The Press Room, a downtown Bentonville restaurant and one of the family’s best customers.

The Rios family farm, a 7-acre plot of fertile soil just beyond the Rogers city limit sign in Little Flock, grows produce for several local and popular restaurants including Eleven at Crystal Bridges, The Hive at 21C and the Press Room. But thie farm also sustains a side business for Rios, the Yeyo’s Mexican Grill food truck parked in downtown Bentonville for the past three years.

“We have an order right now for the Press Room and we picked it this morning and within an hour it can be on the table. That is what we are striving for a true farm-to-table culture. We are a sustainable operation, we even harvest all the blooms from the plants such as squash blossoms and those are requested from our restaurant customers as well,” Rios said.

Rios, 40, and a U.S. Army veteran, said the family farm and the produce it grows nearly year round helps to sustain around 20 families, thanks to business partnerships he’s been able to develop with local restaurants and pubs like Bike Rack Brewery. Rios also sells his produce at the Bentonville Farmer’s Market, but said he gets a bigger thrill out of being a personal farmer for the likes of acclaimed chefs like Matt McClure at the Hive and Case Dighero at Eleven.

“It’s a chef’s dream to have his own garden to grow the foods that speak to him,” McClure said. “Rafael has been working closely with local chefs for the past two or three years to find out what we want to have grown. I buy lots of produce at the Farmer’s Market, but everybody has summer squash. Rafael has several varieties of tomatoes, onions and other produce that no one else grows. His turnips, beets, kale and swiss chard were simply outstanding this year.”

Given a choice, McClure said he would only purchase foods grown using sustainable and organic practices such as the Rios Family Farm.

“The natural farming with no pesticides and no genetically modified seeds should be the standard. The Rios family does farming the right way for my kitchen,” he said.

Rafael Rios stands amid his pepper plants at the family farm in Little Flock on Thursday (July 21) as he gathers produce to fill a customer order from a local restaurant in Bentonville.
Rafael Rios stands amid his pepper plants at the family farm in Little Flock on Thursday (July 21) as he gathers produce to fill a customer order from a local restaurant in Bentonville.

Strolling through the planted acreage, Rios said the berry crop – raspberries, strawberries and blackberries – are also quite popular items for his restaurant customers. Rios is now testing a small beehive to help with pollination of the berries in an effort to increase the yields. The strawberry patch is now covered with thick grass. Rios said the strawberry season is over and grass is growing.

“It’s late in the summer growing season and there is a lot of grass mixed in with the plants, for now we don’t care, If we pulled grass from this farm daily, we would never get anything else done,” he said.

A row or two over Rios reached under an overgrown plant and pulled out two turnips that matured late, saying, “Somehow these plants are still producing.”

Throughout most of the year, Rios said the majority of the farm is planted. They recently sowed winter squashes and other crops they will harvest later this fall. He said they continue to work to keep the garden growing as long as possible. He said herbs, peppers and tomatoes will produce for several more months.

Walking back toward the gate Rios spots about a half dozen eggs laying in a nest, strategically placed behind a wheel barrow.

“We have free range chickens and ducks and they lay eggs around the farm, outside the brood house, so every now and then we will see baby chicks running around. We don’t sell eggs, but our chickens supply eggs for the entire family,” he said.

Rios has already has met with chefs of two restaurants under construction in downtown Bentonville and Rios Family Farm will help supply the restaurants with fresh produce of their own choosing.

“Growing the restaurant business base is important to our mission to keep food local. I can’t take on too many restaurants, but this latest two give me about 7 or 8 for now and that’s a nice level of support at this time. I can’t supply everything they need, but I do try to supply the special produce they request, that’s a niche that I have carved out for the family business. The Press Room gets about 60% of the produce they use from our family farm. The other restaurants are less, but that means there is more opportunity for other family farmers to take advantage of. I would like to see more family farmers selling to our area restaurants to support the local food movement and the farm-to-table culture,” Rios said.

Rios recently extended his Yeyo’s partnership to the craft beer crowds at Bike Rack Brewery in downtown Bentonville, looking for more residents to try his street tacos, chips and salsas.

Brad Burton of Bike Rack Brewery said the food truck is a welcome and logical addition.

“We at Bike Rack Brewing truly believe in what Rafael and Yeyo’s is about, bringing the word ‘local’ to life. Bike Rack being a local business as well, we understand the importance and value of providing quality local products to our community,” Burton said. “Rafael is a shining example of this. We have Yeyo’s come to the brewery on Monday night Bingo and Thursday night Trivia to serve our customers. We look forward to strengthening our partnership with Rafael as we continue to serve our community with local products together.”

Rios said farming has been his family’s livelihood as long as he can remember. His father Hector or “Yeyo” was a migrant farmer in California in 1972 for several months of the year before returning home to south central Mexico. Rafael, an anchor baby, was born in California in 1976. Rios said the family lived in Mexico until he was about 14 with his father coming back and forth from the U.S. Then in 1989, Hector Rios was able to secure a Green Card status and the family moved to California with seven children in tow. The family continued to work on farms as contract laborers during growing seasons in California, Washington State and Pennsylvania.

Rios enlisted in the U.S. Army when he turned 18 because he wanted to give something back to a country that welcomed his family and granted his father naturalized U.S. citizenship. Rios said he served for 18 years, spending six in Germany and completing a tour in Afghanistan as well. An unexpected injury forced Rios, a Sergeant First Class, to retire from military service earlier than he had planned around 2005.

Rafael Rio, owner of Yeyo’s Mexican Grill, in downtown Bentonville assembles street tacos on Thursday garnished with produced recently picked from the family farm in Little Flock.
Rafael Rio, owner of Yeyo’s Mexican Grill, in downtown Bentonville assembles street tacos on Thursday garnished with produced recently picked from the family farm in Little Flock.

Unsure about his future livelihood, Rios said while traveling back to California from a visit with family in Texas, in early 2006 he stopped in Bella Vista at a gas station. They picked up a real estate guide inside the convenience store. He said the entire family was shocked to see how affordable real estate was in Arkansas, compared to their California home. When the family got home they researched the area and sent his young brother Roman Rios to Northwest Arkansas to scout properties. Near the height of the California real estate market, Rios said they had a family home that had appreciated in value from $100,000 to $500,000 in about five years. He said his brother, who by then had a real estate license found every one of his siblings and his parents homes in Northwest Arkansas which were purchased with proceeds from the sale of the single home in California.

“About a year later, the real estate market tanked in California, we were so lucky to get out when we did,” Rios said. “My brother Roman really scored big. He bought a little house near downtown Bentonville in 2006 and today he’s sitting on very valuable property.”

Rios said in 2006 his entire family caravanned to Arkansas from California and his father began farming in Little Flock with the help of his kids.

“I was just out of the service and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My father and family encouraged me to start a food truck, but I didn’t have any formal culinary training. I was a definite foodie and had the fortune to experience food and cooking styles from around the world while I was in the service. I guess you can say I experienced life through food and people always seemed to like my cooking,” Rios said.

Encouraged by the support of his family, Rios said he named the truck after his father, because Yeyo, a nickname, was all the family ever called him. He said with a few thousand dollars he got the truck up and running and secured a four-year permit to park just off the square in downtown Bentonville just minutes from the family farm in Little Flock.

Yeyo’s Mexican Grill is in its third year of operation and Rios had nothing but praise for mentoring received as one of the startups taking part in Scale-Up Ozarks, run by Jeff and Phyl Amerine with financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.

“The Scale-Up mentoring program has been a huge benefit to me on many levels, from putting me in contact with experts in just about every area that I needed help with. Before this, in year one my wife and I tried to run it together and it was very hard and not much fun at all. Year two was still hard, but a little better. But year three with the guidance I got from Startup Junkie I have hired more help and through networking more our business is finally growing,” Rios said.

Given that Rios also runs a food truck business, he uses the family farm to grow herbs, onions, various heirloom tomatoes varieties from Italy and Russia along with several types of peppers and greens used in the street tacos sold out of the truck. Rios also worked with a local tortilla maker to develop a signature corn tortilla used in the street tacos. It’s a little thicker and more absorbent than a traditional corn tortilla. The durability allows Rios to wrap the street tacos in a single tortilla instead of the usual two.

“We have kept our menu simple, but we don’t just make street tacos. We try and offer our customers tastes from around Mexico, featuring different meats and handmade sauces. My customers get a story with their tacos. They learn where each particular taco originated and we continue to evolve this business around the changing pallets in the region. For instance when we first opened the sauces were mild, because the hotter sauces were not popular. Today hot is what people want. Specialty meats like beef tongue is also growing in popularity. We used to cook one tongue and have leftovers, now we cook seven or eight and there’s nothing left.” Rios said. “We don’t serve our Angus beef at this time, but in the future we would like to provide more of the meat proteins in our food truck and catering business.”

Rios said one of his employees will sign on to work the Yeyo’s truck at 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday, prepping all the freshly cut lettuce, onions and cilantro. The salsas are made fresh every morning with produce from the farm if it’s in season. The truck also sells cold drinks which are made fresh daily from things like cucumbers and mint or Hibiscus seeds which are acidic and mimic lemonade.

Yeyo’s is open for business every day but Sunday, which he said is family day, and that is farm day.

Working six days a week to support a family of five, Rios said there’s not a lot of free time, but he recently made time to meet with the University of Arkansas Food Lab to work on perfecting a shelf stable or refrigerated version of freshly made salsa from produce grown on his family farm.

“I would like to be able get our produce to more people throughout the year and salsa and dips are a way we can do that. The university has been great to help me so far. I have been surprised to find out that it doesn’t take that long to accomplish. We just have to get the recipe and formulation right and that’s a work in progress,” Rios said.

Rios doesn’t know exactly what the future holds for his family’s businesses but he’s convinced that with all the investments being made in Bentonville around food and the culinary arts, he’s landed in the right place to find success.

“The Brightwater Culinary school is going to be a big asset and I hope to be able to work with the school to supply produce they need and also learn from their cooking expertise. I am serious about connecting the circle around sustainable food practices and Brightwater fits perfectly in that plan. I hope to see lots of local farmers linking up to better serve our restaurants and residents with fresh produce picked the same day it’s consumed,” Rios said.