Many amateur pilots have a custom on Saturday mornings. They fly their planes and land in another city and enjoy a meal, often referred to as the “$100 hamburger” because of the flight cost.
The Parachute Inn, a restaurant on Walnut Ridge Regional Airport property that includes a section from a remodeled Boeing 737, was a popular spot for years for just such pilots.
Seth Hardage, owner of Hardage Aviation, told Talk Business & Politics he had a hard time telling pilots and clients, who came into the the airport to dine at one of the most well-known eateries in Northeast Arkansas because of the quality of the food. When it closed, Hardage and his wife, Andrea, and mother, Kellee Hardage, decided to reopen the restaurant.
He met with Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp, and they decided to completely remodel the building. Hardage signed a lease agreement with the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport Commission in February. He intends to spend up to $125,000 on this project. The lease requires him to pay $500 per month for the next five years, or for him to invest at least $35,000 in labor and material revitalizing the building. He has a five-year option after the first five years, meaning he can keep the property for up to 10 years.
“It was sad to have to tell people to go to some other place to eat,” he said. “I’m committed to this.”
One aspect that appealed to Snapp was repainting the airplane portion to resemble the aircraft on which the Beatles flew into the airport on Sept. 18, 1964. Silhouettes of the Fab Four will be placed on the outside steps that lead into the plane to allow tourists to take pictures, Hardage said. There will also be Beatles memorabilia in the restaurant, he said.
Snapp told Talk Business & Politics he thinks the venture will benefit the city in a number of ways. Each year, the city hosts the Beatles at the Ridge Festival, commemorating the band’s only stop in Arkansas as a group. The city has two monuments, the Beatles Park and the Guitar Walk commemorating its music history.
“As mayor of a community experiencing growth like we’ve not seen since the early to mid-1970s, I’m excited about every new business that expands opportunities for our residents, but even more so when a business renovation has a direct impact on tourism,” Snapp said. “The Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee is excited to see the airplane attached to the restaurant is being revitalized. … We have pledged several thousand dollars to help clean and paint the exterior of the airplane to look like the American Flyers Airline plane that landed and left with the Beatles in that moment of history that changed the community more than 50 years later.”
Hardage lived in Louisiana for three years, and has contacts there to bring fresh seafood options to the menu. He plans to use beef and pork products that come directly from the farm, he said. The farm-to-table approach is something the area needs, Snapp added.
“Fresh beef and seafood flown in for special events will be a boon for business,” Snapp said. “Those changes alone are a huge plus when you talk about quality of life.”
Hardage intends to seek a private club license so he can serve alcohol. The Walnut Ridge City Council approved a measure allowing him to move forward with the application process, he said. The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) will ultimately decide, he said. There has been some opposition to the alcohol permit. Hardage said he understands the concerns, but to help make the business profitable, he wants the ability to serve alcoholic drinks.
The renovated restaurant will have a bar area, and the airplane section will be completely redone, but will still look and feel like the inside of an airplane, Hardage said. There are even plans to replace some of the gauges in the cockpit to give it a more authentic feel, he said.
Hardage and workers are busy gutting the restaurant down to its studs. He hopes to have ABC approval by May, and July is the target for a grand opening. The ABC has separate requirements to allow for a private club to host entertainers, he said. In the future he may apply for that license, but he’s now focused on reopening the “restaurant in a plane” that has been a fixture in the community for many years.
“We want to provide quality, wholesome foods with a great atmosphere,” Hardage said. “We want to be a family-oriented restaurant, and we want to help support our local tax base.”