Turner winds down final days at The Station Café

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 3,169 views 

Cecil Turner

Cecil Turner remembers Bentonville before urbanization.

“I could drive on Walton Boulevard any time of day, even in what you would call rush hour, and never be behind more than five cars at a stoplight,” he joked. “Now it’s more like 20.”

Traffic congestion is just one example of how the city is quite different from 20 years ago. There was no trendy locale of downtown Bentonville. There was just Bentonville, population in 1997 of about 19,000.

In October that year, Turner and his wife Betty bought an existing restaurant on the west side of the city square and renamed it The Station Café. Through all the development around the square during the past two decades, one of the constants has been Turner’s restaurant, giving what has become a more modern Bentonville a connection to its old-fashioned roots.

But in just a few weeks, the long-running and popular restaurant on Main Street will also give way to the evolving downtown Bentonville landscape when it closes its doors. Turner recently sold the business to a group of investors headed up by Todd and Dana Renfrow of Bentonville. Financial terms were not disclosed. Renfrow said the other investors are his and his wife’s siblings: Dustin and Jamie Maestri, Craig and Karri Renfrow, Dierek and Dani Madison, and Devon and Courtney Maestri.

“My daughter knows them, and I have talked to them extensively, of course,” Turner said. “They’re good people. And they’re excited about having the restaurant. They bought the name, the furniture, recipes, everything. I’m glad it’s going to continue.”

Todd Renfrow, a principal in Bentonville real estate development firm Lamplighter Restorations, confirmed the restaurant’s final day in business at its downtown address is April 28. Turner will stay involved through then and beyond, executing an exit plan to make sure the building is vacant by the end of May.

Renfrow said the restaurant will reopen June 1 about a mile away in a renovated residence at the corner of Southeast Sixth and D streets in Bentonville, catty-corner from Austin-Baggett Park. Lamplighter has owned the property for almost a year, situated one block west of the Momentary, a new innovative arts venue in development near the 8th Street Market.

The Station Café on Southeast Sixth Street will have indoor and outdoor seating, and a food truck will serve as the kitchen, at least temporarily. The restaurant will ultimately move to a permanent address in a 30,000-square-foot mixed-use building Lamplighter is developing across Southeast Sixth Street, west of the park. Groundbreaking for that project will be in the fall.

“The three most important things are location, location, location, and they are going to have the best location in town,” Turner said. “One of them anyway. I think they will do very well.”

Turner, who will turn 76 in May, moved to Northwest Arkansas about 30 years ago from Minnesota. He was recruited to the region by a friend who also had been recruited from Minnesota by Cooper Communities to build a convenience store in Bella Vista.

“I had sold the barbecue restaurant I owned, and the guy called me and says, ‘I want you to come down here and run this [convenience store], if you’re interested,” Turner recalled.

A self-described eternal entrepreneur — he’s worked in the restaurant and food business since he was 15 — Turner said he is always looking for business opportunities. That’s how in 1997 he came to buy The Filling Station, established in 1977 and the predecessor to The Station Café. Turner took over what was primarily a lunch spot, operating from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The American diner now opens at 8 a.m. and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It closes at 8 p.m.

After 20 good years, Turner said he didn’t decide to sell the business in order to retire.

“My existing landlord decided that for me,” he said. “They’ve sold the building, and the new landlord is going to tear it down and put a different building up here. It was kind of forced on me.”

According to Benton County land records, the 1,876-square-foot building has been owned by Joe and Betty Baker since 1994. According to property records, the building has not yet changed hands to a new owner.

“I don’t know who [the new owner] is, and nobody wants to tell me who it is. And that’s fine,” Turner said. “It’s a corporation of some kind or another. I would assume it’s a developer. I don’t know what they have planned for the building. It sure won’t be a restaurant, because they won’t be able to afford the overhead.”

The restaurant building is next door to a two-story, 4,904-square-foot building that sold in December to a Delaware-registered LLC for $1.4 million. A spokesman for the LLC provided a statement in January that said the building requires substantial renovation, and those plans are in the early stages. It’s notable for its purple exterior trim, and for being the only vacant commercial space facing the square.

Both buildings — as well as the building at 113 N. Main at the hard corner of Main and Second streets — are just a few doors down from three buildings owned by Walmart Inc. Collectively, they house The Walmart Museum exhibit gallery, Walton’s 5&10 gift shop and The Spark Café soda fountain.

Turner said he looked for locations in the downtown area to relocate the restaurant and remain the owner. What he found were lease rates that were not feasible to stay in business.

“I knew that anyway; I’m not naïve,” he said. “I wanted to stay down here if I could because we’ll never find another spot as good as where we are. To find a [comparable] spot I just couldn’t afford it. We’re selling hamburgers here. We don’t sell steaks and seafood and all that. We sell hamburgers, and I have to be very careful of the rent costs.”

Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said the restaurant at its downtown square location has become iconic, and will be missed by “thousands” of past and current patrons.

“Cecil Turner has believed for more than 20 years that Bentonville is a great place to own a business,” McCaslin said. “He has shown how important great employees and superior customer service are to building a successful business. Engage Cecil in conversation and you will soon discover he is a committed patriot. Love of our country and its free market system are seen in many of the café decorations, including the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights and license plates from throughout the United States.

“I will miss my frequent visits with Cecil and send my best wishes to him and Betty as they begin a new chapter in life.”

For two decades, Turner has watched Bentonville’s restaurant scene grow to achieve the nationally-recognized status it enjoys today. In 1997, Turner said there was just one restaurant in the downtown area — his — and he estimated there were maybe 12 to 15 restaurants in the whole city.

“And one of those was the Harps deli across the street,” he recalled. “Now there’s maybe 150 restaurants in Bentonville, and there must be 12 downtown counting the food trucks. It has changed immensely.”

He has also enjoyed watching the square evolve from something “kind of ratty” into the destination it is today. He credited McCaslin — elected the city’s mayor in November 2006 — for being a driving force.

“It was not what you would call a well-maintained square,” Turner said. “When Bentonville started growing and Mayor McCaslin came in, he changed all that. We have a beautiful square downtown. In the summertime, many times, I watch them cut the grass, and they’ll have a guy on his hands and knees with a pair of scissors trimming the edges.”