Iconic downtown Fort Smith diner to become SPUD’s, help support Harbor House

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 4,377 views 

The Nickel and Dime Diner at the Park at West End has a new sign and new life. Serving as an outreach for Harbor House, Spuds Nickel and Dime Diner will elevate the humble potato to gourmet levels if Chef Charles Belt has his say.

Belt, a native of Mulberry, spent five years in Chicago learning about different foods from across the world. Now he wants to share his knowledge with Fort Smith.

“I got to be exposed to (a lot of things) food wise that I otherwise never would have. I learned a lot there. I’ve been working in the food industry all my life, but I learned the most there. I want to take those things I got to experience and try and recreate them in different ways here,” he said.

As the restaurant’s tag line says, “Climb onto our train car and go somewhere without ever leaving town.” To emphasize that feeling of going somewhere, Belt has recreated, with the help of Fort Smith artists Austin Anderson, Christian Scott Chatman and Christian Martinez, a ceiling mural in the train car that depicts clouds in various shapes to help recreate the feelings he had when traveling to Chicago by train years ago.

But Belt will recreate all these dishes and take customers on a journey all with the help of the potato.

“The potato is well-loved by everyone, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s inexpensive, extremely versatile, and most importantly it’s delicious. At SPUD’S we celebrate and elevate the humble potato into dishes inspired from all around the country and all over the world, from sandwiches served on our unique potato flatbread, to full meals over fries, loaded baked potatoes,” the diner’s Facebook page said.

Belt said he learned of the potato’s charm as an inexpensive, versatile base while working with Burges Brothers food truck in Chicago, a food truck famous in the city for its Belgium-style fries.

Since returning to the Fort Smith area Belt has been the kitchen manager at Harbor House, which is what led him to the diner in the train car and the realization of a lifelong dream of running his own restaurant. Phil White, owner of the Park at West End and the dining car, serves on the board of Harbor House, a treatment facility for those with alcohol and drug additions.

The diner previously was Boomerang Nickel and Dime Diner and the site of a successful business for years, White said. Though he has been approached by some wanting to rent it for a new restaurant, the diner has sat empty for two years. While White has served on the board of directors, he has eaten meals prepared by Belt and enjoyed them, he added.

“I had the idea to work with Harbor House with it. I’ve seen the good (Harbor House and Gateway House) do. It’s not 100% successful, but any success means they are straightening out the life of that person and touching the lives of others,” White said.

White brought his “wild idea” of leasing the diner to Harbor House for no charge at a board meeting, and the board liked the idea of having a diner they could use as part of their outreach. The diner will be staffed by clients who are ready for the next step of making it in the real world, Belt said.

“It is going to allow (clients) to take the ideas presented at Harbor House and put them to use in the real world,” Belt said.

He noted the diner will be a place where someone has to show up on time, take pride in what they do and stay until the job is finished. It is also a job that will involve teamwork and dealing with the public, all things that are necessary in order to make it in the real world, Belt said.

The diner’s startup costs were a low $50,000, Belt said. It will start out serving only one shift a day, lunch, and then hopefully quickly add a dinner shift. He expects there to be five to seven employees per shift.

“We want to build a relationship with the downtown crowd as the place to have lunch, then move into evenings,” Belt said.

Plans for the diner have been impacted somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic that closed restaurants and delayed the diner’s opening from the spring as planned, but Belt said that time has given them the opportunity to plan and prepare more. The diner being located in an old railway car makes for a fun environment, but it makes social distancing more difficult, which is why the diner will not open during the ongoing Phase 1 of pandemic reopening in Arkansas. Belt said they will watch Phase 2 and make a decision on when to have the grand opening then.

The diner does have outdoor seating and iPads for servers to turn in orders to the kitchen without many back-and-forth trips through the diner, which will help with social distancing and serving.

White said the delay in opening is not bothering him.

“Whenever they get to open, is fine. My offer is not going away as long as (they) make me proud, keep things clean and make good food,” he said.

Staff has spent the extra time the pandemic allowed to work hard on an affordable menu.

“Our goal is for a person to come here and get a meal for $10. If you want an appetizer and get a dessert, you can spend more. We will have the best sweet potato pie in the city,” Belt said.

The diner will not serve adult beverages.

Staff is also working with the Fort Smith Farmers Market to get fresh, local ingredients for dishes, Belt said. It has worked with local vendors to fulfill as many of their needs as possible. Fort Smith graphic artist Aaron Ray designed the diner’s logo and sign. The sign was made by Maxey Signs and Neon of Fort Smith.

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