A sizable investment in the Ozark mountain tourist mecca of Eureka Springs is pushing forward, even amid record unemployment, a global pandemic and economic recession. In a recent interview, the developers revealed new details to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.
Pine Mountain is a redevelopment of the Pine Mountain Village and Pine Mountain Jamboree at 2075 E. Van Buren Ave. and about 40 acres of adjoining forested hills.
The $10 million development will incorporate two farm-to-table restaurants, a fast-casual cafe, 15 cabins, boutique shopping, a 200-person event center, outdoor event space and more than 3 miles of mixed-use walking/hiking/biking trails.
Chef and entrepreneur Marshall Johnson and his father, Paul Johnson, own the property and are the Pine Mountain developers. Marshall is the owner of Eureka Springs restaurant Rockin’ Pig Saloon. Paul and his wife, Susan, own Pig Trail Harley-Davidson dealerships in Rogers and Eureka Springs.
The Johnsons announced their development plans in January, just a few weeks before COVID-19 arrived and caused a delay in the project timetable. The developers initially expected all of the properties to be open by fall 2020.
“We were full steam ahead, and then everything happened. The world got shut down,” Marshall Johnson said. “We were in the middle of finalizing our funding documents with the SBA [U.S. Small Business Administration], and that got delayed when COVID-19 arrived. But they picked it back up, and it went through. And all is good.”
Johnson said a groundbreaking to start the revised construction timeline is now set for July. Mid-December is the goal to open the first of the two farm-to-table restaurants, the Rockin’ Pig Woodfire Kitchen. The rest of the development would come online throughout the spring of 2021.
“By the first of March, we should have the project completed,” Johnson said. “We’d be open for a few months and have a big grand opening to start the summer [of 2021].”
Along with the SBA, Searcy-based First Security Bank is also financially backing the Pine Mountain project. Shea Design of Minnesota — nationally known for its restaurant and hospitality design services — is the lead designer, and C.R. Crawford of Fayetteville is the general contractor.
‘AN IMMERSIVE DESTINATION’
Pine Mountain is expected to create more than 100 hospitality jobs. Johnson said he has filled some of the food positions already.
Leading the team is Pine Mountain’s first senior executive and culinary director, Mike Hazen. Hazen relocated from Boston earlier this year, bringing a resume of large-market experience at numerous restaurant concepts ranging from white glove to fast-casual to vegan and farm-to-table.
As the culinary director, Hazen is already at work building the team, organizational capacity, menus and processes that will drive Pine Mountain’s three new restaurant concepts plus wedding/events center. The properties include:
- Lyman’s Prime Steakhouse, featuring Ozark Mountain Wagyu, grown by Johnson in his herd of 40+ 100% Japanese Black Wagyu beef cattle and dry-aged in the on-site dry-age room. Lyman’s is named for Johnson’s grandfather, a noted beef aficionado and early Walmart executive.
- Rockin’ Pig Woodfire Kitchen, a chef-driven concept focused on primal, hearth-side cooking “reminiscent of home,” Johnson said. The restaurant will feature daily farm-to-table specials handwritten on a chalkboard.
- Rockin’ Cafe, a quick, casual stop featuring espresso, Italian wood-fired pizzas and homemade gelato.
- The Social House, a wedding and events center featuring chef-driven fare. The center’s kitchen can manage a whole roast pig or 200 filet mignons served at the perfect temperature.
What lured Hazen from culinary capitals like Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston to the Arkansas Ozarks?
“The attraction for me was Marshall’s passion for food and the opportunity to be part of something special, something bigger than myself, to work together to help create something memorable, game-changing,” he said. “This isn’t just a great restaurant we’re creating. It’s an immersive destination, and food will be part-and-parcel of a holistic visitor experience.
“We want to build a magnet for the locals, for the booming region, for markets like Tulsa, Kansas City, all over the Midwest.”
AN APPEALING JOB
Like Hazen, other top-shelf culinary professionals throughout the country are recognizing the allure of Pine Mountain and the Ozark Mountains. Johnson said he has already hired sous-chefs from large markets like Atlanta, Las Vegas and southern California. The budget will allow for additional staggered hires for the rest of the year.
“We are building a team right now to come on and help operate our current businesses, then develop them to transition to the new spaces,” he said. “We want to be best in class and be a regional destination draw for our area, and that is what we’re building.”
Warren Wolfe, a Minnesota-based hospitality consultant and former head of foodservice for Macy’s and Target, said the quality of professionals who want to work at Pine Mountain is outstanding.
One reason for that, he said, is directly related to COVID-19. The restaurant industry’s new reality is that culinary professionals are seeking new job opportunities away from major metro areas of the U.S. and into smaller, less urban areas.
“I could interview people for Marshall every day that we couldn’t find a year ago,” Wolfe said. “People who want to move [to Arkansas] and work there, who have great industry experience. [Because] their backyard of where they are now may not be doing as well.”
Wolfe has been advising the Pine Mountain developers for several months. He was connected to the Johnsons by a friend of his in Minneapolis, Shea Designs founder David Shea.
Wolfe describes Marshall Johnson as a unique combination of rancher and restaurateur and possessing a “hard-charging” personality that’s advantageous in leading a big project.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I enjoy it when I get the chance to work with an entrepreneur who has a big vision,” Wolfe said. “Sometimes I have to hold him back a little bit and make sure we have our ducks in a row, but he wants to do this right. He always comes back around to, ‘I only want to do this in a way that is going to work for my customers and my staff.’ I love that. Instead of coming at it from his own direction, he listens. But he’s champing at the bit.”
Johnson said Eureka Springs is positioned well to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the demand is there for tourism dollars to return, and other hospitality developers are equally as bullish.
Ann Gray, who has deep roots in Arkansas’ travel and tourism sector, is developing the Queen Anne Mansion and Resort, an all-inclusive wedding destination and luxury events space.
Gray is the founder and owner of the new business, operating as Royale Hospitality International LLC (RHI). Steve and Lata Lovell, real estate investors who live in Williamsburg, Va., own the property and have leased it to RHI to operate and maintain. The ornate Victorian mansion perched atop the city’s historic district was built 129 years ago. The property sits on 7 acres in the heart of Eureka Springs, transported there from its original site in Carthage, Mo., in 1984.
Before the pandemic hit, Gray sold her Rogers wellness clinic and moved to Eureka Springs to manage Queen Anne. Due to the shutdown of events and tourism in March, she deferred the original opening (April 4) and called off a soft opening that was set for June 19. There are tentative plans to try again the weekend of July 4.
Two of Eureka Springs’ historic hotels, the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa and the 1905 Basin Park Hotel, also reopened to full service June 15. Johnson alluded to other positive indicators for the city’s tourism market that have not been made public yet. Before the pandemic, Eureka Springs’ tourism tax collections were up 25% in the first two months of 2020.
Johnson said there are other tourism projects happening in Eureka Springs that aren’t yet public knowledge.
“Regional tourism the next few years is going to be a big draw,” Johnson said. “We feel confident, and we are excited to get this thing off the ground.”