Fred’s Hickory Inn, an enduring Bentonville restaurant that opened in 1970, has a new owner.
Effective Monday (Aug. 8), Carl and Lindie Garrett own the business and property at 1502 N. Walton Blvd. Bentonville businessman Randy Lawson, part of the previous ownership group, confirmed the sale to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.
A property record filed Tuesday shows that the Garretts’ Table at the Hickory Inn LLC paid $841,659 for the 1.81-acre restaurant property.
“We owned Fred’s for 17 years and loved the customers, employees and everyone involved with Fred’s,” Lawson wrote in an email. “Fred and Lou Gaye did a great job founding a wonderful restaurant. We just carried it on with a few changes over the years.
“The Garretts own multiple restaurants now in Bentonville and should be great owners to carry on the rich 52-year tradition of Fred’s Hickory Inn and even build on it. We wish them all the best.”
The Garretts opened Table Mesa Bistro in 2008 in downtown Bentonville. They also own Bentonville restaurants Table at the Station, Tavola Trattoria and Mirabella’s Table in Rogers’ Pinnacle Hills area.
Carl Garrett said Fred’s will honor some events that were previously booked at the restaurant, but it’s closed to the public temporarily during the ownership transition.
He said it will re-open as Table at the Hickory Inn.
“We do not have a specific date to re-open,” Garrett said. “We will have to do some modifications and give it a bit of a facelift, but this will be a rejuvenation for Fred’s.”
Fred’s is known for its hickory-smoked pit barbecue meals, hand-cut steaks, smoked meats, pastas and homemade desserts. Garrett mentioned “re-engineering” the menu but hopes the restaurant’s loyal patrons will approve.
“We will try our utmost to keep what the restaurant’s loyal supporters have come to love over the years,” he said. “We are going to do our very best to keep what we can keep, based on the kitchen dynamics.
“We have inherited a smokehouse, so we are going to do our level best to figure out the smoking part of it. I feel we can enhance what there is. We’re going to take the baton and do our best.”
Randy and Valorie Lawson and Dick and Mickey Mahan, through their FHI Bentonville LLC, were the previous owners of Fred’s Hickory Inn. With two additional partners who were later bought out, they bought the restaurant property for $775,000 in 2005.
Dating to its opening in 1970, when Bentonville’s population was about 5,500, Fred’s Hickory Inn is one of the oldest sit-down restaurants in Benton County and certainly one of its most noted.
The restaurant was mentioned on the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” with host Robin Leach as the favorite restaurant of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
According to Arkansas travel and food author Kat Robinson, Bud Walton, Sam’s younger brother, the retailer’s co-founder and namesake of the University of Arkansas basketball arena, dined there each Friday night.
In her 2013 book, “Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley,” Robinson wrote that Walton agreed to donate a significant portion of the money needed to construct the arena while having dinner at Fred’s.
“It’s a great restaurant with a great legacy,” said Lawson, the founder and CEO of Lawco Exploration Inc. of Bentonville, an oil and gas exploration company.
ALMOST FELLED BY FIRE
Fred’s was founded and previously owned by Fred and Lucia “Lou” Gaye. They had traveled the world, Lawson said, for Fred’s job as a petroleum engineer, frequently in remote locations. They would entertain clients and customers in their home.
“Lou is Italian, and both of them were great cooks,” Lawson recalled.
When they retired to Bella Vista in 1969, Gaye worked for Cooper Homes before he and Lou gave the restaurant business a try. They purchased a historic Presbyterian Church camp that was no longer operational, and it became Fred’s.
Lawson explained that the owners made many additions and renovations to the property through the years. When Fred Gaye died on June 20, 2005, Lou was left to face the restaurant’s bankruptcy, the result of several years of poor management that was undiscovered by the Gayes.
“We had three goals when we bought it,” Lawson said. “Help a 92-year-old widow out of some serious financial issues, keep the iconic Fred’s Hickory Inn ongoing in Northwest Arkansas and make it profitable.”
The owners revived the restaurant after an overnight fire in October 2014 almost closed the business for good.
The fire, Lawson explained, was thought to have started outside by an employee’s cigarette that was not properly extinguished.
“A policeman was working an accident on North Walton where a car had hit a deer that night,” Lawson recalled, “and he spotted the fire. Had he not been there, we probably would’ve lost [the restaurant].”
Lawson said that the historic log cabin wing of the restaurant, which houses the lounge and bar area of the business, did not suffer the extensive damage absorbed by the building that houses the main dining area. That’s where most of the rebuild was needed.
The restaurant re-opened 13 months after the fire.