Family-driven revival: Springdale group plans to reopen Springdale icon AQ Chicken House

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 23,527 views 

From left, Tom and Robin Lundstrum and Gracie and Jacob Lively are the principals of Catalyst Capital, a single-family office in Springdale.

Earlier this year, 76-year-old restaurant landmark AQ Chicken House —whose patrons included U.S. presidents — served its final meal in Springdale at 1207 N. Thompson St. (U.S. Highway 71). Or so it was thought.

In a surprise twist, a Springdale family plans to revive the business at a new location.

Catalyst Capital, a single-family office (SFO) organized this year by Springdale’s Lundstrum family, closed a deal in September to buy the rights to the restaurant’s name, recipes and branding.

The well-known restaurant closed on March 18 this year. One month later, Missouri-based Club Car Wash paid $1.75 million for the 3.1-acre site and 14,600-square-foot building. Club Car Wash demolished the building and is developing the site.

In a recent interview, longtime resident and real estate investor Tom Lundstrum shared what the family’s investment and new ownership means, and what’s next for the restaurant. An AQ rebuild — reimagined to a certain degree — is planned on the city’s west side along North 48th Street at the Elm Springs Road exit west of Interstate 49.

Plans are in the preliminary stage. The target opening date is 2025.

Catalyst Capital has four principals: Tom and Robin Lundstrum, their daughter Gracie Lively, and her husband, Jacob Lively. The Livelys left behind burgeoning careers in central Arkansas earlier this year and relocated to Springdale with their three children.

“We want to be intentional on thinking this through and not just throwing a building together,” said Jacob Lively, an attorney and Catalyst Capital’s chief executive officer.

“What brought Gracie and me back to Northwest Arkansas is family. We’re going to make this into a great family environment and a hub for the community. Not just a building that serves chicken.”

Lundstrum, a former president and current owner of industrial cleaning company ChemStation, and his wife, State Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, have lived in Springdale since they were children. Through various endeavors, they have been serial entrepreneurs across Northwest Arkansas for over 35 years.

Lundstrum said locally-owned companies are a community’s lifeblood, and the thought of AQ Chicken fading into history did not agree with him.

Roy Ritter opened AQ Chicken House — AQ stands for Arkansas Quality — on July 20, 1947, when chickens were raised and slaughtered behind the restaurant along a dusty dirt road known today as U.S. Highway 71. Lundstrum remembers the early days.

“I grew up four blocks from AQ on Davis Street,” he recalled. “We would sled down the hill on the north side of the restaurant, and felt like it was a mountain back then. I’ve been around AQ my entire life. You’d walk in and feel like you were going home. It’s where you belong.”

Sunday after-church crowds and special occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries, were traditionally a big part of AQ Chicken’s business.

“My bachelor party was there,” Lundstrum recalled. “And I think [Springdale Mayor] Doug Sprouse told me this is where he had his first date with his wife.”

Ritter, a poultry industry pioneer, longtime University of Arkansas Board of Trustees member (1955-1974) and Springdale mayor (1975-1979), served southern-style chicken dinners to tourists and area visitors amidst a need for sit-down restaurants north of Springdale.

According to the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame, when the restaurant first opened, the Chicago Tribune ran a story on its opening, and over the years, people from all over the nation came to try the signature fried chicken.

In 1952, Vice President Alben W. Barkley ate there. President Bill Clinton had pan-fried chicken there with friends after the dedication of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) in 1998. President George W. Bush was served AQ chicken aboard Air Force One during a campaign stop at XNA in 2000.

Other AQ owners included Frank Hickingbotham, who created TCBY Enterprises Inc., and Ron Palmer, who owned AQ for 17 years before selling it to Dick Bradley in 1998.

AQ Chicken House is a three-time finalist (2021, 2020, 2019) for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. Lundstrum is determined to see the restaurant’s legacy live on.

“I can’t stand the thought of iconic brands that have Springdale as home — and in my mind are part of our cultural fabric — disappearing,” he said. “I am highly motivated to keep those things alive.”

That philosophy guided another Springdale revival project with which Lundstrum was involved. In 2014, he and Springdale businessman Brian Moore paid $50,000 to buy a 1940s-era movie house on Emma Avenue slated for demolition. It reopened three years later as a sparkling event venue — The Apollo on Emma.

“On Apollo’s opening night, we had 600 people,” Lundstrum said. “Some from [people who had been there] 50 or 60 years ago. I’m not a dramatic person, and I don’t want to be overly dramatic. But they’d stand in there and get weepy-eyed. They were transported back to those memories.

“That’s one reason you do things like this; you don’t lose your connections to the past.”

Jacob Lively grew up in Camden. He met his wife when they were college students at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where he was elected to two terms as student senate president.

Married in 2015, they began their professional careers in central Arkansas. Before moving to Springdale this year, Jacob Lively was COO of Foxden Capital, a single-family office in Little Rock with holdings in the healthcare, food service, tech and recreational sectors. Gracie Lively was the SFO’s marketing director.

“We enjoyed our time [in Little Rock], but there was always a draw to Northwest Arkansas,” said Jacob Lively, who earned a degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 2016. He was a research assistant for Dean Emeritus Cynthia Nance. “It’s home for Gracie. We’ve got three kiddos, and [Tom and Robin] are not just successful in business; they are great grandparents. I love having them around the corner.

“The pace and spirit of Northwest Arkansas is very family-centric but also very entrepreneurial. Both of us decided, ‘You know what? Let’s take a leap of faith and move up here.’ Tom and Robin were on board.”

Catalyst Capital is developing multiple health and wellness franchise concepts to complement Northwest Arkansas’ growing active lifestyle.

“We have some other business projects planned, but AQ has us excited about what we can do with that and where it potentially goes,” Lively said.

Gracie Lively said the new restaurant building will be thoughtfully designed for families and pay honor to AQ Chicken’s long history. There is a section on the restaurant’s new website in development for feedback on the project, and a social media push will solicit the same.

“We’ve got a lot of lead time on this, so we’re seeking input on what [patrons] would love to see moving forward,” she said. “We want it to feel like you’re going to sit down at home. And if you’re going home, the home should be comfortable and easy. That’s what we want it to feel like when you’re at AQ.”

The Lundstrum family has multiple investments in downtown Springdale, which is undergoing a revival of its own with several million dollars worth of public and private investment.

Might AQ Chicken be a downtown dining option one day?

“I would love to have something downtown, but don’t know what that would look like,” Lundstrum said. “We are not looking for a big fancy franchise [model] or a cookie-cutter quick service restaurant. We want something with some character to it, and when you walk in, you know you’re at AQ.

“It’s a family restaurant, and that’s what I want it to be. If we can do something complementary downtown, I would love to do that.”