Mary Beth Ringgold
Cajun’s Wharf, Capers and Copper Grill – Little Rock
by Joe David Rice | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Many years ago, the fire department in Beckley, West Virginia, was summoned to an emergency situation involving a kitchen fire. A girl had inadvertently turned on the wrong burner, heating up a can of lard stored on the stove. When she realized her mistake and reached for the container, she burned her hand while moving it and spilled the bacon grease on the open flames. Things quickly turned pretty dramatic, but the firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze and save the house.
Although no one was injured, the kitchen was a total wreck. The gas stove and refrigerator were both destroyed, as was the wallpaper, and smoke damage was extensive. The kitchen soon received a full makeover, complete with matching appliances in harvest gold.
Fast forward a few decades and you’ll occasionally find that same woman behind a stove, experimenting with recipes. More likely though, she’ll be busy running three of Little Rock’s most popular restaurants. That person is Mary Beth Ringgold, and her kitchens can be found at Cajun’s Wharf, Capers and Copper Grill.
Her grandfathers and her dad ran small “Mom & Pop” diners in the Beckley area, and Mary Beth clearly recalls scrubbing pots and cleaning floors, earning $5 every weekend for her manual labor. She also remembers telling her parents, “I will never be in the restaurant business,” as she left home to attend the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. But the restaurant business was in her blood.
About that same time, an Arkansas entrepreneur named Bruce Anderson opened Cajun’s, a trend-setting dining establishment in Knoxville, modeled on a similar restaurant he operated in Little Rock. Looking for part-time work, Mary Beth applied for a job and Anderson hired her as a bookkeeper, although her skill set soon had her dealing with a wide variety of assignments. She regularly visited Cajun’s Wharf in Little Rock to see how Anderson’s flagship restaurant handled various aspects of the hospitality trade.
Anderson was so impressed with Mary Beth’s work that he promoted her to be his manager at Shorty Small’s (called Little Cajun’s at one time) in west Little Rock. While admiring his creativity and entrepreneurship, Mary Beth found Anderson to be a difficult boss and admits they had lots of scraps. In fact, he fired her several times, only to say, “Come give me a hug,” and immediately hire her back.
To make a long story short, Mary Beth and her business partners bought Cajun’s Wharf in the mid-1980s. They opened Capers in 1997 and added Copper Grill 10 years later. When asked about plans for expansion, she grins, shakes her head, and says, “Three children are enough!”
Over the course of her career, Mary Beth has seen a transformation of the hospitality industry, a change in what she calls “dining dynamics.” Demand for heavy, protein-rich meals has been replaced by interest in light bites or shareable servings. Likewise, drinking habits have also evolved, especially with enthusiasts asking for extensive wine lists and a selection of craft beers. But the public still wants and expects a quality dining experience, something that she and her colleagues have always made a priority. “We make everything from scratch,” she says, noting her reliance on local vendors for produce and meat.
Although Mary Beth still enjoys her time in the kitchen, she finds herself spending hours developing marketing and social media strategies, reviewing menus and analyzing spreadsheets. “I do a lot of work with numbers,” she says. Plus, she’s an active member of the Arkansas Hospitality Association (AHA) and is a past president of its affiliate, the Arkansas Restaurant Association. Montine McNulty, AHA’s executive director, appreciates her leadership, describing Mary Beth as a “giant in our industry.”
Mary Beth and her partners truly believe in giving back to the community. They were the original sponsors for “Silent Sunday,” the fundraiser for the Arkansas School for the Deaf, and remain strongly supportive. They also contribute to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Arkansas Women’s Fund, the Salvation Army and other worthy non-profits.
The awards and accolades on the wall of her office illustrate the respect Mary Beth’s earned over the years from her peers. Her latest achievement, winner of the 2017 Diamond Chef competition, makes her the first woman to achieve this recognition.
As for those thinking about a career in the food-service industry, Mary Beth has some advice: “Start in the back of the house,” she says and patiently work your way up. Expect to make sacrifices, putting in long hours on weekends when other folks are enjoying family time. Don’t underestimate the amount of physical labor involved, especially handling heavy pots and pans. Make sure to develop a culture of trust and respect with your colleagues, a key factor in her team’s success. “And if you don’t love people,” she adds, “you really shouldn’t be in this business.”
When asked about what she next wants to accomplish in life, Mary Beth pauses a moment to consider her answer. She confides that she isn’t exactly sure what direction she hopes to take, but refers to a phrase used by the late Bill Bowen, a distinguished leader in Arkansas’ business community. “I’ll repot myself,” she says with a smile, eager to tackle new challenges.
In the meantime, she’ll enjoy cooking – when she can find the time. Right now, she has some ducks in the freezer (she’s an avid duck hunter) and is eager to whip up a batch of her famous duck gumbo.
When asked about being considered as a nominee for Proprietor of the Year, Mary Beth says it is truly a recognition of a group effort. Her partnership team – Marilyn Green, James Willis and her sister Sandy Chance – have been together for a very long time. Without their diversified skill sets and collaborative efforts, Mary Beth says she doesn’t know where she would be.
Throughout her career, Mary Beth has had one main goal. “When I wake up every day, I want to enjoy what I do and love the people I work with,” she says. And she has achieved that goal.
Trio’s – Little Rock
by Caleb Talley
For Capi Peck, cooking is in her blood. The Little Rock native is the granddaughter of Sam and Henrietta Peck, who’s legendary Hotel Sam Peck on Capitol Avenue was the setting for her first on-the-job training as a chef. She even brings some of her grandparents’ creations to the table at Trio’s.
Since 1986, Peck has attracted a loyal following with her diverse menu offerings, which include an interesting mix of both American and worldly flavors. In addition to her loyal diners, Peck has also been an inspiration to a number of loyal staff members, too. Over the course of her 32-year career, she has mentored many young chefs, and many have been with her for more than 10 years, some since the 1980s. Keeping to her grandparents’ tradition, Peck continues to serve up the global cuisine she loves.
Yellow Rocket Concepts – Little Rock
by Caleb Talley
You could probably say that Scott McGehee is a rock star in the world of Little Rock food. There’s no doubt you’ve heard of his work.
After graduating with honors from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, McGehee embarked on his culinary career as a line chef at Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. In 1999, he returned to Little Rock to open Boulevard Bread Company. The gourmet bakery’s success was followed by the opening of ZaZa Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Company in both Little Rock and Conway, Local Lime, Heights Taco & Tamale and Lost 40 Brewing.
McGehee loves cooking up something delicious for everyone. And there’s no telling what he’ll be cooking up next.
The Hive – Bentonville
By Kody Ford
For Chef Matthew McClure, nothing is worse than monotony. The four-time James Beard Award semifinalist and executive chef is always looking for new flavors and ways to reinvent classics at The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville.
Raised in Little Rock, McClure’s family never forgot their country roots. Those family traditions in the kitchen stayed with him as he journeyed onward to the New England Culinary Institute for his associate’s degree and then at an internship Boston at Troquet, Harvest and No. 9 Park. During this time, he became exposed to a variety of flavor profiles from different cultures and developed a love for spice, which he brought with him to The Hive.
When McClure isn’t in the kitchen, he spends time with his family and volunteering for the Southern Foodways Alliance, Bentonville Chef’s Alliance and No Kid Hungry.