The patrons outside the Oark General Store and Café in northern Johnson County on an unseasonably cool June afternoon aren’t waiting to get inside for a seat. And most of them aren’t local.
They’ve staked out their spots at picnic tables just off the front porch, these particular wayfarers who discovered the road less traveled in the emerging outdoor-rec hotspot of Oark. Nestled into the Boston Mountain footprint just north of Clarksville, the community sits on the Mulberry River and the increasingly popular TransAmerica Trail, a back-roads route that crosses 14 states from North Carolina to Oregon.
Travelers from across the globe seek it out as part of a quest for authentic Americana, and visitors from all over the country and as far away as South Africa have signed the guest book at the café. Lately, of course, signatures have been slowing. On this day, those patrons joining a few Oark regulars for lunch represent Little Rock, Houston and Louisiana. To accommodate social-distancing requirements, they’ll enjoy al fresco the iconic burgers and pies for which Oark is known.
Going on four months into the pandemic, the cafe still flips about 40 burger patties a day, according to Brian Eisele, a South Carolina native who owns the historic store with his wife, Johnson County native, Reagan (Highfill). That’s compared to around 100 a day before the virus hit. Established in 1890, the business is the state’s oldest continuously operated general store, though it’s really about 90 percent restaurant these days, Eisele says.
Five part-timers remain on staff from a pre-pandemic total of 12. And, thanks to relief assistance from both federal and private local sources, the couple hopes to get that number back up to 10 soon.
The Eiseles’ business is one of more than 100 Arkansas small businesses funded by the nonprofit Arkansas 30 Day Fund, which raised more than $250,000 over 30 days in May and June. The fund was launched in May by Arkansas native and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her husband, Bryan.
Through forgivable loans of up to $3,000, the fund was created to help small businesses struggling because of the pandemic. In some cases, the fund complemented state and federal assistance and bridged those gaps faced by businesses approved for but still waiting on funding through programs like the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Eiseles received $25,000 in PPP to help keep the business going after being forced to briefly shut down in April, and the $3,000 they received from the 30 Day Fund will pay for an adjacent, open-air pavilion to accommodate more customers.
Arkansas small businesses also benefited from the state-funded Arkansas Ready for Business Program through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. It ultimately provided $128 million in forgivable grants to 11,363 small businesses. More than 94 percent of grants went to businesses with fewer than 50 employees while 33 percent were awarded to women-owned businesses and 25 percent to minority-owned businesses.
Sanders’ fund was modeled on the successful Virginia 30 Day Fund, launched by tech entrepreneur Pete Snyder and his wife, Burson. In Virginia, almost $1 million was distributed, inspiring similar efforts in Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania.
Roughly 500 applications in Arkansas had been processed by mid-June with more still to go.
“We loved the idea, so we replicated it here in Arkansas,” Sanders said. “It’s fairly simple. My husband and I wrote the first check to get us started and then raised private donations to provide forgivable loans of up to $3,000 for Arkansas small businesses to bridge the gap until they receive government assistance or demand returns for their product or service.”
The process is designed to be “quick, easy and free of red tape.” While the loans are not expected to be repaid, recipients are encouraged to “pay it forward” when and if they can.
“It’s about Arkansans helping Arkansans and saving as many jobs as we can during this crisis,” Sanders said.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman was named the fund’s honorary chairman, and fund partners include Johnelle Hunt, Warren Stephens, Chucki and Curt Bradbury, Skip Rutherford, Livia and George Dunklin, Janet and Mike Huckabee, Simmons Bank and CJRW. The Delta Center for Economic Development at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro supplied student volunteers to process applications and make sure all applicants met the minimum thresholds for funding, such as being owned and operated in Arkansas and employing between three and 30 workers.
A majority of businesses receiving funding are owned by African Americans or women, Sanders said. All have been appreciative.
“Many of the small business owners cry when I notify them that they’re approved and will be funded. It’s sad how many people are really hurting during this crisis, but it’s rewarding to bring Arkansans together from all across the state to help these great small businesses keep their doors open and save jobs.”
The fund’s support by a diverse group of business, political and community leaders particularly resonates with Sanders, who personally notifies many recipients of their award.
“This is not a government program. It’s a volunteer driven organization that relies exclusively on private donations. We’ve been amazed by how generous so many Arkansans have been. At a time when our country is so divided and the focus is often on the negative, it’s encouraging to see Arkansans coming together and standing with our fellow citizens in need. I believe many of these small businesses will not only survive and save jobs but ‘pay it forward’ in their communities and help keep Arkansas strong.”
While grateful for all the assistance his business received, Eisele especially is appreciative of the autonomy afforded by the 30 Day Fund.
He says, “With the PPP, there were conditions on how you needed to spend the money. The people behind the 30 Day Fund knew they needed to put this in the hands of the small business owners so they can spend the money the way they see fit to help their businesses.”
Even without relief packages, Eisele believes his and many other small businesses could have adapted somehow to make it through the pandemic. But, “it gave us some room to breathe, so I could sleep at night.”
Keeping the doors open in Helena
Robert Cheek owns the boutique Edwardian Inn in Helena and, needless to say, the pandemic hasn’t been good for business.
Cheek bought the historic Short House that serves as the inn last December, continuing its 37-year run as a bed-and-breakfast. He hopes that run is able to stretch through the coronavirus.
“We are seeing between 20 and 30 percent of normal booking volumes at the moment,” Cheek told Arkansas Money & Politics in mid-June. Most all the reservations for March and April at the Edwardian were “canceled right away,” Cheek said. Cancellations for May, June and July soon followed.
“I can’t say that business has been good or has come back at this point. I’m still largely optimistic for the future of the business. However, it’s unclear how we are going to have to adapt to build resilience and survive this period.”
Cheek was awarded $3,000 from the 30 Day Fund and also received assistance from the PPP and EIDL programs.
“Resources like the Arkansas 30 Day Fund have been very important to my business during this time,” Cheek said. “I feel very fortunate to live in a country, state and community where support is provided to businesses and individuals during this critical time. I know that this is not the case in many parts of the world, and I certainly do not take it for granted.”
Cheek isn’t giving up on his inn or the Helena-West Helena community. A Little Rock native, Cheek earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Fayetteville and went to work for the KIPP Delta charter school system as an academic data specialist. In 2014, he moved to Helena from Little Rock to be closer to the schools. Acquainted with the inn’s previous owners from his time tending bar at their restaurant on Cherry Street, Cheek purchased the Edwardian in December.
“I was very excited at the prospect of acquiring the property and managing this vital business within the Helena community,” he said. His $3,000 grant from the 30 Day Fund will be used to help pay for cutting down a rotting hackberry tree and trimming a 150-year-old pecan tree either of which would cause damage to the back of the house were they to fall.
“The support that my community has shown to me and this business during this time has been so crucial,” Cheek said. “I’m very grateful for all the help that I’ve received over these last several months.”
Coffee and faith in Hope
Arnetta Bradford opened her coffee/tea/gift shop in downtown Hope last fall as a way to reintroduce what she saw as the lost art of relationship building.
Her strong Christian faith inspired the perfect name for her business: Hebrews 11:1. This specific New Testament verse stresses faith in God’s plans, even if one can’t decipher them — the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
For Bradford, the shop name became even more apropos after the coronavirus hit, and the fledgling business, like so many others, was forced to scale back its operations. Bradford was forced to cut hours, trim the menu and ultimately lay off four employees.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and Bradford used the $3,000 forgivable loan she received from the Arkansas 30 Day Fund to bring back two of those employees with plans to bring back the other two as well.
Though the shop has remained open by offering curbside service, Bradford said the pandemic has represented a struggle. But she remains optimistic and even continues to solicit prayer requests from customers so she can pray for them.
“I’m very hopeful for business coming back,” she said. “I see growth. God sustained us even before we opened the doors to our business, and he’s sustained us since. It may sound crazy, but I have to tell you, I see growth. We’ll just keep our eyes on God.”
Bradford stumbled on the 30 Day Fund on Facebook and didn’t expect to be awarded a grant. To her surprise, she soon was in contact with Sanders, who informed her of the $3,000 award and then, with her husband and kids in tow, personally delivered the check to the shop. All the while, it never dawned on Bradford that Sanders was the daughter of Hope natives and hometown celebrities Janet and former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“I kept thinking to myself that I knew who she was but couldn’t place her,” Bradford said. “She never said her full name.”
A business card left behind later sparked realization. Bradford calls the experience one of “God’s little lights.”
“It was completely a God thing. It came at a time when it was most needed. What the fund did was literally give us relief. It took away stress and gave our faith a boost.”