When hearing the name “Cajun’s Wharf,” Arkansans everywhere — or at least those in Central Arkansas — are bound to listen with hushed, reverent tones. The famed former restaurant, tucked against the banks of the Arkansas River, once hosted politicians, celebrities and a host of renowned guests.
While Cajun’s Wharf may now be a memory, Copper Grill in downtown Little Rock has since made itself the new home of the notable clientele that made Cajun’s a household name — and of their pivotal business and political arrangements as well.
Mary Beth Ringgold, the former owner and founder of Cajun’s Wharf, opened Copper Grill with Dan Kovach in 2007. Kovach is the current operating partner with his partner, Leland Stice.
Kovach said the opening of Copper Grill was a team effort.
“We’d been looking at different concepts in the state and created this one together. When Copper Grill first opened, there was a grocery store in the building, which is now our private dining room. Pre-COVID, we could seat 90 people in there, and 130 with a standing cocktail party.”
In 2007, there were plenty of condos downtown that people would purchase as an investment, and Copper Grill was poised to cater to them. But there seemed to be some sort of initial disconnect between the menu at Copper Grill and patrons, Kovach said.
“The dining concept was more of an upscale steak-and-chop house. Then after three or four years of trying to figure out what we were and weren’t doing right, we realized that the folks living in this area, especially the condos, are wealthy people, and money wasn’t an issue.
“We started to scale the menu back and make it a little more casual, and more open to everyone. Everything that we’ve done has been made from scratch. We decided that we needed to make a menu that was more frequent-friendly. We’re now an upscale casual spot, serving everything from a burger to a prime-age filet mignon. Now, we appeal to people across the spectrum.”
As Copper Grill was able to cast a wider net for its customer base, more notable individuals throughout the Natural State began to frequent the restaurant, just as they had at Cajun’s.
“We’ve always been a spot for the political scene with the Clinton School close by,” Kovach explained. “Mary Beth was over the Little Rock Visitor and Convention Bureau, and she had connections with people in the state. Jim Dailey [former Little Rock mayor] and Skip Rutherford [former Clinton aide and dean of the Clinton School] would come in, along with the other movers and shakers in the city. People knew that they could come in here and conduct business after hours without seeing everyone that they knew in here.”
Copper Grill has also been a meal-time favorite for former Gov. Mike Beebe, former Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and current Mayor Frank Scott Jr., even before Scott was elected.
“Copper Grill has remained one of Mayor Scott’s favorite places, even after his election. A lot of his campaign meetings and dinners were here at Copper Grill,” Kovach said. “And Gov. Beebe has Copper Grill designated as one of his favorite places.”
The expansion of the party room and the menu allowed Copper Grill to appeal to a broader spectrum of people and host more events outside the political realm.
“We’re a little bit of everything for everybody,” Kovach said. “We can get a group of 15 people together, and everybody in the group can get something different and unique. As far as hosting groups goes, we act as the meeting place for retirement groups, fantasy-football draft parties, church groups and business people and groups traveling from all over. Even though a lot of these folks are paying for their meal with business accounts, they choose Copper Grill and have for some time. We’ve got a diverse, economical menu and a great, well-priced wine list.”
But Kovach notes that Copper Grill’s menu and diversity in clientele has the advantage of branching out from a notable predecessor.
“Copper Grill’s history stems from Cajun’s,” Kovach asserted. “After we closed Cajun’s, Mary Beth offered to sell Copper Grill to me. On Nov. 1 of that year, we officially signed off on buying it.”
Cajun’s Wharf was opened March 15, 1975. The concept was designed to be a 260-seat restaurant with a big bar overlooking the Arkansas River. It was set up to have early entertainment to make it Little Rock’s premier happy hour destination. Cajun’s also had popular banquet spaces and “tucked away” smaller, private dining rooms.
Ringgold recalled, “The principal owner was Bruce Anderson. He had several business partners, but since I did not work with the initial group in the 1970s, I don’t feel like I can accurately name every person who partnered with Bruce. I can tell you that his first general manager was Mike Warr. After his time at Cajun’s, Mike moved to Memphis and went on to own and operate restaurants there. In 1986, he purchased Cajun’s from Bruce Anderson. The following year, Mike made me a minority partner, and our partnership group had the restaurant until November of 1993 when we sold Cajun’s to Landry’s Seafood. They operated it through May of 1999.”
Ringgold, along with business partners including Kovach, also were operating Capers Restaurant, and bought Cajun’s back from Landry’s in June 1999. After undergoing a major renovation and trying to make the establishment reminiscent of the original Cajun’s, the iconic restaurant reopened it in October 1999 to the highest annual sales volume in the company’s history.
Ringgold elaborated on the events that helped put Cajun’s on the map:
“I am not sure if it was 1975 or 1976, but Cajun’s was recognized as one of the top grossing restaurants in the United States. The thing that made it special was that it was a true destination. You could spend the entire evening there if you wanted. Walk in and put your name on the list for dinner. Then, go to the bar or the deck, overlooking the Arkansas River, and enjoy a couple of beverages and handmade specialties like the oysters Bienville, crab au gratin and fried shrimp. All while listening to some light acoustic guitar or jazz. In the early days, Dixieland was the flavor of choice musically.
“Then, when your name was called, go back to the restaurant and feast on Alaskan king crab legs, gulf shrimp prepared in many different ways, great steaks and more fresh fish than you could imagine. After that, head back to the bar and dance the night away to some of the best performing acts and bands in the region. It really was a magical place. Especially when it was ‘cadillacing.’”
By design, Cajun’s was the ideal venue to meet and greet and dine. The bar was an active place to have a beverage and discuss business.
“Many a legislator and lobbyist were seen exchanging dialogue. Particularly in the ‘old days.’ As laws and public opinion changed over the years, I think those gatherings seemed to happen less frequently,” Ringgold said.
From politician to business owner to celebrity, from Sam Walton to Bob Hope, famous people from all over the country would stop by Cajun’s Wharf for dinner as the establishment’s reputation grew. As Kovach noted, the legacy of political events held at Copper Grill was rooted in Cajun’s origins. Ringgold confirmed that the restaurant’s political legacy was born at Cajun’s.
“I remember the day that Mike Beebe announced that he was going to run for governor,” she said. “He was having dinner with his long time friend, Don Tilton. I remember going by his table to congratulate him. I think he was one of the best governors in Arkansas history. A side note — he loved our oysters Bienville. To this day, I think he would tell you that it is one of his favorite foods.”
On Jan. 8, 2007, Cajun’s hosted the memorable “Painting Arkansas Blue” inauguration party for Beebe. Ringgold and staff had planned for 1,000 people, which would have been a breeze, given the venue’s size and layout. But, as the hours clicked by that day, the demand for tickets went crazy. Ringgold recalled working with Little Rock public relations man Denver Peacock as the demand for tickets ratcheted up.
“Every 15 minutes, he would call me to say we need to add 20 more people, add 10, add 50. When the night came, it was by far the most people ever inside of Cajun’s. We had to let people in as we let people out the door. I think we ended up with over 1,700 people all told, well over fire code. So, sorry Little Rock Fire Department.”
Cajun’s hosted Beebe’s second inaugural event on Jan. 10, 2011. It was themed, “The Beebe-Que: A Southern Casual Affair.”
“It was kind of a throwback to Gov. [David] Pryor’s Blue Jean Bash parties. It was also highly attended,” Ringgold added.
As a follow-up to the opening of the Clinton Library and Museum in November 2005, Cajun’s hosted a big party for staff and volunteers as well as Little Rock city directors and staff who worked to make the library a permanent fixture in the city. The party also produced a packed house, and President Clinton was in attendance.
Most recently, in November 2018, Cajun’s hosted Scott’s mayoral election night party.
“People were coming from everywhere and at one point, you couldn’t get into the parking lot. There was so much excitement about our new mayor,” Ringgold said.
Kovach recalls the political action and parties that took place at Cajun’s.
“When I was a young server at Cajun’s 20 years ago, a lot of politicos would come to Cajun’s after different sessions, so I got to know Beebe, and so did Mary Beth,” he said. “Copper Grill kind of became a second place for people to go to. Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson comes in twice a month, and Beebe comes in quite a bit as well. [Former Gov.] Jim Guy Tucker is a frequent guest of ours. We deliver food more now than dine in, and so we still deliver to plenty of politicos. When Beebe was in office, we did both of his big election wins at Cajun’s. Thousands of people would come. There has always been a connection with Cajun’s and with the larger network. Copper Grill is a local small guy. We seemed big, but the legacy at Cajun’s rolled over to us.”
Kovach on the success of Cajun’s and the influence of Clinton:
“In the ‘80s, Cajun’s was at one point one of the highest grossing restaurants in the United States. Bill Clinton, when they opened the Clinton School, we had a private party with him, a big celebratory party because they had such a resounding response to the school’s opening. It took up the space in the bar. Mary Beth, myself and Clinton had a conversation outside. He told us that he was so proud to be governor when Cajun’s was the highest grossing restaurant. There is a long-standing political connection with Copper Grill and Central Arkansas, because Cajun’s was where all of the movers and the shakers came. It was one of the old spots, and there was the connection with Mary Beth as well. So many people came and supported it. When the Clinton Library brings in speakers, a lot of local politicians come into Copper Grill, since it’s a fluid location in the journey from the state capitol to the Clinton School.”
Kovach also recalled that Mike Bloomberg (endorsed by Scott) ate at Copper Grill in the private room when the Democratic primary was still in full swing, and that the establishment was packed. He said Bloomberg loved the magnum cheeseballs.
Both Ringgold and Kovach appreciate the ability of a shared meal to bring people together.
“I have been doing this a long time and have been a daily student of human nature and behaviors,” Ringgold said. “Working alongside the general public presents all types of challenges, but it provides a level of education you can’t get in school. I think there is something about sharing a meal together that is very human and neutralizing. It levels the playing field a bit and doesn’t have the implied time management necessity that you feel in an office.
“You are more apt to share some pleasantries about your life and family and then gradually move into business topics. Conversely, sitting across a desk from someone lends itself to getting right to business and then out the door. Plus, I think that it is meaningful if someone is willing to invest a couple of hours with you over lunch or dinner. You are probably more likely to win them over, providing of course, you use your best manners.”
Assessing the impact Cajun’s Wharf has had on the Arkansas political landscape, Ringgold insists the spirit of Cajun’s was transferred to Copper Grill. But there’ll never be another Cajun’s.
“I can’t tell you of any secret political meeting that changed Little Rock. But, I can tell you that Arkansas governors, Arkansas legislators and senators, U.S. senators, U.S. congressmen, former and current mayors and former President William J. Clinton all have been to Cajun’s. It was a trusted place where people felt welcome and safe. And, it was a given that the food would be great and a good time would be had by all.”
Copper Grill also has the luxury of a great reputation, but it’s more of a hidden gem. Kovach joked that people come to Copper Grill because they’re going to run into who they want to see, and not who they don’t. Ringgold credits all of Copper Grill’s success to the leadership of Kovach and is grateful the Cajun’s legacy carries on through him.
“I give Dan Kovach all of the credit for the current success of Copper Grill. He took his great energy for making people happy and just turned it loose. He is a natural. He is there, engaged and always listens to what his guests are telling him. Then, he takes that intel and uses it to make subtle improvements. Also, the concept is very good and very consistent,” she said. “They start with the very best raw ingredients and have created a fun menu that speaks to everyone. It features a terrific selection of entrées and many great sharables. As well, the atmosphere is friendly, welcoming and comfortable. The Copper Grill is a winner on all fronts.”
Ringgold on the closing of Cajun’s:
“In 2019, facing unfavorable lease renewal terms, extremely high building-repair costs and sagging weekday traffic, we made the very difficult decision to close Cajun’s. Our final day was May 31, 2019 — an almost 45-year run. Cajun’s was part of the Little Rock landscape for almost 45 years. Little Rock loved Cajun’s. That was evident when we announced the closing and gave everyone two months to come out and enjoy it one last time. There were some folks who came out every day. Many came once per week. Those two months turned out to be the busiest two months ever in the history of Cajun’s.”
Ringgold is grateful the Cajun’s legacy is continued through Kovach and Copper Grill, even through a pandemic and its unique challenges for the restaurant industry. And Kovach asserts that pandemic restrictions have fallen harder on restaurants and bars than other businesses.
“Grocery stores haven’t been regulated as hard and as consistently, whereas we [took] a total hit,” he said. “It’s not that I wanted 100 percent capacity, it’s that the restrictions that they put on us were a broad stroke rather than doing it business to business.”
But Kovach sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He knows that the experience of those who have helped the Copper Grill flourish into what it is today is enough to make it through the current challenge. Whether it’s a candidate watch party or another event, Copper Grill is embossed with the spirit of its predecessor and remains “a little bit for everybody.”