For decades, if anyone needed to find the biggest collection of Arkansas bigwigs, power players and just plain hard workers, in a single location, the original Homer’s on East Roosevelt Road in Little Rock immediately comes to mind.
Homer Connell purchased the location in 1986 from Harlan Holt, who had owned the restaurant when it was still Circle B, a small, well-known diner in the middle of an industrial park. Katrina Vaughn, owner of what is now referred to as Homer’s East and Connell’s daughter, remembered when her father took over the restaurant, and it gained traction with the unexpected blend of clientele.
“It turned out that we ended up seating more political people than what we thought in those days. With the House in session, we had everybody from the Capitol there. I guess it was easy to get to, with lots of parking,” Vaughn explained. “This was back in the day when there were lobbyists everywhere. Lobbyists were coming in and buying meals for everybody. So, this is a really big, hot spot — more tickets were being passed on our floor than on the floor of the Senate.”
Framed articles on the wall reach the same consensus — Homer’s is the place to be during the height of the political session.
Vaughn and the framed articles on the wall can help to compile a list of those who have frequented the diner over the course of four decades, including former Attorney General Winston Bryant; Bill Paschall; Earl Jones; a slew of military leaders; former Gov. and U.S. Sen. David Pryor, as well as his wife, Barbara, and son, Mark; former Gov. Frank White; a host of presidential hopefuls; Sheffield Nelson; John Deering; national television crews from ABC News; lawyers from a host of firms downtown; scores of local executives; justices from the Arkansas Supreme Court; as well as top local school officials.
Vaughn acknowledges the uniqueness that is Homer’s, a blue-collar diner if there ever was one, still stuck in the middle of an industrial park with an airport as a backdrop. Sure, the diner serves the upper crust of the white-collar crowd, but it’s one of those rare spaces where both white- and blue-collar mingle.
“In the beginning, where we were, industry was really thriving in that industrial park. You had trucklines, you had a distribution center right across the street from us. There was lots of traffic from the street. So, we were never in a bad place for business because we had a captive audience down there. We were the only restaurant,” Vaughn explained.
The simplicity and authenticity of the diner for the workers in the area made Homer’s a rite of passage for politicians who truly wanted to identify with the people that they represented.
“Many politicians have shot commercials here. We’ve had many, many politicians come in, slap on an apron and pour tea and help wait tables. I mean, there’s no way you can have a town hall meeting in that restaurant because we have too many people all at once, but the customers asked. One of the political stories that comes to mind that is the most fun for me is Bud Cummins when he was running for Congress years ago,” Vaughn said.
Cummins ran for the Second District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, where he lost a close race to Vic Snyder, and eventually served as U.S. Attorney from 2001 to 2006 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
“He put on an apron, grabbed some tea, a towel, and went table to table refilling teas and talking,” Vaughn recalled of Cummins. “We’ve had Bill Clinton in here when he was running for president. And during the election, you’ll always see someone in here shaking hands and working tables. We did a couple of fundraisers and ‘get out the vote’ events. People really like this place. It’s not a pretentious atmosphere. It’s really kind of laid-back. I think people here are very approachable and just have conversations. I love to see politicians alongside all of us there because we don’t run with a huge staff. We run a small staff, and we run really hard. So, I think they just love to see that because it makes a person look like they’re really working hard. I didn’t realize the political capital we had in that restaurant — so many people came in there and were movers and shakers.”
The buzz around Homer’s often attracted celebrities as well.
“You really never know who you’ll find. Barry Switzer was there once — I didn’t think I’d get my crew back to work,” Vaughn said with a laugh. Switzer was coming off his most famous coaching stint with the Dallas Cowboys. “They all had to come out and talk to him. We’ve had lots of different people that would come in and do that.”
Around eight years ago, Vaughn’s brother, David Connell, opened a second Homer’s location in Little Rock, referred to as Homer’s West.
“We toyed with the idea for a long time about opening up a second location, and then when my brother decided he wanted to branch out and do more, the time came,” Vaughn said. “So, we opened up one out west, and it was totally scary. But it turned out beautifully. It’s not quite the same as ours, but it does have it’s own Homer’s essence.”
But as the landscape around Homer’s has changed over time, Vaughn noticed a shift in her customers as well. This change has paved the way for opportunity. As COVID impacted small businesses and eateries, Homer’s too felt the blow of the economic downturn. But, Vaughn said, all the downtime during a very tumultuous period afforded the opportunity to have genuine conversations and to grow with the people around her.
“Over the years, the trucklines closed down. The warehouses are empty. It’s changed over time, and all the people that made us the political place that we were…they’ve all grown up and retired. And now it’s another generation of people that come in,” Vaughn said. “So now we have millennials coming in and sometimes a little older age group. It’s changed over time, but even during COVID, lots of police officers are there and people who are still in the manufacturing industry.
“During that time, we were only serving about 20 people a day, so things were really slow… There was so much time we got to spend just talking. It was really nice to have one-on-one conversations. And especially with social issues like Black Lives Matter, because that became such an issue. I got to learn more about myself and the people around me. My father always said to never talk about politics with our customers because they didn’t want our opinion.
“But things are so different now. Me and my staff got to sit together and really talk about the state of our union. What’s our new normal going to look like? What’s going to happen in the election? There have been some really serious moments, and we all participated in the conversation, from my bus boy, to my cooks, to my daughter, to me, to everybody from all different lifestyles. So to have all of us with our customers talking and discussing things, COVID did give us something good.”
Now that Homer’s has begun to emerge on the other side, Vaughn has had an opportunity to look around and realize that the bond between business and customer, no matter the color of the collar, goes even further than an economic transaction — Vaughn calls these people her friends.
“Over the last year, people have had to come together, and we have to realize this is all bigger than us. We’re not bigger than this world,” Vaughn said. “We built this place together. This restaurant has given me so much emotional support. Not even by just supporting my family, but everything. We’re all family. We’ve gotten through one season, and we’ll get through the next one together.”
Homer’s has had a profound impact on the political and legal landscape of the Natural State, but has also kept the toughest and hardest working blue-collar Arkansans fed. The humble diner has served as a place for folks from all walks of life to rub elbows and dig in. Quite simply, Vaughn and her staff have put the “home” in Homer’s for four decades.