by Mark Carter | Photography by Beth Hall
Reputations, earned or otherwise, are hard to shake, and Arkansans have a well-earned reputation for hospitality. The noted Texas journalist Molly Ivins, who died in 2007, was a believer: “Even for Southerners, Arkansans are amazingly friendly and extend hospitality to all strangers with astonishing openness. You couldn’t find a pretension in that state if you hunted from Jonesboro to El Dorado.”
The manner in which Bentonville sews hospitality into the social fabric of its community not only is affirming the state brand but distinguishing the city as something of an idyllic mid-American oasis. Still small enough to center around its storybook, Norman Rockwell town square, Bentonville also is large enough to accommodate the world’s largest retailer and its orbit of vendors. More than 1,250 companies maintain satellite offices in Northwest Arkansas for the proximity to Walmart’s corporate offices; to staff them, they relocate many Midwesterners, left- and right-coasters and even international transplants to town.
What they find in Arkansas surprises them, and Bentonville’s evolving native skill at wielding hospitality is a big reason. In a business sense, hospitality entails those goods and services that enhance quality of life for residents and quality of experience for visitors. At the forefront of this focus on hospitality is Rob Apple’s Ropeswing Group, which has made “quality of life and experience” its business.
And business has been good. Since launching in 2014 and backed by the Walton family, Ropeswing has developed and opened six restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and coworking spaces — with more on the way — that cater to Bentonville’s increasingly diverse population while introducing trailblazing concepts. Its latest project may break the mold.
The Blake Street House, a “wellness membership club” in downtown Bentonville, officially will open to members in October and cater to those drawn to town by a nationally recognized startup scene and the growing number of IT jobs created by the expanding digital footprints of Walmart and its vendors.
In essence, Blake Street will serve as a new-fangled country club that trades a golf course for bike trails but otherwise caters to members in similar ways. Two years in the making and developed on the site of the historic 1887 Blake house, the club will feature fine dining, social gathering space, a temperature-controlled lap pool, yoga studios, fitness and wellness programming, a bike station, a gym, the “Green Room” for watching a game, even a library and of course, a bar.
Apple, who launched Ropeswing with Tom Walton (grandson of Sam), believes Blake Street represents a truly unique concept that will expand the hospitality experience.
“Blake Street blurs the line between a formal hospitality experience, a wellness club and a good friend’s home,” Apple tells Arkansas Money & Politics. “The team is there to guide member experience, but not necessarily wait on the member hand and foot. One of the organizing principles of this concept is that we’ll go further together. We hope that our members will feel comfortable taking a degree of ownership in their experience from both a social and wellness standpoint and work with other members towards that end.”
The Bentonville experience is turning heads — the city has been recognized multiple times over the past decade by national publications for its “livability” and business environment. Not only has the city’s population swelled from roughly 8,700 in 1980 to more than 51,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but the hospitality industry is thriving. Food and lodging taxes since 1997 have averaged annual growth of more than 10 percent. Collections totaled $435,299 in 1998; in 2018, that total was more than $2.5 million.
Apple believes that restaurants, in particular, have “an uncanny way of bringing new definition to a community; how we think about ourselves and talk about ourselves to others,” and cites Springdale and Fort Smith as examples.
“In both cases you have the children and grandchildren of immigrants expressing their culture and values through their food in compelling ways,” he says. “Another great example is downtown Bentonville. It has become a community of chefs who work together, inspire each other and work towards common goals. This has helped our community define its role in the larger culinary conversation in Northwest Arkansas.”
Apple sees Bentonville’s growth evolving in a similar way — a melting pot of Southern, Midwestern, international, with small-town charm and of course, the contemporary chic that appeals to young professionals.
South African transplant Kurt Berman found Bentonville on the heels of a nine-month “traveling sabbatical” that followed a five-year stint as general manager of a resort in Thailand. Now director of club operations for Ropeswing, he believes Blake Street represents a truly unique concept.
“Sure, there are wellness clubs and social clubs and community clubs all over, but nothing that encompasses our values, in a facility like ours, in a community like ours,” he says. “Clubs, by definition, are an exclusive group of people gathered together around a common purpose or shared values. The club’s main prerogative is to provide benefit to its members. However, at Blake Street, we are striving to be as inclusive as possible while actively helping to positively change the lives of everyone living in this region, not just our members.”
From the beginning, Ropeswing’s properties were developed to empathize with patrons.
“If we do our jobs right, we are trying to understand who our guest is, what their expectations are, and how we can incorporate these understandings into every step of the process from initial design through daily operations,” Apple says. “We also have to spend time understanding our employees and their needs. If we want to foster a culture where our team is genuinely curious about our guests and eager to meet their needs, we have to model this behavior behind the scenes. I’m enormously proud of our leadership team and how much time it dedicates to building an organization around this core value of empathy.”
That team includes Executive Director Virginia Gimlen, who says Bentonville’s food scene has become its own draw. The city is training chefs now at Brightwater, a culinary institute affiliated with Northwest Arkansas Community College that works with the hospitality and culinary programs at the neighboring University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
While Bentonville’s bustling food scene has contributed to Benton County’s 2.6 percent unemployment rate, Gimlen believes hospitality’s impact stretches beyond jobs and tax revenue.
“More importantly, we have an opportunity to positively impact our community through giving life to old buildings and making them great spaces to gather with friends and family,” she says. “For those moving to the area, a diverse restaurant portfolio provides something familiar and an opportunity to try something new. Working with local farmers and producers supports community agriculture and helps preserve the land around us. Leading the way in reducing food waste positively impacts the community.”
Will hospitality demand one day exceed supply in Bentonville?
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Gimlen says. “But we are seeing those in the food industry move to Northwest Arkansas for a better quality of life. Ropeswing in particular has a culture of which we are proud. We want our employees in the hospitality space to have the opportunity to work in healthy environments that promote respect, humility, innovation and a sense of family. Treating hospitality employees as professionals and promoting from within whenever possible is attractive from a career perspective.”
Berman says Ropeswing will continue to blaze trails and lay “the path for other hospitality entrepreneurs who may not be as risk averse.” Its flagship restaurant, The Preacher’s Son, is located in a reimagined old church with an underground bar (Undercroft) and a seasonal, farm-to-table menu with extensive gluten-free offerings.
Next up for Ropeswing will be Co-Op Ramen, an “Ozark Ramen project,” and Traveling Public in downtown Springdale, an all-day food-and-beverage hangout space modeled after The Holler in Bentonville.
Apple believes the potential of Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas to deliver world-class hospitality and living experiences hasn’t been tapped. “Not even close.”
“I’m always amazed by the degree of consensus across Northwest Arkansas that this can be one of the best places to live in the country. There is an optimism that seems to normalize collaboration in the region. This has led to some pretty big moves from a quality-of-life standpoint.”
For Berman, the particular strain of hospitality being practiced in Bentonville stands out in his international experience.
“Together with all other partners in the region, we are developing a unique brand of Arkansas hospitality that incorporates Southern charm, a pioneering and trailblazing spirit, international influences, backcountry flavor, health and wellness as well as diversity and inclusion across the spectrum,” he says. “Our current aim is not only to attract industry talent nationwide but play a part in shaping and promoting hospitality education at the local level. This will no doubt lend itself to world-class service and experiences to be had right here in Northwest Arkansas.”
Bentonville has proven a perfect canvas for Ropeswing. Apple’s goal is to make the city a destination by showing off what it and the region have to offer. Northwest Arkansas’ hidden gem status may be in jeopardy. Reports of Hollywood A-listers such as Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise walking the square — most of them in town for Walmart’s annual meeting in Fayetteville — aren’t uncommon; Bentonville boasts the hospitality infrastructure to accommodate them.
Stan Zylowski, CEO of local startup success story Movista, recalls discussing the architecture of Bentonville’s art-centric 21c Hotel with Harrison Ford while Drew Barrymore dined a few feet away. “This is not your daddy’s Bentonville.”