February/March 2016 Magazine

Entrepreneurs: Downtown Hospitality

February/March 2016 Issue

Bentonville-based RopeSwing is planning
for a big year in 2016, with the
re-opening of an expanded restaurant
and a handful of new projects.

Photography by Beth Hall

Top photo: Rob Apple of RopeSwing

As soon as they rang in the New Year, Rob Apple and his RopeSwing team set themselves into open mode. And, 2016 will be a busy one.

The Bentonville-based hospitality company recently completed a major expansion and has several more projects in the pipeline with expected opening dates in 2016. Each project stays true to RopeSwing’s mission of revitalizing downtowns, specifically those in Northwest Arkansas.

“There’s a belief in our group that these downtowns are valuable,” Apple said. “They’re the center of a city, the soul of a city, and if you spend some time on those, good things will come from that. There’s already investment in infrastructure downtown so that if you add on to that and intensify it, it will create opportunities for new businesses to start and thrive versus spreading out.”

Apple began this mission when he and his wife opened Pressroom in downtown Bentonville in 2011, just before Crystal Bridges of American Art opened. At the time, downtown was home to only four restaurants — now, the area has grown and more restaurants and other businesses have opened.

Pressroom originally opened as a coffee shop, and then added food items. Soon, Apple said, food sales began outpacing coffee sales, and he realized a move was needed.

“We sat down and said, ‘We’re a restaurant, not a coffee shop,’” he explained. “It was clear we needed to be more of a cafe/restaurant and less of a coffee space. A move allowed us to be more creative with the space.”

Pressroom, which was acquired by RopeSwing in spring 2015, moved from its 1,600-square-foot space into a new 5,000-square-foot location, where it re-opened in late January 2016. The new space is much more restaurant-centric, while staying true to its original anything-goes business model.

“It’s important for us to be that space that’s an obvious [choice] no matter what time of day it is,” Apple said, explaining that the restaurant will still be open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktails and coffee. It will also feature workstations for people wanting to stay for a while.

Chefs Michael Robertshaw of Pressroom and Matthew Cooper of RopeSwing’s under construction restaurant that hasn’t been officially announced.

Chefs Michael Robertshaw of Pressroom and Matthew Cooper of RopeSwing’s
under construction restaurant that hasn’t been officially announced.

Investing in Viable Spaces

RopeSwing was formed in 2014. Apple runs the company, and Tom Walton, grandson of Wal-Mart Stores founder Sam Walton, is managing principal. The company has been assembling a team of chefs and development staff, searching for individuals from Arkansas and outside.

“We interviewed chefs from all over, primarily because we were just getting started, and we needed some leadership in our kitchens,” Apple, a former supplier for Wal-Mart, explained. “We wanted to get someone who had a track record for getting things started.”

In February 2015, Michael Robertshaw moved from Seattle to Bentonville to run Pressroom’s kitchen. And, Matthew Cooper, previously chef at Little Rock’s Cache Restaurant, joined the team in March. Cooper will lead an under-construction restaurant and lounge that RopeSwing is developing in a more than 100-year-old church in downtown Bentonville, and that Apple said the company is not yet ready to discuss. But, it will likely open in 2016.

Chuck Kerpec joined the team in April 2015 as director of operations. He has more than 25 years of experience in the food-service industry and has worked all over the country, most recently in Atlanta. He said the opportunity to join a burgeoning foodie community is what attracted him to Bentonville.

“It’s the opportunity to be a part of bringing restaurants and hospitality to an area just starting out and growing,” he said. “The hospitality industry brings people together. It’s a big core of what it is that a city or town is circulated around.”

RopeSwing has helped create an urban feel for downtown Bentonville that not only creates opportunities for those working in the hospitality industry, but also enhances the city’s quality of life for those living and working in Northwest Arkansas, said Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville.

The average age of citizens in Bentonville and all of Northwest Arkansas is early to mid 30s, an age group commonly concerned with quality food and locally owned businesses, she explained.

“RopeSwing has become a great leader in the hospitality industry, and we’re going to continue to see some fantastic things from them,” Griffith said. “It’s great, not just for Bentonville, but for all cities in Northwest Arkansas.”

Apple said hospitality plays a vital role in economic development, and revitalizing downtown spaces and educating a homegrown workforce takes it a step further. He said RopeSwing is involved with the Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Program, where Cooper is also an instructor.

“Let’s make these downtowns viable places,” he said. “Let’s do our part. The city has to be willing to invest, but we will take risks on certain concepts.”

Bar and restaurant at Press Room Cafe in Bentonville.

Bar and restaurant at Press Room Cafe in Bentonville.

Planning for 2016

RopeSwing recently announced two new projects slated to open in 2016.

The company is opening an events space in the 12,000-square-foot former Daily Record building at Southwest A Street and Central Avenue in downtown Bentonville. Apple said one of the first events to be held there will be the International Mountain Biking Association World Summit in November.

“It’s a beautiful brick building with large steel-framed windows and high barreled ceilings,” he explained. “We considered many different uses for this location, but we kept coming back to an event space for downtown. It’s a great opportunity for us to experiment with fun and unique programming while addressing the demand for private meeting space.”

The team is also working on a project in the former Tyson Foods plant on Southeast Eighth Street, where NWACC is moving its new culinary school, Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food. Apple said the project does not yet have a name, and they are still working out the details. RopeSwing is partnering with Kansas City-based design company Hufft for the project, and expected completion is the end of 2016.

So far, all of RopeSwing’s projects have been in Bentonville, but Apple said the company is committed to revitalizing downtowns across Northwest Arkansas. He said it takes partnerships and collaboration with other developers, hospitality groups and city leaders to make it all happen. The goal is to turn Bentonville and the region into a culinary and tourism destination, and to enhance the area’s quality of life.

“Everyone’s coming to the table and saying, ‘How can we make these downtowns better?’” he said. “If we can all support each other and build something special, that people can see outside of just Bentonville or Rogers or Springdale, it will benefit us in the long run. It’s kind of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument.

“Our goal is to do everything well. The minute we don’t, we stop and start paring back.”

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