Renowned Hot Springs barbecue joint bridged political divide
When it comes to family-owned businesses with deep Arkansas roots, McClard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs is one of the first names that comes to mind. Because of its renown throughout the South and its role in the city’s development, McClard’s has also played a role in local and state politics.
Scott McClard remains the manager at McClard’s, even though the famed barbecue joint was sold last year to Hot Springs restaurateur Lee Beasley, who saved it from closing. The restaurant’s legacy dates back four generations and almost 100 years ago to McClard’s great grandparents, who ran the Westside Tourist Camp just five blocks from the restaurant’s current location on Albert Pike.
Turns out, the McClards had a visitor who stayed with them for two weeks and announced upon checkout that he had no money to pay his bill. He did, however, have a recipe for the greatest barbecue sauce in the world.
Figuring that this was better than nothing, the McClards took the recipe, tweaked it, and was pleased to discover that he possessed the greatest barbecue sauce he had ever tasted.
The tourist court had a six-stool bar up front, mostly for coffee and drinks, fuel service, and a soda pop for a nickel. When the McClards began to serve meat with their new signature sauce, they caught the attention of Hot Springs.
“Pork and beef were expensive then, so at that time, people ate chicken and goats,” McClard said. The McClards began to put their signature sauce on their meats, and word spread about the barbecue at the tourist court.
In 1942, a family friend suggested the move to the current location so the McClards could give the people of Hot Springs greater access to their barbecue. That year, McClard’s, as we know it, was opened.
“From 1928 to 2021, McClard’s has been a stand-alone establishment, run by one family,” Scott McClard said. “The recipe for the sauce is downtown in a vault in the bank. Other people are like, ‘Did this really happen?,’ and as crazy as it sounds, it did.”
And McClard’s has a history woven with stories one almost has to see to believe.
McClard said the restaurant always was a “hot spot” for gubernatorial candidates.
“The state’s governors tend to make it a hub,” he said. “This was Jim Guy Tucker’s stomping grounds, and he would always make this his meeting place. Asa [current Governor Hutchinson] will come here and meet with his constituents. Politicians come here and make their faces known. Even national names like Newt Gingrich would come in here.”
McClard often wonders about what has been accomplished politically in the booths at McClard’s.
“We extend across party lines, so politicians of all kinds will come in here. There is a lot of work that gets done over a drink or a meal than in a boardroom.”
And the setting being Hot Springs, former governor and president Bill Clinton also played a crucial role in putting McClard’s on the map.
“President Clinton always said that barbecuing in Arkansas is a way of life. He really helped us here. He grew up eating sandwiches here in high school, since he was raised in Hot Springs. After his wedding, he and Hillary stopped by and ate here before going on their honeymoon,” McClard recalled. “He promoted us and let people know that we are a part of him, just like Doe’s Eat Place. A year or two after his presidency had ended, he had his 60 Minutes interview here, and it was very surreal. He is a huge fan of ours. He really put us on the map — every time he mentioned us or ate here, it was like a shot in the arm.”
McClard noted that several times throughout Clinton’s presidency, McClard’s would get an official phone call requesting that food be prepared for pickup by Air Force One. As a result, McClard developed an unlikely friendship with the chief steward of Air Force One, and they still exchange Christmas cards today.
“He mentioned to me at one point whenever we were preparing an order to take back to Washington, that we were one of the very few places where they never had to check the food. That’s how much the president trusted us,” McClard said.
McClard laughs when he recounts how he knew the president would be paying them a visit.
“You’d be working in the kitchen doing your tasks, and you knew that the president was in town. You’re doing your thing, and the next thing you know there’s a guy behind you in a suit with a microphone on his suit coat telling you to keep doing what you’re doing while he checks the place out.”
One of McClard’s proudest moments was when he found out that the barbecue from McClard’s was going to be served at Camp David.
“At the start of President Clinton’s second term, the folks in D.C. wanted us to make everything — barbecue, potato salad, slaw, the works. Come to find out, Clinton took that food to Camp David and fed global leaders and politicians. It excites me to think about all of the leaders from around the world who got to eat McClard’s barbecue.”
McClard emphasized the importance of an establishment remembering its roots.
“Hot Springs and Garland County made us. All over the South, though, barbeque is very argumentative. It’s like trying to separate church and state — if you bring up what you think is best, things are bound to get heated. People take pride in their barbecue. I’ve watched people throw down about it right here. We’ve got politicians and movie stars and rock stars who are dedicated fans. At the end of the day, you can have all of the recognition that you want, but if you don’t take care of your backyard and your community, you’ll become obsolete.”
Eating barbecue locally has always allowed politicians to connect to the people. McClard hopes to see more politicians expanding this idea to all local businesses.
“We need politicians who are grounded and eat local wherever they’re at. That’s what keeps America going, and I hope to see a growing trend of it in the future.”
McClard emphasized that the family had seen some tough times since opening in 1928, from economic downturns and recessions to world wars and other global crises. But he’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s not really a playbook that I can ask the family for. I can’t ask them what to do in this situation, because it’s unprecedented. This is the toughest thing we’ve ever seen. It’s uncharted waters. You’ve got to go with your gut, and we have been, because no one knew what to do. We eventually had to sell. But Lee Beasley and Dean Jennings helped keep this place going. They recognized our value to the Hot Springs community, and I’m immensely grateful to them.”
McClard hopes that as vaccines are dispersed, the capacity limit will be increased, allowing for more customers.
“Things are hard right now for everybody. I’ve heard horrible tales of people closing down for good. I just have to have faith that the community that built us will keep us around for a hundred years more.”
McClard’s has spent decades illustrating the importance of bridging the divide between parties by sitting down with a plate of local food and remembering what the community is all about.