How Cypress Social is creating a ‘must-visit’ restaurant—Arkansas style

If the vibe, flow, and stylistic touches and finishes of the reclaimed cypress wood along the walls that give Cypress Social its name don’t grab your attention, the food will. The sister restaurant to the JTJ Restaurant Group’s Petit & Keet is what diners call a destination restaurant.

Inviting dining room area. Welcoming bar and three-tier outdoor deck, complete with lake and fountain. A parlor room. Even the pandemic couldn’t stop the coming of Little Rock, Arkansas’ latest next big thing.

The 330-seat restaurant takes diners on a trip through some of the South’s biggest food staples, including the “Starters” section, highlighted by chargrilled oysters, fried green tomatoes, Delta-style hot tamales, and peppadew cheese dip, to the “Mains,” featuring a classic mix of shrimp & grits, fried catfish, Duroc pork chop, and the famed Butcher’s Steak, a grilled, 8-ounce teres major cut.

We sat down with Jake Keet, VP of Operations for JTJ Restaurant, to get his thoughts on today’s restaurant landscape heading into 2021 and beyond, as well as what makes Cypress Social the place to be.

Give us a snapshot of the Cypress Social brand.
Cypress Social is the second in a series of unique destination restaurants from the Keet family, Louis Petit, and Brent and Tyler Lenners. Located at 7103 Cock of the Walk Lane in North Little Rock, Arkansas, the restaurant and event center provides an eclectic mix of one-of-a-kind fare with a Southern-inspired backbone, innovative bar menu and best in class service.

What type of consumer are you targeting?
Cypress Social is an approachable restaurant that appeals to a broad demographic. Whether you’re celebrating a birthday or anniversary, or dinner on a Tuesday evening, we have a space and menu that can accommodate your needs.

How does the design of restaurants cater to what today’s consumers are looking for?
With this restaurant, our construction company—Keet O’Gary Construction—had a real challenge because it was a true floor to roof remodeling effort of an iconic restaurant space. Working with Garry Mertins and RPPY, we managed to create a space that is as beautiful as it is traditional. The buildout was able to repurpose 60% of the Cypress wood that was on the inside of the building, and with other finishes that utilized knotty pine, the restaurant looks first class and truly unique.

Is there a location that shows how the brand interacts with the community and customers? One of your favorites?
In the room that can be rented for VIP guests, there is a beautiful painting by Barry Thomas of Cypress trees that was created specifically for the restaurant. Barry is a well-known artist who resides in the state. This tied in well to the local community aspect of the design.

What are some of the adjustments you made surrounding the recent state of events?
We have followed every mandate handed down from the Governor to the fullest extent possible. We were a bit lucky that our restaurant is large enough that social distancing was not as difficult as some restaurants have faced. We spent a tremendous amount of funds on PPE to keep our crew safe, and have gone above and beyond to keep our guests safe and comfortable.

What kind of conversations are you having with your customers?
We spend a lot of time asking how their meal was and thanking them for dining with us. We understand that each guest who walks into our restaurant is making a conscious choice to choose us over the many other options. We are grateful to have them in our place of business.

For us, the secret to our success has been imbedding ourselves in the community and doing everything possible to help advance the restaurant scene in our area.

Walk us through how and why the restaurants are designed the way they are?
Jim Keet and Garry Mertens spent a tremendous amount of time walking the space and finding ways to maximize the utility of the space. We have a bar that stretches over 30%. It was constructed on site and is a site to behold. One of our private dining areas has a secret room that holds a restroom for bridal parties. We do what we can to make each element of the design feel unique and show care for the guests while also maximizing functionality.

Give us a rundown of your market’s layout.
For Cypress Social, we’re only a mile and a half from the interstate that connects North Little Rock, Maumelle and Little Rock. Just up the road are Conway and Mayflower. With the unique offerings on display and a setting that cannot be found elsewhere in the state, we have been able to capitalize on all sectors of the community. About half of our customers are currently from Maumelle, but we see a lot of faces from Little Rock, North Little Rock and Conway.

What’s the biggest issue today related to the construction side of the business?
Every year the price of playing poker goes up. With a worldwide pandemic, there has been a steady increase in the cost of materials that had already increased substantially in the last decade. Some materials have been severely shortened this year causing delays. Real estate in our area has also been on the rise in recent years.

Talk about sustainability. What are you doing?
Our sister restaurant Petit and Keet has worked with ACE Glass to be a leader in the glass recycling community for our city. We are proud of that.

In today’s complicated landscape, what type of opportunities do you see moving ahead?
We see opportunity in doing what we know best—surpassing guests’ expectations. Whenever another restaurant fails to care about food quality or guests, they create an opportunity for our brands to differentiate themselves. We care a tremendous amount about the quality of experience our guests receive.

Are you optimistic about how the marketplace has responded?
We are very optimistic and humbled. The response we have received for this restaurant has exceeded what we thought would be possible in this landscape.

What’s your growth plan?
We will grow organically and only expand as we find opportunities that we know we can execute with excellence. We try to focus on what we’re doing one restaurant at a time and not get too far ahead of ourselves.

What trends are you seeing?
People over the course of the year have seemed far more willing to tip servers well to thank them for working during this time. Kindness is on a surge for those who must work. We have also seen that late night business is probably going to take a while to fully recover. Menus need to reflect a variety of price points in order to capture the largest audience, which is why we have options ranging from Delta Style Tamales and frog legs, to Redfish Pontchartrain and filet mignon.

What’s the secret to creating a “must visit” restaurant environment in today’s competitive landscape?
We are still trying to figure that out every day. For us, the secret to our success has been imbedding ourselves in the community and doing everything possible to help advance the restaurant scene in our area.

What’s today’s consumer looking for in a restaurant?
They want a nice ambience, great food, great service and a unique experience that makes them feel better about whatever the price is they pay. We try to deliver all of that with a smile and a thank you.

Tell us what makes your brand so unique?
We strive every day to become better than we were yesterday. We love our people and they love our guests.

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Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at mikep@ccr-mag.com.

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One-on-One with…
Tyler Lenners, GM, Cypress Social

Describe a typical day.
There is no such thing. We all have our specific duties and everyday tasks to accomplish, but the most important thing about approaching each day is to have a clear head, a good center and a positive attitude. Every shift brings different challenges and joys, but the one constant is checking in with staff to be sure they’re happy, healthy and set up for success. Also, lots of emails.

What’s the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
To roll with the punches. Keeping everyone safe and working is our No. 1 priority. Finding new and creative ways to offer delicious food and exceptional service while being flexible and accommodating in a safe and controlled environment—whether our guests are dining in or picking up to go, is on the top of the list.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Being able to provide an emotionally healthy and financially stable work space for a group of fantastic people who feel passionately about not only food and drinks, but standards and quality. We also love to make our guests feel special and don’t miss opportunities to celebrate.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Occasionally, the food and beverage industry feels impossibly difficult. At the end of the day, people go out to eat for the experience—for the fun. And while the margins are small and the challenges are mighty, “We’re just serving food and drinks.” Take a second, look at the bigger picture, make the guest happy and move on to rock another day.

What’s the best thing a customer ever said to you.
“You all are my family.”

 

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