travel: woo pig sooie… (2017)

~ In the decades since I last visited my neighboring state to the south, I have heard increasing praise for Arkansas’s upper-left corner.  Home to three Fortune 500 companies – Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt (a trucking company), and, most notably, the Wal-Mart empire – NWA (the local shorthand for Northwest Arkansas) is the fastest growing area of […]



In the decades since I last visited my neighboring state to the south, I have heard increasing praise for Arkansas’s upper-left corner.  Home to three Fortune 500 companies – Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt (a trucking company), and, most notably, the Wal-Mart empire – NWA (the local shorthand for Northwest Arkansas) is the fastest growing area of that state.  These companies have attracted workers from all over the quad-state region and beyond, doubling the NWA population between 1990 and 2010.

Due to a ban on the sale of alcohol, many who worked in Benton County (Wal-Mart is headquartered in Bentonville, which is located in Benton County) chose to live outside the county and commute from nearby towns like Springdale, or Fayetteville, which is about 30 minutes south.  Able to issue liquor licenses, these towns offered more “amenities.” But, in 2012, after significant lobbying, the alcohol ban was finally lifted.  And that changed everything. No longer in a dry county, Bentonville witnessed a boom in new businesses, especially in the hospitality industry. Restaurants, bars, cafés, hotels, and museums have sprung up within the last half decade, making the once-sleepy town not only the attractive and sensible place locals have always wanted to live, but a shiny new destination for long weekenders as well.      



My friends Andy and Kimly have contributed to NWA’s recent growth.  They moved there nearly two years ago so that Andy could take up a teaching position at the University of Arkansas, located in Fayetteville.  Over the past couple of years, during their trips up to Kansas City, they convinced me to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive – a straight shot south on Highway 71 – to visit them.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

With a high proportion of college students, and a rise in new wealth, the area has created an unexpectedly vibrant oasis for Millennial culture amidst the otherwise quiet and pastoral Ozarks.  Indeed, the hipster runs deep in NWA.  Fayetteville, especially, is a hipster sanctuary, where one can observe this finely groomed species flourishing with remarkable density in its new-found habitat. Here, you’ll find all the creature comforts of hipster life: maker goods, third wave coffee, microbrew, yoga studios, and, with a little foraging, even local, gluten-free, carb-free, sugar-free, and fat-free flora.

Take, for example, Puritan Coffee Bar, located on Dickson Street, the town’s main drag.  Serving both coffee and beer, it attracts a pan-Millennial audience. In fact, until a cadre of frat boys showed up – all in t-shirts and flip-flops, a uniform that has not only proven to be universal among this species, but timeless as well – the scene was dominated by hipsters. There were the bearded and tattooed kind – some of the man-bun variety, and some of the closely related lumberjack family – as well as quite a few from the clean-cut, Christian clan (the two girls next to me were having Bible study).  And in one corner, there was a pretty pack of metrosexual hipsters doting on themselves; immaculate, curated, glowing.  On that Friday afternoon, I relished observing their inter-tribal communication, which seemed to be conducted mostly through translation apps like Instagram and Snapchat, their electronic missives (astonishingly) replacing language entirely, and, indeed, even functioning as proxy mating calls.

Clearly, it’s been a while since I’ve been on a college campus, or had close and regular contact with college students. So, admittedly, I am woefully out of touch with the rising generation.  And, clearly, I’m also being unnecessarily sarcastic here.  Hopefully you can see past it to the takeaway: trickle-down trends have reached NWA.


Onyx Coffee Lab


Indeed, there is, perhaps, no better litmus right now of cultural relevancy than coffee.  And NWA lights up rather intensely on the scale.

Arsaga’s sells and serves its coffee at four locations in Fayetteville.  Two are walk-up kiosks at libraries.  The other two locations offer surprisingly robust menus; they’re cafés curiously akin to Australian coffee shops. Arsaga’s at The Depot, for example, serves sandwiches, crêpes, and wine.  At Church & Center, where we had breakfast on the small, covered patio that Arsaga’s shares with a breathtakingly hipster mobile phone accessory store (at least that’s what it appeared to be), the menu featured toast with different toppings, like almond butter and bananas, or pears and goat cheese, or avocado mash.  I quite liked it.

The original Onyx Coffee Lab, along with its roastery, is in Springdale. Onyx serves its beans at three area “labs,” in addition to selling wholesale beyond.  Onyx tops almost everyone’s list for NWA, partly because it’s an early exemplar in this region, pushing for fare trade and education. And it does serve good coffee. But I suspect it also owes a fair amount of its success to savvy marketing as well. Self-aware, Onyx has taken to the interwebs with highly hipstagrammable spaces. When Onyx took over an old Arsaga’s space in Fayetteville in 2013, it refaced the shop with reclaimed wood and subway tile, making it an attractive hangout for college students.  And with its newest lab, Onyx has all but sucked the air out of Bentonville with a capacious, industrial space flooded with natural light and dominated by a tiled bar lined with shiny machines. It’s a hipster’s paradise.  (Sprudge reported on this new location.)



Bentonville is small.  The town square looks like a Hollywood set straight from Norman Rockwell’s America.

With its candy-striped awning, Sam Walton’s original “5&10” anchors one end of the square. Lined with linoleum tiles and bins full of candy and knick-knacks, the five-and-dime is a kitschy throwback. I’m old enough to remember check-out boys and girls with button-downs and bowties, and you’ll still find them here, mostly to direct people through a doorway into the Wal-Mart Museum in the back. The small maze of rooms, which includes Walton’s office – a time capsule from a far less attractive era of carpet and wood – offers a self-guided tour that spits you out in Spark Café Soda Fountain next door. Among the few flavors in the case – all from the local brand Yarnell’s – you’ll always find butter pecan, Walton’s favorite, and “Spark,” which will be hard to miss for its alarming shade of blue marbled with an equally arresting shade of traffic sign-yellow, Wal-Mart’s company colors (I was told it’s dyed vanilla ice cream). In true Wal-Mart style, my single (but generous) scoop cake cone was the “always low price” of $.99.

But lest you think I be blithe about Bentonville, Sam Walton, or the empire he built there, I’m not.  Large volume, low prices: that’s how this quiet town became home to the wealthiest man in the United States.  Even posthumously, Walton’s wealth, divided among his heirs, ranks them among the wealthiest individuals in America, each of them billionaires many times over.  And, collectively, the Walton family remains atop Forbes’s list of wealthiest American families, by a margin of tens of billions of dollars.  That’s impressive.


Preacher's Son


“This is basically it,” Kimly said as we surveyed the town square. Due to an unseasonably warm spell, it was particularly busy that weekend.  Everything worth seeing in Bentonville is within walking distance, she said.

That’s pretty much true.

A block over from the Walton’s 5&10 is that shiny, new Onyx Coffee Lab I mentioned.  Next door to the coffee shop is Pressroom, one of a few concepts in the Ropeswing Hospitality Group.  Pressroom bills itself as an “espresso café,” but feels much more like a restaurant.  The few things we ordered from the brunch menu were terrific, especially the egg and brioche breakfast sandwich, which let out a runnel of yolk when Andy cut into it.  The hush puppies were good too, glistening with a surprisingly tart, honey-lemon glaze. I’d go back.

Two more Ropeswing businesses are on the next block, at the intersection of A and 2nd Streets.  You wouldn’t know it by its steepled, brick exterior, but the old Presbyterian church on that corner houses a restaurant and bar.  Both are exceedingly handsome spaces, especially Undercroft, the cocktail lounge in the basement (it’s open until 0200).  Whatever the financial outlay, Ropeswing appears to have spent its money well.

Appropriately named The Preacher’s Son, the restaurant is in the sanctuary.  Its menu offered a brand of American cooking that has become ubiquitous nowadays: an omnivorous and locavoric approach to hearty Americana, here with Southern affectations: calendula-braised chicken with cornbread, a saucy club of pork shank on potato mash, roasted squash risotto, and carrot gnocchi.  I especially liked the crab “fritter,” which was more like a crab soufflé in a skillet.  Like everything else we had at The Preacher’s Son, it shied from neither flavor nor fat.



21c is a chain of boutique hotels that focuses on contemporary art.  Founded in Louisville, Kentucky, the company uses art to help jump-start local economies by rehabilitating existing structures and using them as museums.*  It has replicated this model in about a half-dozen, third-tier cities across America, including Bentonville.

If rarity creates currency, then on the Saturday that we walked into The Hive, the restaurant inside the Bentonville 21c Museum Hotel, had made prizes out of penguins. From what I understand, these giant, hollow, plastic, lime-green birds serve as both moveable art and mascots for the hotel. Guests are encouraged to claim stray penguins for their stay.  We eyed them covetously, and by the end of brunch, had managed to commandeer two of them for our table.

None of us had the courage to order chef Matthew McClure’s burger, which we had the opportunity to inspect as it passed our table on the way to another: the thick beef patty had been paved with an equally thick layer of pimento cheese.  It looked like a serious commitment. We explored, instead, the rest of McClure’s Southern-leaning dishes.  There was a fluffy frittata in a skillet with chorizo and goat cheese; eggs Benedict with tasso ham; and crispy, buttermilk-fried chicken on a biscuit, served with grits. All of it was very good, and helps explain why McClure has received such regional acclaim.  I’ll have to return for dinner in the future.


Framing nature.


Some of you may know architect Moshe Safdie for his colossal Marina Bay Sands, which features a jaw-dropping, 2.5 acre “SkyPark” – with pools, restaurants, and amenities – hovering at 600-plus feet above ground, cantilevered over three hotel towers.  This extraterrestrial-looking monstrosity dominates the Singapore skyline.  If you don’t know Marina Bay Sands, closer to home, some of you might know Safdie for his design of the Kauffman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City.

Safdie also designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, a project funded by the Walton family. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll recognize his right-angle approach to undulating curves.  Completed and opened in November, 2011, the museum is a network of galleries that spans a natural spring pond nestled in the Ozark hills. Beyond seeing my friends, and exploring NWA, this was the centerpiece of my visit.

As the museum’s name suggests, its collection is exclusively American, ranging from Colonial to present times. The curators seemed to have favored width over depth, as the collection covers a broad range of subjects and periods, but none very extensively. Their cherry-picking, however, presents some true gems – an original Gilbert Stuart of George Washington; a full-length portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbell; a few pieces by my favorite American painter, John Singer Sargent; and a disturbingly life-like, 3-dimensional sculpture and self-portrait of Evan Penny, which uses the artist’s own hair.

But, despite all the art it houses, I think the most compelling masterpiece at Crystal Bridges is the museum itself.  Much like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark (I wrote about this museum in an earlier post), Crystal Bridges deftly carves out scenes from the surrounding landscape and frames them for you. It’s beautifully done.



My favorite part of our visit to Crystal Bridges was outside.

From the museum radiates a web of woodland trails that weaves into the surrounding hills (one of them takes you back to Bentonville’s town square).  On these trails, you’ll find the Bachman-Wilson House, an original Frank Lloyd Wright design that was rescued from its flooded site in New Jersey and relocated to Crystal Bridges.  It’s worth a look. (You can make an appointment to take a self-guided tour of the 700 sq. ft. space.)

You’ll also find one of James Turell’s SkySpaces here. Entitled The Way of Light, Turrell’s installation is housed in a squat, stone structure with a circular aperture in the domed ceiling. Spanning the 45 minutes of sunrise and sunset, an LED lighting system changes the color of the interior dome, altering the way you perceive the sky through the aperture. Not a cloud in sight, we caught the perfect sunset. As the day drew to a close, the sky appeared every color of the spectrum between orange and deep purple, and even grey.  It was awesome.  Don’t miss it.

As the sun retired into the night, we swapped the glow of Turrell’s LED installation for another’s.  On our way out, we paused briefly to bathe in the light of Leo Villareal’s Buckyball, which I had seen in Madison Square Park in 2013. It now greets and bids visitors farewell at the museum’s entrance.  Like NWA, it shines as a rather unexpected beacon of modernity against the unhurried pace of its surroundings.




Here are the places I ate and drank.  Click on the names of the coffee shops and restaurants for the photos:

Onyx Coffee Labs
The Hive at 21c
The Preacher’s Son


* I recently stayed at the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis, which is part of the Aparium hotel group.  Like 21c, Aparium also rehabilitates old buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods of second or third-tier American cities.

** At the beginning of my trip, I learned that a razorback is feral pig that either escaped from domestication, or is descended from domesticated pigs.  According to the University of Arkansas, these wild hogs – its mascot – answer to the call “sooie” (rhymes with the French king “Louis”), which the school has adopted as its game-day war cry: “Woo pig sooie!”

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