Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Food Insider takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, we feature Jack Sundell, owner of The Root Café.
Where are you from and how long have you been in Little Rock?
I grew up in Monticello, a small town in southeast Arkansas. I went to college at Hendrix in Conway, bounced around during my 20s, and landed in Little Rock about eight years ago.
What were you doing before you decided to open The Root Café? When was the moment that you knew you wanted to open your own restaurant?
I remember having dinner with my parents at Acadia in Hillcrest and telling them about my dream of opening a local foods café. We’re not a restaurant family, so I think they were surprised, but also fully supportive. I was working at Audubon Arkansas at the time and had just moved to Little Rock. I’d fallen in love with the idea of opening a café when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Cafés were one of the centers of Moroccan social life, and I thought how great it would be to create a similar space in the US—vibrant, active, intimate—the kind of place that gives you a sense of the surrounding community. The local foods aspect came from a year-and-a-half stint working at the Heifer Ranch in Perryville where most of the food we ate was raised right there on the ranch. These were my motivations, but my wife and business partner, Corri Sundell, also deserves mention as the other half of the project, bringing her talented background and loving inspiration to The Root’s menu, atmosphere, and local foods philosophy.
“Building Community Through Local Food” is something that can be found on one of the signs out front at The Root Café. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
It means everything! That’s our mission statement and it guides all that we do as an organization. Building community is about creating a sense of place:
1. Strengthening the local food economy by supporting Arkansas farmers and producers.
2. Educating consumers about the positive economic and environmental impact of local purchasing.
3. Fostering a sense of pride in our wonderful city and state.
Delicious local food is a great way to get people’s attention, but we want to talk about local as a lifestyle! And I could talk about it for hours, but I’ll spare you for now.
Earlier this year, HLN announced The Root Café as the winner of a $25,000 grant selected by viewers of “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” Your restaurant was also awarded a $150,000 grant from Chase’s Mission Main Street project. What has that exposure and the grants done for The Root Café?
It was a huge honor to receive both of these awards. As a business owner it’s easy to toil in the trenches without looking up, so it’s very validating when the universe says, “Good job!” The exposure from these two events has definitely raised awareness of The Root and our local foods mission, both among Little Rockers and out-of-towners. The grants themselves are going to allow us to do a small building expansion which will enable us to offer dinner several nights a week, do a little more catering, more baking, and more canning, pickling, and food preservation.
Can you provide any updates on what you are using the grants for? When we last spoke about this in January, your wife, Corri, mentioned that you wanted to add a kitchen and expand seating at the restaurant. Do you have a timetable of when patrons will begin seeing some changes?
If you’ve ever seen our kitchen, you know it’s smaller than your home kitchen! We’ve wanted to open for dinner for several years, but just don’t have the space we would need for the additional food prep. We also want to improve the flow in our seating area. We’re in the midst of planning the new space, but I can tell you it’s going to be great! Our goal is to add a small prep kitchen on the back of the building and a new dining room on the mural side, along with some other improvements like a second bathroom and better heating and air conditioning. We’re saying sometime this calendar year, but what we really mean is before all the plumbers and electricians go into the deer woods for two months.
You had Food Network’s Simon Majumdar at The Root Café in April to help judge a “Traditional Pie Bake-off.” How did that come about and what was it like to have him around the restaurant?
It was a lot of fun having Simon at The Root; it’s always funny when you meet a celebrity that they’re just people, and he and his team happen to be very nice and down-to-earth people. Simon was on a book tour and coming through Little Rock, and (with the help of Libby Lloyd and John Mayner at the LRCVB) the stars aligned for him to come do an event at The Root. The Pie Contest and Recipe Swap idea goes back to our mission of “Building Community through Local Food”: Bringing people together and offering a context for them to get to know each other and share stories of food and family.
Since opening in 2011, what has been the biggest challenge at The Root Café?
Meeting the ever-increasing demand for local food has been a big challenge—we had no idea when we opened that this concept of transparency in food sourcing would resonate so strongly. In terms of specific items, beef was the hardest thing to reach a steady supply on. When we first opened we were driving all over the state to get beef to keep burgers on the menu; now we have an arrangement with Simon Farms to get a whole cow every 4 weeks, and I look back at that first year and wonder how we did it.
In terms of the local food scene in Little Rock, what would you like to see more of (or less of)?
So much of what I used to wish for has already happened: more food trucks, more farmers’ markets, a craft beer explosion. My big wish now is for a locally sourced, member-owned grocery co-op, preferably in the South Main neighborhood!
We are just about half way through 2015 and it’s been quite the year for you and your restaurant. What do you think the second half of the year will be like for The Root Café?
Yeah this will be a tough year to top. I guess the rest of this year will be like the second half of the roller coaster ride we seem to be on—hang on and have fun!
What’s your favorite part of a day on the job at The Root Café?
Definitely the people. We have the most magical, energetic, and enthusiastic staff on the planet; day in and day out they make great things happen under intense time pressure in a tiny space with the utmost grace and patience, and it’s an honor to work with them. Our customers are the most curious, flexible, and accommodating of any I’ve ever had the pleasure of serving. And of course the farmers and producers we work with are a never-ending source of inspiration. I can truly say that I love my job!
If you could wave a magic wand and have any three people of notoriety enter The Root Café, who would you want to be there and what would you choose to serve them?
1. My paternal grandmother, Thelma Sundell. I feel like she’s a culinary ancestor, because she taught my mother a lot about cooking, who in turn introduced a world of good food to me. Unfortunately, she passed away before I discovered a passion for cooking. I’d like to serve her a tenderloin of beef, mid-rare, with a side of grilled onions and shiitake mushrooms, boiled new potatoes, and a green salad with a glass of red wine.
2. Crescent Dragonwagon, the “Alice Waters of the Ozarks,” who we’ve already had the pleasure of serving at the Root. She wrote several great cookbooks as the proprietor of the Dairy Hollow House Bed and Breakfast in Eureka Springs that I read when I was learning to cook. I’d serve her a chilled zucchini and fennel soup garnished with crème fraiche and toasted pecans, because it just sounds like something she’d enjoy!
3. I’m still hoping Bill Clinton will come into The Root, and when he does I hope he says, “You know, I’ve been vegan for several years, but I’ve heard so many good things about your cheeseburger that I’m going to break my diet and have one. And put some bacon on there, too.”
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I love to spend time with my family! I’m married to a wonderful woman, and I have an 18-year old stepson and 20-month old twins that are the light of my life. My parents and brother live next door, and we all spend a lot of quality time together. I also love to cook when I’m at home—trying out new recipes, dinner with friends, figuring out what goes with scotch. Food is a key that unlocks any door.