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 Rick Rogers, owner and operator of one of Central Arkansas’s newest food trucks, Rick’s Beignets.
How did you get to Arkansas? Are you a native here?
I am not an Arkansas native. I was transferred here by the Air Force in 2011.
What’s your connection to New Orleans and how did you fall in love with the city?
Although I grew up in Southern Mississippi on a farm, I spent nearly all my summers in New Orleans with my aunts, uncles, and cousins who live there. Also, I went to college there at Loyola University. I spent about 5 years in the city before re-joining the Air Force as an officer. I fell in love with the city as a child because it was like an oasis of food, culture, and history compared to my humble country-boy existence.
What are some of your go-to places for dining in New Orleans?
I love Drago’s, for their oysters and also the ACME Oyster Bar. Also Emeril’s…his food is amazing. Palace Cafe is awesome for brunch, as is Court of 2 Sisters. Atchafalaya is pretty cool as is The Ruby Slipper cafe. For beignets, my favorite is Cafe Beignet. Lastly, I always go to Cafe Du Monde because it’s a tradition and it brings back great memories from when I was a kid.
Can you tell me a little about your history in the military and what role that plays in your life today?
My history in the military began right out of high school. It was a way out of rural poverty, gave me a chance to see the world, and the GI Bill helped me obtain an education. I absolutely loved the military and it was my passion and true calling for a long time. I retired recently because it was time, both physically and mentally, for me to move on to other things. I gave my best and served with some of the finest people on earth…people who place duty, honor, and country before themselves. The military taught me discipline, management, and leadership skills that I apply toward my business every day. I was also fortunate to travel the world so that I could experience foreign cultures, new ways of thinking, and best of all, food! I will forever hold all my military brethren in the highest regard and I truly consider it the greatest honor and privilege to have served this wonderful country. I consider myself very lucky in that regard.
How did you develop such an interest in beignets?
Since the first time I tried a beignet, I was hooked for life. They are just so dang good. So I started trying as many different beignet places as I could because there are many varieties…not just the ones made famous by Cafe du Monde. I guess you could say it’s been a lifelong love affair. I tried them in Europe while I was stationed there and got a whole other beignet experience.
How did you decide to start a truck solely dedicated to beignets? Was that an intimidating decision?
My wife and I were at Cafe du Monde and we were discussing what I’d do post-military. I always wanted to start a food truck or restaurant but couldn’t decide on what to do…Cajun/Creole or Latino. While eating breakfast at Cafe du Monde, I commented that I wish we had beignets back in Little Rock and my wife suggested that as a start. I thought it over on the long drive home and it just made sense. Beignets are not that difficult to make and there are enough people here that have visited New Orleans and love the beignets. As a business, I was aiming for a niche market and I thought it was a perfect choice. I considered it a calculated risk, something we learn to do in the military all the time, so it wasn’t that intimidating. I thought I’d give it a shot for 6 months to a year and if it caught on like I thought it would, then great! If not, then I could just get a job working commercial aviation. But by starting with a food truck, the initial investment and therefore, risk, was much less. Basically, I had a gut feel that it would work and wanted to give it a shot.
Do you have a lot of experience in kitchens? Where did you learn your craft?
I’ve been cooking most of my life but for the record I am not a professionally trained chef. I am basically a self-taught, amateur home cook that learned along the way. I worked in about 4 restaurants during my college years and worked my way up from bus-boy to bartender. The cool part was that I made friends with all the chefs and we would hang out after work and swap cooking stories. Eventually they let me do prep work and taught me basic knife technique. Best of all, they let me make them some of my favorite Latin American recipes and they taught me how to make good Cajun/Creole. I owe a huge debt to my mom and both grandmothers, who taught me the basics of both Southern and Latino food. I also spent time traveling the world and eating great food from all places. I would always ask if I could speak to the chef and learn the recipes. My father in law, Heinz Humm, is a classically and professionally trained Swiss chef and former owner of many restaurants. He also helped refine my knife technique and has been a constant advisor. Lastly, my wife Kate worked for Heinz and is a wizard at running the front of the house. She is my constant advisor…and it doesn’t hurt that she’s an attorney and also an interior designer.
Is it difficult working in a truck frying dough all day?
It’s a bit hot and cramped making beignets all day over a fryer in a food truck. But I try go get out and talk to my guests, bus tables, and generally keep busy so that I don’t stay in one spot too long. Also, we do push-ups outside to stay in shape, help with soreness, and wake us back up when we are tired.
What do you think is most unique about your beignets?
The most unique thing about them is the dough, which is most like a Belgian beignet. It is crispy and flaky yet smooth and buttery. Also, it was my idea to put toppings on them and to make sliders. Who says the only way to eat a beignet is with powdered sugar on top?
Beignets and coffee, obviously, go hand-in-hand. Which brands of coffee do you serve and what’s your personal preference?
We serve Cafe du Monde brand coffee with chicory. It’s my personal favorite when I have it au lait. Besides that, we offer Community Breakfast Blend and Community Dark Roast. I did that because it’s what we served at the original Copelands in New Orleans where I worked during college at Loyola University.
I know you’ve gotten great response to some of your other savory Cajun/Creole dishes. What are some of the things you’ve been serving?
We’ve been serving chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, crawfish cake sliders, and red beans and rice.
What dishes have been most popular and what do you think you’ll keep on the menu long-term?
Among the savory dishes it has definitely been the gumbo, closely followed by the red beans made and rice made with andouille. The buffalo chicken slider has also done well and is gaining popularity. Also my ‘Grandmama’s okra’ has been well received. I think I will keep all of them on the menu.
I know you’ve got some Latino blood in you. Will we ever see that come out in your food?
Yes, definitely. My mother is from El Salvador and I’ve traveled and eaten things from Mexico to Argentina. I will eventually start offering some of my Latino favorites but for now I’m concentrating on the Cajun/Creole classics in keeping with the New Orleans traditions.
What’s been the public’s general reception to your food? I imagine it’s a welcome change and something rather unique to this city.
The public’s general reaction has been amazing and overall they seem very happy and pleased with the beignets and Cajun classics. They do tell me it’s a welcome addition to the food scene and it was time that a Cajun place opened up in North Little Rock and Sherwood.
What’s been some of the most rewarding parts of running the truck?
Some of the most rewarding things have been working with my family on a daily basis, being my own boss for the first time ever, and seeing the public’s reaction to the food…which has been overwhelmingly positive. Also, it’s warmed my heart to be so well received here and I feel like people genuinely want me to stick around and open a restaurant. What can I say other than it’s been an amazing and wonderful new chapter in life.
What are your future plans for the truck and beyond?
We are actively exploring opening up a brick and mortar somewhere in the next 6 months to a year. This area in Sherwood has been great to us and I would love to open up here and keep the truck running in a different area. Long term I can see us having a few brick and mortar locations and several trucks around the region.
Most importantly…when the Hogs play LSU, which team are you pulling for?
I will definitely be pulling for the Razorbacks. I love it here.