In less than two years, South on Main has become one of Little Rock’s most popular restaurants, and the man behind it all, Chef Matthew Bell, is now a prominent figure in our burgeoning food scene. No restaurant is without its fair share of detractors, but Bell and his staff have managed to keep the favorable reviews coming and most customers happy. We were fortunate enough to sit down with him and catch up on a variety of topics, including key aspects of the past, present, and future of the restaurant. In general, South on Main’s first chapter has been a successful one, but certainly not something Bell has taken for granted. “I’m really happy with what we’ve accomplished, but I think there’s always a lot to work on with a concept like this,” he says.
A big part of the early success stems from Bell’s ability to create a family-type atmosphere within his staff, no easy feat in today’s turn-style restaurant industry. “A lot of them I’ve known for years. I think building on those relationships and being able to hire people in key positions that I was really comfortable with and who understood this goal of hospitality was important.”
He continues, “It turns into this attitude that we’re doing this together, we are a family, and we are going to succeed or fail as the worst of us goes. It creates a really neat situation of responsibility for each person that isn’t a manager or necessarily on the floor every day in front of customers. It just creates a place where we want to help each other out.”
An important part in fostering such critical staff relationships takes place, from all things, while dining together. “A big thing we do to keep that going is a family meal. For the night staff, that’s every Saturday night before service. The kitchen cooks all of the food and has it up at 4:30. The service staff sets the table, brings everybody water and also clears the table, so your roles stay with what the restaurant already does. It’s fifteen minutes to half an hour of being able to talk and not have work hang over your head. You joke, laugh and see what’s going on with everybody. It creates a genuine space where people actually care.”
Ensuring a happy staff is one of Bell’s top priorities, but so too is maintaining open and friendly relationships with a loyal customer base. While some chefs often prefer to stay hidden in the depths of their kitchen, if you’ve ever been to South on Main, you know Chef Bell not only enjoys working the room but is also good at it. “I enjoy it, and I like seeing people. We have a lot of great regulars and it’s nice to see them and meet new people.”
Throughout our interview, it was quite evident how relationships, in general, have been such a driving force behind what Bell has done on a routine basis. He spoke about numerous individuals, like chefs David Thomas, Cassidee Dabney, and Matthew McClure, among others, who have played such an integral role in shaping his style in the kitchen. His appreciation for these people is real and genuine, and so too is his relationship with Oxford American and the SoMa neighborhood. “It’s been super rewarding to be part of the neighborhood, but ultimately if Oxford American had not rented this building and had this idea, I might still be at the Capital Hotel. I live in Argenta and always looked to Argenta as somewhere to own a place. Had this not been the opportunity at the right time, that might be where I had looked.”
While reflecting on the past is always nice, so too is keeping an eye towards the future. I posed the question to Bell on whether the public should expect any new business endeavors coming from his circle. “We do have solid ideas and some things we’d like to do, but there’s really no hurry for us. There’s a slew of restaurant openings right now, and we need to see where Little Rock lands on the other side before we make any decisions. Right now, it’s all about getting this restaurant down the road further. We definitely have some plans, but ultimately, nothing would be moved on before the five-year mark.”