Women in the Food Industry: Amy Bell

“The one thing people will probably be surprised about me is that I’ve never worked in a restaurant before South on Main,” says Amy Bell, sitting at the restaurant’s bar on 1304 South Main Street. As co-owner, she is involved in a myriad of activities, and loves every single one.
Before there was South on Main, however, there was dance. The North Little Rock native doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t dancing, as her interest began at the age of two. Thus, during her college search she was on the lookout for a great program. She chose the University of Montana, and ended up in Missoula.
It was there that she would meet her now husband and fellow owner, Chef Matthew Bell – although upon first meeting no one would ever expect them to be close friends, let alone married someday.
Amy sets the stage for the meet-cute – a dive bar in Missoula. She herself hadn’t wanted to go out that night but a friend convinced her, and here was a guy who wanted to buy her a drink. Cue Matt.
He handed her a beverage, and Amy took one sip before deciding it was bad. Thus, she sneaked out without saying goodbye. “His reaction was – how dare she, who is this girl … I must get to know her,” laughs Bell.
After they got to know each other better, Amy remembers asking Matt, who was waiting tables at the time, what he was going to do with his life. By that time she had tried some of his cooking, and when he pointed to becoming a chef, they began looking at cities where he could go to culinary school.
The two alighted in Austin – Amy was working at a preschool when Matt finished his studies, only to get offers for unpaid internships in the area. At that point, Matt talked to Amy’s mom, who suggested the two move to North Little Rock.
Matt worked at Ristorante Capeo, and Amy began working at a research and consulting firm. The two lived in Argenta, and loved the area. “When we moved back in 2006, there was a little bit of a movement with local restaurants over chains,” she remembers, “I was pleasantly surprised that Little Rock had changed.”
Later, in the fall of 2011 when Matt was working as a sous chef at the Capital Hotel, he got wind of the Oxford American’s proposed idea of moving to the South Main area, with a restaurant in mind.
All the while Amy had been working her way up within the consulting firm. “Matt reached out to Warwick Sabin,” she says, “At the time we were also looking at moving to different cities – Matt had a job offer in Nashville.”
At that point, Sabin proposed that Matt open a restaurant himself, and partner with the Oxford American on an event space within the restaurant.
“We had never really thought about that,” says Amy, “I mean we had many dreams of opening a restaurant, but no plans to actually do it. It was overwhelming and scary, but we had the opportunity to do it.”
So they went for it.
Amy was very involved from the beginning of establishing an aesthetic within the space. As soon as they knew that they would be taking over Juanita’s location, she wanted to be sure South on Main had its own identity.
“I was intimidated by the idea that everyone knew the space as Juanita’s,” she says, “and I knew it needed a completely different life or we would be constantly compared to it.”
In the early stages, Bell was sure she wanted to have an industrial interior design, but after reaching out to her aunt, film-actress Mary Steenburgen, she was talked out of it.
“[My Aunt] said there was so much potential in the space, and that it had the feel of a French ‘40s bistro,” says Bell. The two worked really well together, and Bell still managed a slight industrial touch – cue the pipe shelving behind the bar.
The ceiling was restored, and the windows along the front were recovered to let the light in, as well as the two along the far wall, which had been bricked in.
The result? A timeless space, staunchly Southern and faintly European, both classic and modern.
As the restaurant drew close to opening, Bell had a few reservations about working so closely with Matt. She was worried about what it might do to their relationship.
“I actually have so much fun working with Matt,” she says, “We work really well together. … He’s so passionate about cooking and I’ve become so passionate about every detail of this restaurant.”
The only downside of being a female co-owner, is that often people mistake her for a hostess. Bell says, “I do feel like I feed into that. I’m not as outgoing as Matt, so I make him go out to the tables when people ask for the owner.”
But, she says she wants to see more women in the industry, noting a lack of female chefs. “It surprises me how few women chefs there are,” she says. “I suppose it’s the hard hours, but I honestly don’t know if it might also include the intimidation that comes with being the only woman in a kitchen full of men.”
Bell is quick to cite that the best chef she knows of is a woman, former Capital Hotel Chef Cassidee Dabney who now works at Blackberry Farm.
As far as being a restaurant owner, she wants to work toward dispelling the notion that everyone in the industry is in a cutthroat competition. “Maybe it’s because of the Food Network, but people believe that all chefs hate each other, or that all restaurants are in competition. We made a decision early on, that if at all possible, Matt wouldn’t participate in competitions,” she says.
Instead she wants to garner a network of support, and she and Matt continue to support the local scene. “I hate it when people talk about whether or not we can support more local restaurants or breweries … in Missoula, a pretty small place, there were no less than 30 craft breweries. I see that we have a potential to keep growing and support that growth,” she says.
Even though Bell still works at the consulting firm, she likes to spend as much time as she can at South on Main. Lately, she’s even started booking bands for the late night entertainment slots in the space, as the Oxford American wasn’t interested in those hours. “I’ve always loved entertaining, even before we talked about opening a restaurant we threw a lot of dinner parties,” she laughs. It turns out, Bell has truly found her niche.
Between time spent at the restaurant and her other full-time job, Bell has a hard time finding down time. When she does, she loves to spend it with her two pugs – Benjamin and Hank.
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