Wrapping up a celebrated 20 years of successful restaurant business, Loca Luna enters into the 21st year as a solid restaurant with a great staff and loyal tenants. The restaurateur behind the successful duo Loca Luna and Red Door, worked diligently at his trade. He has been a pioneer in broadening the Little Rock cuisine and establishing the live music culture.
Outside on the sunny patio of Loca Luna with refreshments, house-made cheese dip and warm tortilla chips, we strolled down memory lane, reminiscing about the past that has become fond memories for many of us and new opportunities for others.
Mark Abernathy was born and raised in Arkansas. He graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1971 with a degree in Banking and Finance. While he could have become a banker, his heart led him down a different path. Though Mark didn’t have formal culinary training, he has cooked and maintained relationships with notable chefs and produced close to 500 cooking shows.
He jumped aboard TGI Friday’s in 1971 when they set to open their third franchise location in Little Rock. Following the original location in New York and the second in Memphis, Friday’s was originally established where Cotham’s in the City is today.
At age 23, Mark was brought on as one of the assistant managers when a group of investors hired him to “open the Dallas Friday’s which became the proto-type of Friday’s all over the country, and it was an over-the-top success,” Mark says.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Abernathy recalls. “We were doing ten to eleven thousand dollars a day. With mixed drinks at $0.75, burgers at $2.50, and a sirloin steak at $8 to $9 dollars, we literally had people lined up from 11 o’clock when we opened until 12 or so at night. It was nuts.”
Then, an investment group hired him to go to San Antonio where they wanted Mark to develop a restaurant that would be similar to the success of Friday’s. Mark “fell in love with San Antonio and the Latin culture. It was a very cosmopolitan scene.” He was “introduced to the real Latino culture and food, and the real Asian culture and food. And it was wonderful.”
Mark stayed in the business around 14 years and opened several restaurants during his time in San Antonio. Mark was president of The Design Group which designed and consulted on restaurants in Mexico.
In 1985, Mark was at a place in his life that made sense to move back to Arkansas. “I decided it was a good time to come home. My father was dying. I figured it would be a good time to spend some time with him … his days were numbered.” Mark was married, and he and his wife decided to settle down in Little Rock and start a family.
After he moved back, Mark realized there weren’t many good Mexican restaurants in Little Rock. He thought, “this will be a good time to open a real Mexican restaurant.”
Abernathy found the building on Main St. that would soon alter the landscape of Mexican cuisine and music culture in Little Rock forever. The building itself was just “concrete block walls, no windows, dirt floor, it was just a concrete shell with a roof. That was it,” Abernathy describes.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. A new expressway was scheduled to open just 3 to 4 months before his new restaurant opened its’ doors. Mark knew it would greatly impact the ease of travel time for customers that wanted to dine in the new restaurant.
Partners, Mark Abernathy and Frank McGehee opened Juanita’s in 1986. “Part of the charm of Juanita’s was that it was there. It was quasi-funky. And of course, the building was magnificent, perfect for a Mexican restaurant. It was a home run.”
But, something was missing. Mark had always been a musician. He recalls, “I still had that hankering to get back into live music production. So I teamed up with Benny Turner and we started the live music program at Juanita’s. It changed live music in Little Rock.” Mentionable bands like Peter Rowan, Quiet Riot, Jefferson Airplane, Better Than Ezra, Pat Greene, Levon Helm, The Neville Brothers, and Cowboy Mouth are few of many that brought hundreds of fans.
Blue Mesa was started in Little Rock in 1989 which offered upscale southwest cuisine. Here, Mark served the first fajitas in Arkansas. “Frank was instrumental in helping develop the menu for Blue Mesa. He deserves credit for the food we put in Blue Mesa,” Mark says. The restaurant didn’t do as well financially, and Mark was ready to start a new establishment.
Mark wanted to open another place, a “non-themed restaurant.” Loca Luna was opened in 1996 and will be celebrating 21 years this May. “It’s been a lot of fun,” Mark says. Some dishes crossed over, like the original recipe from Juanita’s famous cheese dip. After opening, Loca Luna was at capacity most evenings. After refocusing lunches to offer plate lunches, the afternoon rush became an overwhelming success.
About 4 years into Loca Luna, Mark put a cooking show together called, “Today’s Cuisine” which aired on channel 7. It involved 3-4 minute segments produced locally in a Little Rock studio. The show required long working hours and a lot of travel time. The segments appeared in New Orleans, two stations in New York City, Washington D.C., and Boston. “It takes eight hours to shoot a three minute, quality segment.” While the cooking show was a success, Mark didn’t like being on the road and away from his family.
He opted to open an Italian restaurant in 2000 known as Bene Vita. “I didn’t have much experience with Italian food,” Mark continues. “It was so much fun because I got to do something new. By this time, I had 25 years under my belt, and I needed something to keep the juices flowing.” But, sales started to decrease. Mark notes, “The location and potential was better than that.” So the decision was made to switch from Bene Vita to Red Door.
“Even though I hated to see it go, when I switched to Red Door I kept four or five of the best dishes on the menu. I call it ‘Nouveau schizophrenic,” Mark continues with a smile, “We just go with the flow.” Red Door has been Loca Luna’s neighbor since late 2009.
“I still like what I’m doing and I’m going on 44 years,” Mark explains. But moving forward, “I’m not going to work as hard. One of the good things about having two restaurants right next door for so long is that my staff is golden.” He continues, “In fact, on the busy nights I never step foot in the kitchen.”
Mark also enjoys the culinary events and representing Arkansas’ culinary scene. He plans to travel to Washington D.C. next week for Taste of the South and then to Atlanta the first weekend of June for Atlanta Food and Wine Festival event.
The slower pace life suits Mark well, as does representing Arkansas food. Mark is as happy as we have ever seen him. The ambassador and mentor role for the Little Rock food scene is leaving a lasting legacy that is even bigger than all of his personal culinary accomplishments.