Things seem to come full circle in life. That may sound cliché, but it certainly applies to Benton’s Baja Grill. The Cali Mex-inspired eatery that began eight years ago as a food truck in Benton has since blossomed into two restaurants.
Craig started the food truck with a passion for making good food, says owner Heather Baber-Roe, who runs Baja Grill with her husband, Craig Roe. Food trucks were just starting to become a thing when the truck idea came to life, Heather says. “We both grew up in the foodservice industry. There’s just something about seeing people happy after they’ve had your food. We love it.”
The food truck became so popular that it became hard to serve everyone out of such a small space. Heather and Craig eventually sold the truck to help open the brick and mortar on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood. Since 2014, Baja Grill has enjoyed a bustling business in the Heights. “Last year, Benton Mayor Tom Farmer and a couple of others walked into the restaurant and told us they wanted the restaurant back in Benton,” explains Heather.
Fast forward to today: they’re now back in Benton, where it all started, with their second location. They join culinary neighbor Valhalla Restaurant and Axe Throwing in the renovated Palace building downtown.
Heather says they are glad to be back after years of requests. “We knew we already had a customer base since the food truck was here for a bit and we were asked constantly about coming back,” she says. In fact, a good percentage of their guests would make the trek from Benton to the Heights on a regular basis.
Taking on a second restaurant seemed overwhelming at first, Heather says. “We were scared about so many aspects, but we knew we wanted to open a second location one day and now here it was.”
The couple felt reassured about their new space after getting to know Palace owners Denise and Shawn Hipskind. “After stalking some of Shawn’s work, we knew he would build the perfect space.”
The Heights crew has been supportive, even though they knew it would stretch the staff thin, Heather says. Who knew 2020 would bring a pandemic, she notes, but even through all of the uncertainties, she sings praises about her staff. The two locations are quite different—the Heights being small and quirky, and this new space more modern and open.
“The Palace is such an asset to downtown Benton,” Heather adds. “Not many people know the building itself is an entertainment district. It was wonderful the city did that for us and Valhalla.”
As far as the meat of the business—the menu—Heather says it hasn’t changed much since opening. “As Craig says, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’” They have added a few items since opening the Heights location in 2014. They’ve also upgraded some recipes, but for now, they’re finished “tinkering,” Heather says, noting with a chuckle, “I was physically removed from the kitchen the last time I made changes to the enchiladas.”
They are known for their Cuban nachos—the restaurant’s most popular item. “The Cuban anything is super popular, and it’s hard for me to go to our local grocery store without someone stopping me to talk about our fajitas.”
Every day, the Roes, along with their staff, come in with a work-hard mentality. They have a hands-on approach and strive to create an environment where everyone who walks in the restaurant walks out as happy as possible. “If you see Craig in the restaurant, you’ll see him bussing tables. I’m doing the same or running food. Our managers will be dusting ceiling fans before guests arrive. We want nothing but the freshest food to come out of that kitchen. We want this to be our employees’ favorite job.”
The mission of Baja Grill is to enrich the lives of their guests and employees. “We believe that our employees are our most important resource, and our success depends upon creating and retaining a staff capable of delivering an exceptional dining experience to every customer, every time. If our staff is happy, they’ll be good to our guests. It starts with our people.”
One day soon, the restaurant hopes to become more involved in the community, Heather says. Since they opened in the middle of the pandemic with takeout-only service available at first, Baja Grill is still getting into the groove. In the meantime, they’ll continue serving one plate at a time, creating full bellies and big smiles.