Looking for a quiet place to study or a comfortable spot to catch up with old friends over handcrafted food or coffee? If so, Speakeasy Café and owner, Michael Carpenter have you covered. In these unique times, being able to enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures is more important than ever. But suffice it to say, much of 2020 has been a challenge for this small business owner in the time of COVID-19.
“We’ve definitely been affected, but we’re coming back,” he said. “For restaurants in general, margins are so low to begin with, so for us to lose anything created a big crunch.”
And with that pressure to maintain a viable business, Carpenter admits he and the Speakeasy crew had to get nimble with their approach.
“Pre-COVID, we had already begun offering takeout,” he said. “That was possible because, over the past several years, we began expanding our menu to offer more than just coffee and specialty items. That helped us build our customer base even further, so when we went from a full house to not being able to allow anyone in for a while, it hurt.
“It was so bizarre having all the chairs turned upside down inside the coffee bar and not being able to serve anyone,” he added. “Since then, we’ve built some outdoor dining space. A customer even built a deck to help expand outdoor dining further.”
Now, as restrictions in Arkansas continue relaxing, Carpenter says it’s good to see familiar faces. “A lot of our customers we may not have seen a few months ago are starting to come back in, so it’s good to see them.”
A consummate entrepreneur, Carpenter originally started as the founder of Mugs Café in North Little Rock’s Argenta District before expanding his operation to Bryant in 2015.
“I opened Speakeasy as a second location,” he said. “Then, I got an offer about three years ago from a guy who wanted to buy Mugs, but he didn’t want to buy Speakeasy. I sold that to him, and we’ve been here ever since.”
While Carpenter has established Speakeasy as Bryant’s “go to” spots for locals, he certainly hasn’t rested or lost the spirit for new business opportunities. Now, in addition to great coffees, made from scratch breakfast and lunch sandwiches, you can also try out his smoked meats through Carpenter’s latest venture, Rocket 88 BBQ.
“It was just a hobby of mine and not something I thought would go anywhere,” he said.
But after more practice and encouragement from friends, Carpenter entered the 2019 Arkansas Times “Ribs & Butts, Rhythm & Blues” competition. “I overcooked my ribs, so we didn’t place very well with those,” he said with a laugh. “But we won with the butts.”
When asked about the secret to his success, Carpenter was pretty frank. “Build a fire and start cooking meat. There really is no secret to it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of finding the way that works best for you. If someone wants to come watch me on the smoker, I’m happy to show them my process.”
Following his success in the 2019 Arkansas Times competition, Carpenter started staging barbecue pop-ups on Sunday evenings to rave reviews. “Those really took off, so we invested in a much larger smoker (named after the 1956 Howlin’ Wolf song, “Smokestack Lightning”) to accommodate larger orders, and that’s how we started taking weekly orders.”
Now, if you want to get your hands on some Rocket 88 BBQ, you have to get your order into Carpenter by Wednesday. That way, he’ll have your meats smoked and ready for pickup on Saturday. “We’re also looking for a food truck trailer so we can open up and offer our barbecue daily,” he said.
But Carpenter doesn’t see it stopping there. In addition to continuing his pursuits with Speakeasy Café, he’d also like to expand beyond a smoker and a food truck to one day opening a barbecue restaurant. “We’re really happy with the growth Speakeasy has seen, and once we get past the COVID pandemic, I’d like to see that business continue going,” he said. “We’d also like to find a space available for rent for a barbecue spot one day. We’ll have to wait and see.”
This is truly a place of comfort for Bryant and all of Saline County. Take advantage of the beautiful, reclaimed wood tables or comfortable couches as you find your home away from home, your office out of the office, or simply just a new place to enjoy all the made-to-order food and beverages.
For more information on Speakeasy Café and to check out their menu, go to www.spkeasy.coffee/.
To learn more about Rocket 88 BBQ or to place an order, go to www.rocket88bbq.com.