For Denise and Shawn Hipskind, turning the old into something exciting and new is a labor of love. Nestled in the historic, 101-year-old Palace Theater building, the Hipskinds and their partner Kris Pierce have created a hot new hangout in downtown Benton, Valhalla Restaurant & Axe Throwing.
Shawn is the owner of Hipskind Excavating and has built homes in Saline County for nearly two decades. His wife Denise is the Principal Broker at iRealty Arkansas in Benton. They wanted to move into the downtown area with their three kids, Logan, Ryder and Lily, spend less time in the car, and enjoy the beauty and access of a walkable city. They envisioned a downtown full of places for families to shop, eat and spend time together.
Their friend, Kris had always wanted to open up a restaurant, plus he had an out-of-this-world, New York style pizza crust. This is how the idea of Valhalla Restaurant & Axe Throwing was formed.
“We sat down as a family and talked about what we wanted to have in town,” said Denise. “We discussed what each of us love, and we love this pizza place in our home state of Michigan. We take the kids every time we are back home.”
Shawn and Kris began scouting a location downtown for their new restaurant when they were approached by the city of Benton to purchase the Palace Theatre building located at 224 West South Street. “They approached Shawn about buying the building,” said Denise. “The building was falling apart, but he saw the space’s potential. He worked to save as much of the building as he could.”
The Palace Theater was built in 1919 and housed films and theatre productions until the 1930s, when the city repurposed it as a municipal auditorium and recreational space. According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Saline County Library operated the building from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Shawn Hipskind purchased the building in 2019.
Valhalla stems from Norse mythology, representing a place of honor, glory and happiness where slain Viking warriors would feast and drink. Downtown Benton’s Valhalla serves up everything that lives up to its name. From mythically-named salads, pizzas, and sandwiches to cold brews and wines, Valhalla provides a heavenly experience for their guests. There is even a Viking-style food challenge called the Ring Sting Challenge. Guests must consume an 18” pizza that includes house-pickled habaneros, ghost pepper, jalapeños and sriracha. Touted as “pure hell,” if a guest can finish the pizza in 30 minutes or less, the pizza is on the house.
The Valhalla experience also includes the Viking-inspired pastime of axe throwing. In the last few years, axe throwing has become a popular group game. At Valhalla, you can reserve a lane, enjoy plenty of food and beverage and throw axes down the lane to your heart’s content. There is also a large outdoor space for ping-pong, baggo, giant Jenga and Connect Four games with plenty of room for social distancing.
Opening a restaurant can be challenging, and opening during a pandemic makes it exponentially more difficult, but the Hipskinds have found a silver lining. The restaurant was slated to open on April 1. They had hired their chef on March 1, and on March 13, everything changed and COVID-19 threw its own axe at Valhalla.
But Shawn, Kris and the Valhalla staff quickly shifted to takeout orders. “In hindsight, we were able to get the kitchen staff working well before we made our first to-go orders on April 5,” said Denise. Once they were able to safely offer dine-in services, the Valhalla team had worked out the kinks and was ready to serve. “We were ready and excited to have dine-in customers,” said Denise. “The biggest challenge has been meeting the needs of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and to keep people safe and happy. We have asked our staff to get tested whether they’ve gone on vacation or have been exposed. We have to do everything we can to keep the workspaces safe.”
Valhalla offers curbside pickup and dine-in services. You can place your order or reserve a lane online at valhallabenton.com.
“The community has really supported us,” said Denise. “We have a 4-8% profit margin, and being currently able to fill only 60% capacity because of a pandemic is challenging to say the least, but we are confident we will succeed. We love our town.”