Tiny Bentonville, population a shade under 40,000, isn’t exactly a restaurant desert. Plenty of chain eateries dot the landscape—a landscape shaped mostly by Walmart and the dozens of large vendors that established offices there to be close to the retail giant. And a family-focused suburban community developed around them.
But now, the complexion of this Northwest Arkansas city is changing, and Walmart is actively recruiting millennials who have the skills needed to compete in today’s digital world. Other local companies, too, are courting startups with infusions of capital.
“There are plenty of jobs down here, but that’s not enough to attract talent, especially young urbanites,” says Rob Apple, a Bentonville native and founder of the RopeSwing hospitality company.
Apple started the company two years ago with the mission to develop “third spaces”—destination restaurants, entertainment venues and art centers where people could gather and socialize—and cultivate a downtown nightlife.
Apple’s partner in this ambitious venture is Tom Walton, the Bentonville born-and-bred grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton. As managing principal in RopeSwing, Tom’s vision has been to look for opportunities for ideas that would be great for the area, Apple says.
The two are taking a long view with their projects, which include multiple restaurants, an event space and a culinary-education center. “Getting talent here is our biggest challenge,” says Apple. He predicts that it will take three years to create the infrastructure that will attract and support an influx of new talent, but so far, patience seems to be working in RopeSwing’s favor.
Walmart is actively recruiting millennials with skills to compete in today’s digital world. “There are plenty of jobs down here, but that’s not enough to attract talent.”
Pressroom (Opened November 2015)
What began as a coffee cart run by Apple and his wife has evolved into a 120-seat restaurant housed in a retrofitted building, developed by Walton, on the town square. Apple brought in Mike Robertshaw, a Seattle chef, to oversee the kitchen. RopeSwing is contracting with a local farm to plant ingredients for Pressroom, and the farmer is working in the kitchen to get a feel for the menu. “The hope [is] it can eventually supply 85 percent of our produce,” says Apple.
Brightwater Center for the Study of Food (Fall 2016)
With the Walton Family Foundation's help, Northwest Arkansas Community College is establishing an education center that will offer culinary, food and beverage management and nutrition education. “The area historically hasn’t had a hospitality industry,” says Apple. “This school will create pathways into our restaurants.”
Future projects (Later in 2016)
RopeSwing currently is rehabbing a local church to house an 80-seat chef-driven restaurant. It’s also renovating Bentonville’s old newspaper building into an event center.