Few names carry as much importance and influence in Arkansas food, music, and community as chef, restauranteur and businessman Mark Abernathy. Abernathy recently took the time to reflect on his career and the life lessons he’s learned along the way.

 

Abernathy graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1971 with a degree in banking and finance.

 

“When I graduated, I was a hippie and had a lot of habits that didn’t fit in with banking,” Abernathy said. “I decided to take a job at TGI Friday’s in Little Rock. It was the third TGI Friday’s in the nation.”

 

Abernathy enjoyed the food scene, and TGI Friday’s became a phenomenon. A group of investors bought the franchise rights for the chain to expand in Texas and hired a handful of crew members in Little Rock and Memphis to open the Dallas location.

 

Abernathy went to Dallas, as TGI Friday’s not only entered the scene but rocketed in popularity. At 23 years old, the Arkansan was an assistant manager at one of the hottest restaurants in the country, and he was hooked on the buzzing lifestyle.

 

“It was wild and fabulous,” Abernathy said simply. “That’s how I got into this.”

 

 

When Abernathy opened a TGI Friday’s in Houston, a group of investors hired him away from TGI Friday’s to open a restaurant that mimicked the phenomenon in San Antonio. Abernathy fell in love with the new city.

 

“I was an Arkansas boy who hadn’t done much traveling,” Abernathy said. “I learned to speak Spanish and loved the Latin and Asian cultures in San Antonio. It was a vibrant city. I stayed there in the business for 13 years, and opened my own places there, including a restaurant and a legendary music club that hosted Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and many others from the Austin music scene.”

 

But one day, Abernathy looked up to find, at 30, that the lifestyle had taken its toll, leaving behind a few bad habits. He made the decision to make a major life change to clean up his act, quitting the restaurant business in Texas.

 

Before the long nights of cuisine, music and culture, Abernathy had been an Eagle Scout as a young boy.

 

As fate would have it, Abernathy ran into the administrator of the Boy Scout program in San Antonio, formerly of Little Rock. Abernathy was invited to join the organization. He transferred back home as a Boy Scout executive in Little Rock.

 

Upon settling in, Abernathy noticed a serious shortage of the great Tex-Mex food he had become accustomed to in his time away.   

 

“I decided I would open a Tex-Mex restaurant and started looking for a location,” Abernathy said. “I found this great burned-out shell of a building with Spanish architecture on South Main Street. At the time, the area was crawling with winos and hookers. Madison Guaranty S&L was down the street and had started to redevelop the area.

 

“I had the resume and background of owning successful restaurants, but I was totally shocked when Madison loaned me the money to buy the building and open the restaurant. My civic leader friends at the time immediately warned me that I was crazy to locate it there. But I realized after being in Texas that the I-630 expressway was about to open just two blocks down the street. When it did, almost overnight, everything changed.”

 

Abernathy’s establishment, Juanita’s, made big waves as it entered the scene, with long lines of people waiting to get in over the first year of its existence. Abernathy started a band called The Torpedos which played every Tuesday and Thursday night in the small Juanita’s bar.

 

“I had opened a gift shop in the building I owned next door,” Abernathy said. “When I saw how packed things became when we played, I decided to knock down the wall and put in a live music room. Juanita’s live music program became a huge success.”

 

Abernathy recalled that at the time he opened his music venue, the music business was not what it is today.

 

“It was before the internet and streaming, and if you wanted music, you listened to the radio or cassette tapes,” Abernathy said. “Recording musicians were always on the road to promote their music and make a living. Since we were at the crossroads of I-30 and I-40, the touring music world came through Little Rock, headed to bigger markets. We booked some of the best music in the country on weekdays for smaller fees,” Abernathy said.

 

“As a musician, I understand production values. I invested what I thought at the time was an outrageous amount on the sound system and lights. That proved to be a real draw to quality bands playing a small venue. If you were a live act in Arkansas, you really wanted to play Juanita’s. Plus, the food was damn good,” Abernathy said.

 

After Juanita’s had been open for five years, Abernathy and one of his partners, Frank McGehee, decided to bring a New Mexican-style restaurant to central Arkansas.

 

“Frank was an insurance agent but also a foodie with good instincts,” Abernathy said. “He really helped me be a better chef. We created Blue Mesa Grill. It gained national attention. We developed and introduced the first white cheese dip in America, but that’s another story.”

 

Mark Abernathy

Abernathy’s famous cheese dip has made waves all across the South.

 

Abernathy eventually wanted to try his hand at something different, so he left his partners in Juanita’s and opened Loca Luna in 1996 with a new business partner, Dr. David Wilkes. The two have had a great working relationship for over 27 years.

 

By this point, Abernathy had demonstrated a golden touch when it came to cuisine and entertainment. With a string of notable restaurant successes from scratch in both Texas and Arkansas, his positive influence on Arkansas food and entertainment was indisputable. Most people would be content to step back and enjoy their success.

 

Not Mark Abernathy.

 

With the Food Network and cooking shows on the rise, Abernathy once again tried his hand at something new.

 

“I decided to get into cooking shows and did a show called ‘Today’s Cuisine,’ which was syndicated across the U.S.,” Abernathy said.

 

Abernathy worked in the cooking show industry for a while, traveling across the country. But The Natural State once again called him back like a siren song.

 

“There wasn’t a lot of money in cooking television yet,” Abernathy said. “The Food Network had just started, and it was a ton of work and required time on the road. I had a new wife, Lyne, and kids. I decided that this was not the path I wanted to go down.

 

“In retrospect, I was on the cutting edge of food video, so I wonder where that might have led. I might be cooking on TV with Bobby Flay.”

 

Mark Abernathy Loca Luna

 

Instead of a cooking show, Abernathy bought the building next door to Loca Luna that had previously housed Brave New Restaurant. Abernathy opened an Italian restaurant, Bene Vita.

 

“I had Bene Vita for eight years; it was good food and it did OK. But in the restaurant business, it’s too much work just to do OK,” he said. “If you’re just breaking even, that’s not success. So we changed the format to Red Door. It’s done great ever since,” Abernathy said.

 

Mark Abernathy

 

Red Door has been open for 17 years. The restaurant’s neighbor, Loca Luna, has been open for 26 years.

 

But Abernathy did more than just open restaurants. He was known for fighting publicly on behalf of the restaurant industry against high taxes and regulations. He was active in the community. About 25 years ago, Abernathy was in the third class of the Little Rock Leadership Institute. While in a class talking about race relations, Abernathy had a revelation.

 

“The topic of 1957 and Central High came up,” Abernathy said. “Here I was, a native of Little Rock, a middle-aged, well-educated, successful man, and I realized that I didn’t know what really happened at Central High or any of the details. I’d never heard of the Little Rock Nine.

 

“As a state and community, for almost 50 years, we’d systematically swept that incident under the rug and hoped to forget about it. We looked at it as an embarrassment. When I started digging and learning more about it, it became clear that there were a lot more heroes than angry, misguided bigots and warped politicians.”

 

Abernathy was the president of the Quapaw Quarter Association at that time, so preservation was on his mind as well. He’d managed to preserve the old Juanita’s building on Main Street, and he’d personally bought the Taborian Hall (now the Arkansas Flag and Banner building) to keep the city from tearing it down. Abernathy was also responsible for forming the South Main Improvement District that today is known as SOMA.

 

Abernathy had an idea. With the help of the Little Rock Leadership Institute alumni, he founded and chaired a committee that began creating a Central High School Museum. The committee decided to buy and restore a former Mobile gas station across from Central High School and turn it into a museum.

 

“The first thing I did was talk to leaders in the African American community to see what they thought. I was just a white guy with an idea, and I didn’t want to seem crazy,” Abernathy said. “They loved the idea and joined the cause.”

 

Abernathy shared that he and others wanted the museum to focus on the bravery of the school board, the Little Rock Nine, and their parents rather than the negative narrative he had lived with all these years.

 

“Can you imagine? I had a young son at the time, and I thought, ‘My gosh, how much courage did it take to send your kid into that, with death threats aimed at both you and your kid?’” Abernathy said.

 

Abernathy and the committee earned support from the mayor and the city of Little Rock, and soon, the museum was born. A couple of years later, to the committee’s amazement and delight, U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers turned the little museum into a National Historic Site with federal support.

 

“I didn’t make this happen by myself. I can take credit for birthing and leading this crazy idea in the beginning, but not for making it happen,” Abernathy said. “It never would have happened without an incredible committee and widespread support. They did it.”

 

Now, over a decade later, after a colorful and diverse career, after a pandemic and economic recessions, Abernathy reflects on his career as a whole.

 

“We’ve had more challenges since COVID-19 than I’ve ever seen in my entire restaurant career,” Abernathy said. “That includes two recessions, ups and downs, but since COVID-19, we’ve been dealing with stuff that I’ve never seen in 50 years. It wasn’t so much being closed, but struggling to find quality staff when we reopened and now dealing with runaway inflation.”

 

One life lesson Abernathy offered is not to bet more than you can afford to lose because no matter what, you might just lose it.

 

“In 1992, I put on the largest music festival in Arkansas’s history called August in Arkansas,” Abernathy said. “It was a critical home run, with 100,000 people and fabulous music, but our business model was designed to sell lots of beer and t-shirts.

 

“A record-setting cold front came through the second week of August, and people were in long sleeve shirts and sweaters. It killed our revenue. People wanted hot coffee. This whole event was to benefit some nonprofits, and I had loaned the festival a lot of my own money. Man, did I take a beating,” Abernathy said.

 

Abernathy has also learned the importance of rolling with the punches.

 

“For years in the restaurant business, if there was a snowstorm or a Razorback game on TV and it cratered my business, I would get all fired up and angry,” Abernathy said. “Then I realized that I needed to focus and care about the things I could actually influence. I can’t fix the weather or call the coach of the Razorbacks and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t a good time for me.’ I learned to just go with it. If it’s going to snow, grab a sled and have fun.”

 

Finally, after 50 years of pushing the boundaries and limits of Arkansas community, entertainment, and fine casual dining, what’s next for Abernathy? Simply put, more rest, if possible.

 

Mark Abernathy stands in the kitchen with two of his signature dishes.

 

“Life’s been a party with music and great food,” Abernathy said. “I’ve got two good sons, and Lyne has supported me for over 27 years, and she has contributed multiple great recipes to our restaurants. I’ve been so lucky; I’ve had very few moments in my life where I woke up in the morning and said, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to go to work today.’

 

“I’m just focusing on giving back now. I don’t need any more money, my health is good, and I’m in a wonderful marriage. Contentment is a pretty good spot to be in. I’ve had a wonderful journey, and I’d be a fool not to enjoy it and rest a bit.”   

 

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