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Team Haas – HBS – GSB: The Root Cafe Digging Deep Into Little Rock

2015 Summer Tour, Haas-HBS-GSB Team Comments (0)

City: Little Rock, AK

Entrepreneur: Jack and Corri Sundell, The Root Cafe

“It’s really hot in Arkansas,” Jack and Cori Sundell warned us before our arrival. Sure enough, upon setting foot in Little Rock, we were greeted with the scorching blaze of a typical Southern summer day. Over the next two weeks, Little Rock showed little reprieve on the heat front, but seared into our hearts and minds its indelible sense of community through food (ArkMex), music (Wednesday night live bands), and neighborly care (found at the Root Cafe, and beyond).

Our entrepreneurs, Jack and Corri, arrived to the local foods restaurant business by eclectic paths: Jack by his experience bartending in New York and work in Morocco with the Peace Corp and Corri by her artist career. In addition to sharing a love for each other, they shared a vision to provide locally sourced meals to their Little Rock community, where they have found a home to raise their almost two-year old twin sons, Billy and Benji.

What initially started as a food stand four years ago has transformed into the Root, a full-fledged restaurant and catering service located in the up and coming neighborhood of South Main. For six days a week the restaurant and its staff-family of fourteen employees are bustling with activity serving lines of devoted food-lovers who return repeatedly for age-old favorites like the Root Burger and seasonal offerings like eggplant fries. Undoubtedly, the restaurant holds a provincial charm for its guests with a revolving seasonal menu, Corri’s artistic touch and hodge-podge furniture.

During the height of the lunch hour rush, lines form and wrap around the porch while diners wait patiently to place their orders and then for an additional 20 minutes before obtaining the privilege of savoring the first bite of their meal. “The wait is part of the charm,” read one Yelp review we read. Charm or not – w the Root’s popularity is deeply ingrained in the community that it embodies for all its visitors, locals and tourists alike, who want to taste a bite of Arkansas. While the cafe has continued to grow, the Sundells have done every bit to cherish its small town feel. On any given day, Jack and Corri can be spotted serving plates and making yet another friend with a previously unfamiliar face, bonding over ultimate frisbee, Arkansas music and of course, the farms that supplied the ingredients to the Root’s menu.

Jack and Corri bring a refreshing point of view to business decisions by focusing first on a simple yet vital question: how does this expand our mission? Our MBAxAmerica team arrived just as they started thinking about extending a grocery kiosk to the restaurant business. The reason? Because it would bring local food to a larger slice of the Little Rock community, especially for those that cook rather than eat out.

During our two weeks, we designed and operated a makeshift grocery stand with the Sundells and the Root team, and experienced first-hand the successes and obstacles of selling food. We discovered enthusiastic customers and curious bypassers. We overcame local permitting requirements and spoiling tomatoes. Through all this, we were met with Jack and Corri’s insatiable energies as they juggled their inventory runs, restaurant grill shifts, childcare responsibilities and grocery kiosk duties.

While the local food cause is accessible to the middle and upper echelons of Little Rock, Jack and Corri make an effort to include all members of the community. Their staff is an eclectic ensemble. It includes family members, recent college grads, musicians, immigrants to America, urban farmers, and a one woman with a cognitive impairment that came to The Root through a local training-and-hire program. Change, they believe, starts from the inside out. Over the July 4th weekend, after a full week of restaurant operations, they opened their home doors to a Root family dinner, with BBQ and sides aplenty for all.

All this toil, however, does not translate into instant profit, especially with the difficulties of managing perishable fruits and vegetables and determining prices that remain affordable to the greater Little Rock population. Jack and Corri know this, but are determined to pursue their grocery kiosk vision in the coming months. Theirs is an inspiring example of business for passion rather than dollars alone. As a team, we are determined to provide them with tools that can help increase their profitability with the hope that they will touch an even broader community.

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On July 17, 2015
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