Mark Camp's search for an executive chef at Little Rock's recently opened 1836 Club further confirmed his belief that the town was lacking an appropriately private place for politicians and business people to meet.
Camp couldn't meet Donnie Ferneau just anywhere. Ferneau is a legitimate local culinary celebrity, the sort who is recognized around town as much for his appearances on TV as his work in the kitchen.
None of Little Rock's restaurants or bars felt private enough for the two to meet when Camp, an investment banker, was finalizing plans for the membership-only establishment. Camp, state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, and Rod Damon purchased the 12,000-square-foot property, the former Packet House restaurant at 1404 Cantrell Road, for $1.3 million in late 2015.
Decorated by designer Kaki Hockersmith, the 1836 Club opened last month. The venue features a state-of-the-art cigar room, a restaurant and two full bars (including one made from the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines aircraft, a personal favorite of Camp, who has a pilot's license).
Ferneau was named chef of the 1836 Club in January. He is considered by owners as one of the selling points as the establishment works to reach a roster of 300 members. Owners have designed their business around the idea that people will be willing to pay $250 a month to eat, drink and conduct business in a place that promises discreetness in an era when every moment is documented by somebody via cellphones and social media.
Meeting with Ferneau reminded Camp of Little Rock's limited options.
"We couldn't go anywhere," Camp said of his conversations with Ferneau in late 2015. "Wait staff and kitchen staff anywhere in town knows him. Everybody would have known. People here might notice, but they're not going to go and put it on Facebook."
Following a recent media day event for the club, Camp and I sat down for a Q&A about the venue, which will sustain itself on memberships. Portions of the transcript have been edited for space and clarity.
How did the 1836 Club come to be?
This is something that Jeremy and a few friends of ours had been talking about for years, dreaming up a place where you would find consistency and privacy. It's difficult to find any level of privacy. Consistency -- food, wait staff -- is really, really difficult to find. Privacy is almost impossible to find. A few times maybe we'd be meeting with a well-known person for business and everybody is walking up. It can be difficult to carry out a meeting at a local restaurant without being interrupted. Most of us travel enough, we'd been to clubs like this in other cities. But we wanted somewhere the average business person could go.
Names of members who have rented cigar and liquor lockers were covered for the media tour. Can you at least give us a sense of what industries members represent?
It's broad. Everything is a business. Lawyers. Doctors. Advertising. It's broad-based. I couldn't say. You'd think with Jeremy it would be all politicians and all lobbyists. It's not. There are a lot of physicians. Business owners. It's actually, to me, impressive. It's a little bit beyond what I expected.
Privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. I'm not sure anything is ever really private now with social media and cellphones. How do you police that?
We want our members to have fun. We want them to share their experiences if they're having a great moment here. But we ask our members to keep in mind that people who go to the Churchill Room, including political people that are way up the totem pole, they might not want their picture taken smoking cigars. We want to protect that. It's part of the membership agreement. No pictures there. No pictures of the [liquor] lockers downstairs. We want to do everything we can to make this a safe place. Our staff knows to be rude if they have to to stop things like that.
Because it's billed as a private club, there is suspicion about what goes on here. Dillard's Inc. headquarters objected to your rezoning application because of the potential for "illicit activities."
My wife, Nordina, is the chief operating officer. My wife is involved in everything. She's built everything behind the scenes. I can assure you that image of a smoke-filled, shady brothel is not what she's running here. ... I think [Dillard's] biggest concern was the parking lot. They had seen illicit activity in the parking lot. That's because it was an empty building. Now it's a busy building.
What about the idea this is nothing but an old boys' club, set up for politicians?
Whether it's here or a restaurant, politicians do what politicians do. I'm not a politician. Rod is not a politician. ... I hope we're a place, if politicians are here, they're more available to somebody they wouldn't be available to otherwise. Whether you're a journalist, a doctor, that's part of it. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing. It's a good thing. Joe Public, if you happen to belong to the club, we have access to people. It's not Republican. It's not Democrat. About 20 percent of our membership is women. I hope that expands.
In addition to the memberships, renting the venue to the general public on weekends is part of the business model, right?
It was important to us to have the downstairs available for rental to the public because there's 150 years worth of history to this house. Anniversaries. Engagements. A great-great-grandmother's birth. People from Arkansas have a connection to the property when it was an office, a house, or one of two restaurants over time. ... Away from the revenue source, it's history. I think it's amazing. If we completely close it off to the public we lose some of that.
How close to 300 members are you?
Right now? We're happy. We're very pleased where we are. It's more than I thought it would be at this point. And I was very optimistic.
OK. What did you project by this point?
I'm not saying a number. Where we are is good. It's real good. I'm pleased. We want all 300, but we're not there yet. I'm optimistic we're going to get it. We get applications daily. Most of those are people who have been here as guests.
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SundayMonday Business on 05/29/2016