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HIGH PROFILE: Restaurateur Jerry Jalal Barakat takes covid-19 precautions seriously

Jerry Barakat has created several fine restaurants in Little Rock over nearly 40 years. And he has rigorously adopted covid-19 precautions. by Eric E. Harrison | January 17, 2021 at 2:28 p.m.
“I really fell in love with the people here. In Chicago, we lived for three and a half years in an apartment, I didn’t know who was my next-door neighbor. ... When I came down here in 1973 to visit, I said to my cousin, ‘Let’s drive and get some doughnuts and some coffee. As soon as I got out of the car, people said, ‘Good morning. Hi! How are you?’ Everybody is saying ‘Hi! You all come back.’ I asked my cousin, ‘Do I look like somebody famous?’” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Jerry Barakat opened his first Little Rock restaurant nearly 40 years ago. It's still open, though it has moved several times, and Barakat has passed its management on to his daughters, Susi and Sandy.

His daughters are also successful businesswomen in their own rights. Suzi Barakat is the founder and CEO of eGiftify, which handles gift certificates for top hotels and resorts (and for Barakat's restaurants, Arthur's and Oceans). Sandy Barakat is a designer for Dillard's highly successful Murano brand.

He and his then-wife, Terry, moved to Little Rock from from Chicago in 1981 and opened The Terrace in 1981 in west Little Rock's Breckenridge Village Shopping Center. Initially it operated in a single upper-level storefront; shortly afterward they expanded, taking over the space next door.

Barakat initially labeled it as a Greek restaurant (there was a vivid mural of the Parthenon in Athens on one wall), but the menu also offered Mediterranean-Middle Eastern dishes, consistent with his origins: He's a Palestinian, born in Jerusalem.

"I never tried to hide my identity," he says. "Even after the '83 bombing of Beirut. I was always Palestinian and proud of it."

Terry is a native of Spain. Between them they spoke five languages -- Jerry spoke Arabic, Hebrew and English; Terry spoke Spanish, English and some Italian. Their conversations in the restaurant sometimes shifted fluidly across all five.

The Terrace now occupies a cozy space on the first floor of a west Little Rock bank-and-business building where North Rodney Parham Road takes a hard jog to the right as it meets Hinson Road. It has been there for almost 22 years. Most of its moves, Barakat says, came because its previous locations all suffered from the same ailment: a lack of parking space.

His two biggest and most successful restaurants are Arthur's Prime Steakhouse and its seafood-centered counterpart, Oceans at Arthur's. About two years ago he moved them eastward from their original homes in the Village at Rahling Road into much more spacious quarters (and with vastly more parking capacity) in two adjoining former auto dealerships on Chenal Parkway.

For two years before moving to Little Rock, Barakat had been running, with a cousin, a restaurant in Chicago called Petra's, after the ancient Jordanian fortress that's built into the side of a mountain. (The exterior is familiar; it appeared in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" as the resting place of the Holy Grail. It's only possible to access it by horse or by camel.)

"I had been coming to visit family here [in Little Rock] since 1973, and I really fell in love with the people here," Barakat says. "In Chicago, we lived for three and a half years in an apartment, I didn't know who was my next-door neighbor. Normally, you would want to say 'good morning,' 'good afternoon.' Uh-uh.

"When I came down here to visit, I said to my cousin, 'Let's drive and get some doughnuts and some coffee.' As soon as I got out of the car, people said, 'Good morning. Hi! How are you?' Everybody is saying 'Hi! You all come back!' I asked my cousin, 'Do I look like somebody famous?'"

In 1981, the Barakats were in Little Rock helping celebrate a cousin's high school graduation, and while on a tour of the town commercial real estate agent Hank Kelly showed them a possible site to set up here.

"It was a place in Breckenridge Village called the Upper Crust that used to be a restaurant but they [had] shut down. I told him, 'I'm just interested. We're still debating; we still have a restaurant and a house in Chicago.' He gave me the key in case I decided to come back.

"At that time, my cousin and I were already drawing up papers -- either he buys me out or I buy him out. I don't do good with partnerships -- that's why I'm here. I went back to Chicago. I called my cousin, I tell him, 'Can you bring your brother or some witness, bring your checkbook and the key. And I brought my checkbook and the key. He came over and said, 'I'll buy you out.'

"We came down here in May and opened in June '81. We started with one section, then business started doing better, and I took the [next door space] and added the Tent Room." He hung a tent from the ceiling, added large lazy susans, a brazier in the center and a belly dancer. To add to the North African-Middle Eastern vibe, customers sat on the floor and ate with their hands. (Barakat chuckles when he recalls Terry teasing one customer, asking how much he'd give her if she provided him with a fork.)

The Terrace had a few spin-offs, including one that operated briefly in Jacksonville and a downtown lunch space that Terry ran. Barakat says other restaurants and clubs in Breckenridge Village, including John Barleycorn's Vision, began to eat into his parking space, so "I moved The Terrace to Westchase Plaza [at West Markham Street and Shackleford Road]. We were there almost nine years, and ran out of parking space, like the first one."

Arguments with the landlord led to harsh words and a lease offer that would have tripled his rent, so he moved again, to the Village at Pleasant Valley on North Rodney Parham Road. Located in the strip between Chili's and the Dixie Cafe, he soon found himself competing for parking space again, though he stuck it out there for four years.

Then the tenant of a restaurant space in the Cypress Plaza at Rodney Parham and Hinton skipped out on his lease, Barakat says. The property management wanted to fill it, but wanted a place that would provide lunch only. Barakat stuck to his guns to be able to offer fine-dining dinner as well.

LONG ROAD

Barakat has spent the last four decades opening and running restaurants. The tally includes Don Quixote in Riverdale, which served tapas before anybody around here knew what tapas was.

He says as the Village at Rahling Road was under construction, the property managers "offered me anything if I would only open a restaurant there." Daughter Susi, who had been traveling a lot in South America, explained to him the concept of the churrascaria, a Brazilian/Argentine steakhouse that offers all-you-can-eat meat on skewers that servers bring to the table. He opened Gaucho's, and "it was an instant success."

When an upscale market that was an anchor tenant in the center closed, Barakat says, he thought, "Here we go again -- the parking lot. If somebody opens up in there, I'm going to get kicked in the butt." He decided to lease the space himself, turning it into Jasmine's, which had an upscale Asian-fusion menu. "I really wanted to do something Euro-Asian, East meets West, American with a bakery and food to-go, like the ones they have in Dallas and New York," he explains. "People were in love with it. When you opened those glass doors, it looked like New York City or Europe." He also operated a smaller restaurant in part of the space he called Sesame.

"After that I got greedy," he admits. He was already running three restaurants in the shopping center, plus The Terrace. But he wanted to open a chain of Gaucho's in smaller cities.

"I opened a Gaucho's in Springdale and then went to Oklahoma City," where he rented space in a former steakhouse. It was an initial success, but he had to hire a security guard because the people in the neighborhood started stealing equipment, food and alcoholic beverages. Then he discovered that his manager and bartenders were cashing out the gift certificates that would otherwise have gone as donations to churches or as trade to radio stations for ads and keeping the money. "I was coming up there to check to see why Oklahoma City was doing up almost $65,000 in PR gift certificates and trade and giveaways," Barakat recalls. That was the end of that -- and the restaurant.

When he returned to Little Rock, he bought the building that had previously housed an outlet of the Tony Roma's barbecue chain on Shackleford Circle, and moved Gaucho's there. In the former Gaucho's space, he opened, in succession, Amalfi (Italian); Blue Agave (upscale Mexican); and Tico's Tacos Cantina (less-upscale Mexican). He briefly operated a smaller Tico's Tacos on North Little Rock's John F. Kennedy Boulevard. All of those, including Gaucho's, have long since closed.

Meanwhile, Barakat had moved Jasmine's over into the Sesame space and renamed it Jerry B's, with more of a bar vibe. And he asked a friend what he thought would work in the original space. "He said a steakhouse. And I said, 'You're kidding. I can't even compete with Outback.'"

However, Barakat persuaded a retired distributor in Aurora, Ill., who had supplied him with meat at Petra's to provide him with Angus steaks. The distributor then asked him about adding top-level Wagyu beef. Barakat took the chance. "It was a great success. I used to call them for shipment -- they started calling me. They were blown away how Little Rock responded to that kind of steak.

"I started serving Kobe beef; it started selling like crazy. Families here, four of five of them, they eat it every time they come over, and if they don't, their kids start calling in orders to go. For 10 ounces of beef, at $45 an ounce."

Arthur Boutiette, state director for disability determination for the Social Security Administration, admits he is the steakhouse's namesake.

"I've known Jerry longer than about anybody in the state," he says. "He was here three days, and I met him. We were just sitting around at lunch one day, talking about the ideal name for a restaurant, and he said, 'What about Arthur's?'"

Beyond Barakat's being a top-notch restaurateur, Boutiette says, "more importantly, he's a great human being. He has a heart as big as the outdoors. He loves people and would do anything for them."

Oceans at Arthur's subsequently evolved out of Jerry B's, Barakat says, "because I wanted to do some kind of seafood next door," including sushi. "It's one thing I don't know how to do personally, I don't have time to do it," Barakat says, so he hired a Korean sushi chef. "He was good but he was the laziest and most unreliable person there. I almost got rid of the sushi."

A customer suggested he talk to Alex Guzman, the highly acclaimed sushi chef at Sushi Cafe, who, she said, wasn't happy where he was. "Three days later he came to me and we agreed on all the terms," Barakat says proudly. Guzman is still there.

MAKING THE MOVE

But the success of Arthur's and Oceans meant Barakat was running out of parking space again, and when the property management offered him new lease terms he didn't like, he decided to find a new location.

"They came in high and mighty," he says. They wanted to raise his rent 40%, offered only a five-year lease with a 5% increase every year, and they were giving him only a month's turnaround before he had to sign. He decided to ride out the 10 months left on his lease and started looking for someplace else -- he even considered operating out of a food truck.

But it helps to have connections.

"Really by luck, I had been eyeing this location, two buildings right on the parkway, very visible," he says. "The very same night I told these guys 'no,' this lady -- I know her, I know her kids, her daughter went to school with my daughter -- she asked me if I had a place to move to, and I told her, 'No, I'm homeless.'"

A couple of hours later, he got a phone call from the woman who managed the Chenal Parkway property who told him that Hank Kelly was their leasing agent. "I told her, 'Hank Kelly brought me to Little Rock. So I think we have a deal.'

"We've been two years and one month in this space -- Arthur's opened [here] Thanksgiving Day in 2018." This past Thanksgiving, Barakat turned what had been an open patio into extra seating.

"It has been a blessing 'til covid, and it's still a blessing."

Even with the pandemic, he says, "I can't complain. I operate according to the [state Health Department] limits, I keep below 66% [capacity]. I took 13 tables out of the front dining room. And I built those dividers three days before reopening." The dividers are in the same style as the aged-wood decor, framing Plexiglas embedded with the restaurant logo.

"I had people come over and flush all the duct work. I installed MERV [minimum efficiency reporting value] filters, the ones they use in hospitals, and I have them changed every 28 days." There are four antimicrobial ultraviolet lights in the ventilation system to ensure "100% pure air coming back in each unit; the big units in the back have six."

And Barakat maintains rigorous control over safety protocols for employees and his customers.

"Before we go inside the door, the mask is on, temperature is taken, we've got hand sanitizers everywhere; they put the gloves on before they touch anything. Even though we vacuum at the end of the night, at the beginning of each shift, we vacuum, and sanitize electrostatically, every corner, every chair that was used. The guys, once they carry the plates, they wash their hands and put new gloves on."

A sign on the door of each restaurant warns, "No mask, no service." And Barakat rigidly enforces it.

"Nobody," he says, "not even close friends who claim to be big spenders with me, gets in without a mask. I'm not going to jeopardize everybody that sits there because you don't want to wear a mask. I respect you, but respect me. I want to stay in business. I have too many people depending on me.

"The whole state of Arkansas they tell you cannot walk into Kroger, or Walmart, without a mask. You don't want to wear a mask? With all due respect, I'm not going to jeopardize my friends, my business, because of you."

"All restaurants have been challenged because of covid," says Bill Roehrenbeck, senior vice president for PNC Bank, who met Barakat two decades ago while dining at The Terrace. "He has taken great strides to keep everybody safe.

"He's extremely professional and an outstanding businessman, but he's also one of a kind. He's there every day and night to make sure the customer is taken care of."

Barakat confirms that he has few interests outside his business.

"I never took time to play golf or go hunting or fishing -- I'm 364 days a year in here. I do take Christmas Day off -- that's because I cannot sell liquor."

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