by Dwain Hebda
Scott McGehee grabs a chair at a Hillcrest coffee shop and gushes forth an apology for being late to the interview. Like a nervous sous chef trying to make a good impression at a job interview, he explains that a family member had suddenly taken ill, and he’d felt obligated to pay them an impromptu visit to ensure all was well. (It was.)
Still, he’s mortified at being late. “This almost never happens,” he says amid about five mea culpas, slowing just long enough to sip the foam off his espresso.
Given the breadth of his growing restaurant empire, one wonders how running behind doesn’t happen to McGehee more often, and with good reason. His Yellow Rocket Concepts and its collection of local, independent eateries have become a tour de force in Central Arkansas. Spots such as Zaza and Big Orange have become so ingrained in the local dining culture, it’s hard to believe how new they really are. Same with the company’s juggernaut, Lost Forty Brewing, which went from an idea to Arkansas’ largest brewery practically overnight.
“We’re always challenging each other,” he says to explain Yellow Rocket’s golden touch. “That recipe was awesome when we developed it eight years ago, but could it be 20 percent better? Could it be replaced with something that’s more current? Could it be replaced with something that’s, like, the next big thing?
“That process from top to bottom, from design to the culinary side, to the music and the look and the feel and how we greet people and the customer experience in general, we’re always challenging ourselves to improve every location.”
A conversation with McGehee is intense, especially when the subject is his vocation. An Arkansan through and through, he grew up destined to become part of the restaurant legacy of his great-grandmother Ruby Thomas, who operated the regionally famous Red Apple Inn at Eden Isle near Heber Springs and her sister, known simply as Aunt Maisy, who ran the Copper Kettle in Hillcrest.
Growing up, McGehee grafted onto a second family tree, comprised of giants in the Arkansas restaurant industry. His father, Frank, partnered with esteemed chef Mark Abernathy of Loca Luna fame in the original Juanita’s and bygone Blue Mesa Grill. In the shadow of his blood and restaurant kin, McGehee developed a code for restaurateuring that survives to this day: Keep it fresh and keep it local.
“My grandfather, back before Eden Isle was covered in homes, it was a bunch of wilderness, and he had a huge vegetable garden on the island,” he says. “That’s where I was exposed to picking up potatoes and blackberries and hull peas and tomatoes and corn off the cob, and I would take it all to my great-grandmother’s kitchen and chop up green tomatoes for green tomato pickle. That was my exposure to real Arkansas food.”
McGehee took these principles and marinated them with skills learned during an eight-year stint in California, where he completed training at the California Culinary Institute and then worked under the legendary Alice Waters and her landmark restaurant Chez Panisse. He returned to Central Arkansas as a consultant for his father and eventually became part of the partnership that launched Boulevard Bread Company to provide the varieties of bread, cheese and coffee that were for the asking in San Francisco but lacking entirely in Little Rock.
“Boulevard Bread Company was a function of moving back to Arkansas and missing the crusty bread from what they call the Gourmet Ghetto, which is North Berkeley,” he says. “We decided to open up a gourmet emporium: a place where you could go get amazing fresh-made danishes and crusty bread, soup, salad, a sandwich.
“We did an amazing dinner special every night that was inspired by what was ripe and delicious and in season. That gave us an opportunity to nurture amazing relationships with local farmers and their families.”
McGehee would sell out of Boulevard, but through the experience, the die was cast for Yellow Rocket’s other ventures, each groundbreaking in its own way and time. With partners John Beachboard, McGehee launched Zaza’s, introducing hyper-fresh salads and woodfired pizzas in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood in 2007.
Starting in 2010 with a second Zaza’s location in Conway, the hits kept coming: the chef-inspired cheeseburgers of west Little Rock’s Big Orange in 2011, the fresh Cali-Mex of Local Lime (with partner Ben Brainard) in 2012 and midtown Little Rock’s Big Orange in 2013, which also saw the addition of partner Russ McDonough.
Lost Forty Brewing (with partner Albert Braunfisch) launched in 2014, followed by Heights Taco & Tamale Co. (also with Brainard) in the former Browning’s space in 2015. After a one-year break, Yellow Rocket crept into Northwest Arkansas with Big Orange last year and Local Lime this year. A new, as-yet-undisclosed restaurant is slated for Little Rock in 2019.
McGehee has had a hand in every element of his restaurants, but nowhere is his passion more concentrated than when it comes to his staff. All told, Yellow Rocket employs 650 people — individuals the industry often relegates to lower rungs on the organizational ladder. Not at a Yellow Rocket establishment.
“We love our team. They’re our family,” McGehee says. “We want all of them; if they’re leaning toward a bad path, we want to get them on the right path. We want to be a part of their success. We want to look back in five years and be proud of them, and we want to be proud of our company in terms of how we treated them.
“I love cooking good food, and I love putting out the perfect plate of whatever and putting a smile on people’s faces, but it’s been a while now since that was the focus of my life and the essence of what brings me joy. What truly brings me the most joy now is our family, our work team, seeing them thrive and excel.”
Yellow Rocket puts its money where McGehee’s mouth and sizeable heart is on this point, codifying the proper treatment of all as treating every human with absolute dignity, appreciation and respect, without exception. Great health insurance, benefits and paying above the minimum to all non-tipped workers only scratches the surface of this philosophy.
“The owners are held accountable,” McGehee says. “I can be suspended from my own company because I have signed an agreement, as all of the owners have, that everything begins and ends with treating people with dignity and respect and appreciation.”
In the midst of talking about his professional family members, McGehee suddenly pauses to take a long sip of espresso. Many in this work family are long timers, just as many have left to become successful elsewhere. Some are shoots struggling to flower for the first time. Some, too many, are gone before their time.
“An incredible young woman in her early 20s who was one of my managers, she was depressed, no one knew it,” he says quietly. “She started using heroin, and she got ahold of some heroin that was laced with Fentanyl. She overdosed and died last year. And I’ve had many employees and a former partner die of overdoses.
“Being a human is not easy. Sooner or later, things are going to happen to everyone. It’s how we react during those times that define us to a degree. Too often in this world, when people are down, they get kicked in the teeth. Nothing makes me happier than when someone is down, grabbing their hand and helping them up.”
McGehee has done all the jobs that can be done in the restaurant business. Like everyone else, he’s made many mistakes both on the job and off. Along the way, he’s developed what he calls his “Big Three for Success:” honesty, sobriety, positivity. Commit to those, he says, and you can rope the moon, which is precisely what he wants for his company and for other independent businesspeople in Arkansas. It’s both a vision and a goal for the kind of place he believes Arkansas can and should be.
“The more local, creative, exceptional people that we have creating something unique, the more interesting our identity is, and the more interesting our community is. That’s where people want to live,” he says. “I believe that we need to form a collective in Central Arkansas, a local community that is a larger basket that includes writers and artists and farmers and independent breweries and restaurants and retailers.
“I think we have an opportunity to aggressively love one another, support one another. We don’t want Little Rock to be a suburb of Dallas where there’s a sea of chain restaurants, because we lose our identity as a people. People want to be in places that are authentic. If there is any legacy that I can leave, I would one day like to be a part of a group like that.”