Walking in the back door of the long-awaited Argenta Market a little over a week ago, I couldn’t help but think of E.T.
You know, the movie…in the 80s…never mind. If you’re under 30, Google it.
The entire 7,000-square-foot space was partitioned with giant sheets of plastic wrap, much like the foreign creature’s host house in the movie. Workers busily scraped and sanded walls, creating a dreamy haze of sheetrock dust.
But this dream is no science fiction for proprietor and chef Shane Henderson, who has scheduled the store, a mix of local and mass-produced groceries as well as site-made culinary creations, to finally open on April 1. No fooling.
“People were wondering if we’d ever actually open,” Henderson said of numerous delays in opening the market. “I think we ended up with a better store with the delays than if we’d opened one year ago as planned. I think we’d be closed by now if that had happened.
Henderson cites lessons learned from months of research and changes in focus, as well as the demise of similar shops in the metro area.
One critical decision, Henderson said, was that to include recognizable, mass-produced grocery brands as well as local ones.
“A lot of people were really shocked at (our decision),” Henderson said. “But we had to look at it from a market survival perspective; we’ll be serving the folks who live right around here as a local grocery as well as people looking for the specialty items.”
Jody Hardin, executive director of the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market program, has stepped out of the day-to-day limelight in regards to the Market, although he remains a partner and connection-maker between the store and Arkansas farmers.
Possibly the smartest move made by Henderson and Hardin was to hire Neal Augustine of Benton, a 30+-year veteran grocery manager, to serve as manager of the market.
“I started as a kid, as a bag boy to make some money, and just worked my way up,” said Augustine of his career in grocery management. He has served as manager for Harvest Foods until its demise; before that, he worked for Kroger for 20 years and Winn Dixie for 12 years.
Augustine lit up while listing some of Argenta Market’s upcoming features: seven aisles of basic and upscale nonperishable grocery items, with a notable focus on local, sustainable foods; several varieties of specialty and local cheeses and milk; standard, import and local beers, such as Diamond Bear; frozen foods including Yarnell’s ice cream, Amy’s Organics items, store-made products and exotic meats; bulk bins featuring local coffee, grains and rice, including basmati and jasmine.
“The meats will definitely be the coolest thing for the home cook,” Henderson added. “And we’ll have more specialty items to play with, ingredients you can’t get at Walmart or Kroger.”
The market will also provide Henderson the opportunity to get back in the kitchen as a chef, a passion which has been delayed as construction made the site’s kitchen unusable. He plans to offer up to a dozen specialty sandwiches on the deli menu, at least four ready-to-eat items and house-made artisan breads, plus improvisations based on what is fresh that week. He may even get into producing charcuterie (house-made sausage) each week, as well as being able to connect customers’ requests with Arkansas vendors whenever possible.
“The good thing about being our size,” he explained, “is that when people have special requests we can serve their needs. In the future, we’ll even offer online ordering. If you want goat in two weeks, we’ll be able to handle that for you.”
The market will have a full-service deli using Arkansas-based Petit Jean meats, a 6-foot salad bar featuring locally-grown products and seating with a great community view for 24, including Arkansas-roasted RoZark Hills cappuccino and coffee for purchase and free Wi-Fi provided by Urban Wireless.
Henderson, who is also an instructor at Pulaski Technical College Arkansas Culinary School, said he hopes culinary students will come in and look around “just to learn what all is out there.”
“For example, in my kitchen, I use at least five different kinds of salt,” he said. “There are so many different things you can do with it to create different tastes and textures.”
Argenta Market sits, at 6th and Main, in the very center of the Argenta Community Development Corporation‘s plans for the growing, trendy segment of downtown North Little Rock.
“They have plans for this area to be a walking residential and retail community, and geographically, we are right in the middle of it,” Henderson said. “It wasn’t planned that way, but it’s a happy accident.”
6th and Main Streets (521 Main St.)
North Little Rock, AR