Going back to The Roots in Little Rock, Arkansas
By Gautam Kandlikar of Team MPower
There is something magical about hitting the road. You set your own pace and choose your stops. We were advised by MBA2s to wander, and wander we did. Little Rock, our destination, is a straight shot West from Chattanooga. Instead, we chose to go further south, towards Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, before we cut back toward Little Rock.
We are glad we took a circuitous route. For Team MPower, Open Road @ Ross was an opportunity to get to know America in a way we hadn’t before, and we were eager to explore new states. We were drawn to Birmingham, aka The Magic City, by the powerful story of the African American struggle for equality, and we experienced it through the Civil Rights Institute. This incredible collection of documents, archival footage, and artifacts added helped us contextualize the Civil Rights movement, and gave us a unique window into the challenges that African American community leaders faced as they fought an unjust society.
En route to Jackson, we listened to podcasts about how the Confederate Battle Flag remains a part of the State Flag of Mississippi, and how there is a burgeoning movement to remove this symbol of hate and oppression from the state’s flag. On the last leg, we stopped at the Vicksburg National Military Park, which was created to preserve a pivotal battleground of the American Civil War. Facts from my 9th grade history class, which had faded away from my memory, suddenly became very real; that thousands gave their lives both to preserve and to vanquish the institution of slavery came to life in our brief driving tour of the park. We spent the trip in quiet contemplation and shared exploration of everything that we had learned, what troubled us, and what we could do to foster justice and equality.
We met Jack Sundell and Corri Bristow-Sundell, founders of The Root Cafe over delicious pizza and brews in downtown Little Rock. Corri grew up in Little Rock. She loved visiting her grandparents farmstead, and had stayed cultivated an interest in local, sustainable foods. Jack served in the Peace Corps in Morocco, where he came to love the culture of cafes as community spaces. After returning to the US, he worked in organic farms around Arkansas. They met over their love for local foods and have since put in their heart and soul to share their love for local food with the rest of Little Rock and its visitors. Inspired to create a unique community, Jack and Corri started The Root Cafe on the corner of 15th and South Main St in Little Rock. Their connection to the Little Rock community shone through in our first meeting; artists, small business owners, the staff at the Vino’s brewpub all dropped by to say “Hi.” Inspired by the story of their humble beginnings to their growth into a thriving full-service restaurant, we were thrilled to roll up our sleeves and start making ourselves useful.
We were delighted when we finally made it to The Root. On the neighbor’s wall was a cheery, colorful mural with a variety of animated vegetables having a jolly time; there was a little garden with blooming flowers and herbs; and there was eclectic patio furniture in the cool shade of trees. Everything made us feel immediately at home. We got a tour of the Cafe, which Jack and Corri built from an abandoned dairy bar. As their business grew, they added additional space with shipping containers (another recurring theme for Team MPower!) Today The Root can seat nearly 120 customers; they have counter service for breakfast and lunch, and table service for dinner. Recently, they have also offered catering services, which has been well received.
Jack and Corri had identified a couple of major challenges they were having with their business:
Cost Accounting: While they had a good picture of the financials in the aggregate, they had not yet costed individual items on the menu, and thus were not able to identify the contribution of plate to their financials.
HR challenges: As The Root had grown from two people — Jack and Corri themselves — to a staff of nearly 50, they were experiencing growing pains. They were concerned whether their mission and vision were resonating with the staff.
We were so thrilled to take on these projects because they were very different from the entrepreneurs we had hitherto worked with, and they tied directly into our course material! To help with the cost accounting model, we started off trying to determine the cost of the most popular item on menu, the Hamburger. We worked with Jack and Chef Jon to identify all the ingredients and all the processes involved in making a burger. This deep dive gave us a unique insight into just how much local food meant to The Root. They ground beef (which they purchased from a local farmer) to make their own burger patties. They made their own mayo from eggs, garlic, lemon juice, and other ingredients. We were amazed to see just how much thought and effort The Root staff puts into their food. As we gathered more data about the food, we saw opportunities to keep improving the cost accounting model, and make it more intuitive for our entrepreneurs.
Thanks to their unique vision and relentless focus, Jack and Corri have seen The Root grow steadily since inception. More recently, they have started focusing some of their energies towards a new concept (Dos Rocas Tacos and Beer) which they launched on much the same principles as The Root. We interviewed staff to understand what they liked about working there, and how they perceived challenges. It was endearing to see how all employees we spoke with clearly identified with The Root’s mission and were able to relate what it meant to them. Jack and Corri had also cultivated an open culture, which was very evident as the staff spoke freely about challenges they were facing. The main takeaways for our entrepreneurs were on the onboarding processes and communicating the culture and mission. As we were having these conversations, we felt that the conversation was timely. It was truly fascinating to see a business going through the challenge of building a stronger team culture. It showed us Jack and Corri had got a lot of things right just to get here!
In Little Rock, we had the unique opportunity to visit the Clinton Presidential Library. For most of the team, President Clinton was the first president we could recall seeing on TV. The documents and artifacts on display here felt like they were a part of our lives. There are plenty of beautiful trails along the Arkansas River, which bisects the metro area, and we made good use of the trails to work on our fitness.
We loved Little Rock, and we are grateful that we had Jack, Corri, and the The Root staff as our gracious hosts for the week. On our last night in Little Rock we had dinner at The Root, where the staff picked our meal, complete with the dessert and a digestif. The marinated and smoked shiitake mushrooms had a very unique flavor; it was interesting to see how despite a week of being fed by The Root, they still had a lot of surprises up their sleeve! And the desserts were something else; you could taste the freshness in the buttermilk pie and the unique strawberry and herb flavors (Basil, if my memory serves correctly!) was a delight! This was truly an incredible opportunity to work with mission-driven entrepreneurs. We wish Jack and Corri great success in all their endeavors. If you ever happen to be in Little Rock, do stop by at The Root and tell them The University of Michigan’s MBA team sent you!