PINE BLUFF — Downtown Pine Bluff has for years seen more businesses leaving than opening up. But that’s changing, and at a steady pace.
Mary Ann Lee held a grand opening for her new business, the Indigo Blue Coffeehouse, on June 1. Hot Rods Bar opened a few weeks ago at Main and Second Avenue, and several boutiques and clothing shops have also set up shop downtown. A new library is about to begin construction on Main and Sixth Avenue, and a group of private investors called Pine Bluff Rising are aiming to renovate the old Hotel Pines on Main and Fifth Avenue.
Now, a couple who have invested their money, creativity and hard work into helping rebuild downtown are announcing yet another venture: a steakhouse.
Wil Jenkins and Jan Robinson, who also own Uptown Salon and Boutique at 204 S. Main St., are currently renovating the former Owen’s Frozen Food Locker located at 301 W. Barraque St.
“It will be similar to the old meat locker, with meat cases of pork chops and steaks available,” Robinson said.
She said there will also be a baked potato bar included as well as fun and music. People will also smoke meat on the smokers that were installed in the building.
The couple plans to leave the meat racks and freezers in the building, which was constructed in approximately 1894, as a historic piece that will be used to show people what the meat processor looked like and what equipment was used.
Robinson also said that because of the building’s historic ties to Pine Bluff, she and Jenkins will try to keep the original name of the building if it is not currently being used.
“I would like to see someone come and paint a mural relevant to the business on it,” Robinson said. “If anybody is interested, they could paint a vision of a farm with different animals.”
Jenkins and Robinson also own Burt’s, located at 205 S. Main St., and plan to add picnic tables with covers on them to the side parking area with food trucks available.
Inside the Burt’s building, the couple plans to offer desserts, ice creams and coffees during the night for people looking for places to eat. Robinson also said that she wants to add a section for children as well.
“Things will change and progress,” Robinson said. “As things go on down here, I’m never one to keep anything the same, so who knows what it will be.”
No exact completion date or name has been set for either of the businesses due to the upcoming Downtown Streetscape Project.
Just down the block from the planned steakhouse, the Indigo Blue Coffeehouse, located at 212 W. Barraque, officially opened Friday morning with more than 20 people arriving within the first opening hour.
“I was expecting only 20 people throughout the entire day,” Lee said. “I had no idea that so many people would show up.”
One day as Lee was driving down Barraque Street, she noticed a worn down, deteriorated building for sale. With intentions of turning the building into a bookstore, she was told not to buy the building because it would take too much work to restore it. Due to her passion for historic restoration, she decided to ignore the naysayers and purchase the building in 2013, which led to the half coffeehouse, half bookstore now known as the Indigo Blue Coffeehouse.
With construction beginning in 2015, it has taken three years for the coffeehouse to be completed.
“I wanted to take my time to ensure safety for everyone and to ensure that this building will be around for another 100 years,” Lee said.
Structural work had to be done due to the building rotting and being termite eaten. Lee said that the bricks were re-laid and tuck-pointed on the inside, and the bricks on the outside were also redone. The plaster inside the building was redone, while also adding paint, walls, water, and lighting.
Lee said she already knew what the inside of the building would look like because she had envisioned it beforehand.
When asked how she would describe the atmosphere of the coffeehouse, Lee said, “I love a quiet vibe where you can relax and read a book.”
She said that she was motivated to open a coffeehouse because she wanted people to have a cozy place to go, especially when they come to Pine Bluff from out of state.
She reminisced about when she came back to Pine Bluff after living in Detroit for more than 30 years.
“When I came back I had no place to go. I would have to drive to Little Rock, and we shouldn’t have to do that,” she said.
The coffeehouse serves gourmet coffee, made with top-of-the-line coffee beans ground by the employees.
Other items, typically found at coffee shops, are also on the menu including wraps, salads, teas, fruits, desserts, etc.
“We are a coffee shop first, and with health being the main focus for many people, we provide healthier meal choices,” Lee said. “Our food won’t weigh you down, therefore you can go back to work feeling good.”
When asked how she feels after a busy grand opening, Lee expressed that she is listening to the customers so that she can re-evaluate and make things better.
“There’s always room for improvement,” she said. “We will make the adjustments that need to be made based on customer reactions.”
Lee said she wishes that she were able to interact more with the customers, but because she is short-staffed, she has to work in the kitchen and help with the dining area.
Lee plans to continue working on the building, creating an office space upstairs and incorporating music.
“I want this to be a comfy place where people can come socialize over a cup of coffee; where people can come and rethink their ideals of what Pine Bluff can be,” she said.
The new energy being pumped into downtown is all part of the vision that city leaders and Go Forward Pine Bluff officials had hoped to see after the five-eighths cent sales tax, which is designed to help rebuild the city through such projects as blight removal and economic development, passed last year.
While none of that money is being used for these private projects, they carry the spirit that was intended to spread among private investors when Go Forward was envisioned, according to city leaders.
“We need this kind of small business investment in our community,” Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley has said in previous interviews. “It’s great to see.”
Lee and others involved in downtown projects say they can feel the energy building.
“Pine Bluff is due for its renaissance,” Lee said. “It’s exciting.”