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Chris Tanner, Restaurant Owner and Entrepreneur

Listen to Learn:

  • How the idea of a downtown Little Rock restaurant was hatched in Mexico
  • The fears that surround starting a new restaurant
  • Surviving the pandemic in the restaurant business
  • The effect of the 2021 snowstorm on Samantha’s

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Chris Tanner, along with his wife Samantha who could not make it to the show, are the owners/operators of three successful Little Rock restaurants: Samantha’s Tap Room, Cheers Restaurant, and The Oyster Bar. Before running a restaurant, Chris earned a degree in aviation. Flying planes turned to be expensive so the husband and wife team turned to catering to rake in some cash. This new found hobby quickly turned into a full-time gig when they won a bid on a little small restaurant on North Van Buren Street in Little Rock, Arkansas and Cheers was born. This duo continued to expand their culinary business in the form of two other restaurants, Samantha's and The Oyster Bar. 

Chris and Samantha Tanner not only have culinary talent, but an amazing philanthropic heart as well. They, along with Devin Miller, founded the Heart of a Nurse Scholarship in honor of Charley Tanner. They have helped in giving several people the opportunity to make it through nursing school and pursue their dreams.

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00:00:09] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider’s view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk-taking.

Connect with Kerry through her candid, funny, informative, and always encouraging weekly blog. And now, it’s time for Kerry McCoy to get all Up in Your Business.


00:00:35] KM: Thank you, son, Gray. After four decades of running a small business called Arkansas Flag and Banner, now simply FlagandBanner.com, my team and I decided to create a platform for not just me but other business owners and successful people to pay forward our experiential knowledge in a conversational way. Originally, we thought we'd be teaching others, but it didn't take long before we realized that we were the persons learning.

Listening to our guests has been both educational and inspiring. To quote the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” The act of listening is learning. As Greek philosopher Diogenes once wrote, “We have two ears and one tongue so that we might listen more.” After listening to over 200 successful people share their stories, I've noticed some reoccurring traits. Most of my guests believe in a higher power, have the heart of a teacher, and are creative because business is creative, and they all work hard.

Before I introduce today's guest, I want to let you know if you miss any part of today's show, want to hear it again or share it, there's a way, and son, Gray, will tell you how.

00:01:44] GM: All UIYB past and present interviews are available at Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy's YouTube channel, Facebook page, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s digital version, FlagandBanner.com’s website, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Just ask your smart

speaker to play Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. By subscribing to our YouTube channel or FlagandBanner.com’s email list, you will receive prior notification of that day's guest. Back to you, Kerry.

00:02:12] KM: Thank you. My guest today is Chris Tanner, owner and operator of three successful Arkansas restaurants; Samantha's Tap Room and Wood Grill, Cheers Restaurant in the Heights and Fayetteville, and The Oyster Bar, a Little Rock icon first founded in 1975 in a 1925 old grocery store building. I think that's cool. When so many restaurants are failing during the pandemic of 2020, this dynamic husband and wife, Samantha and Chris, were opening restaurants. Yes, grand openings.

So how did Chris and his wife, Samantha, manage and successfully navigate the drastic changes happening in their industry? Today, we will find out. But don't think this married couples’ life has been all a bed of roses or that they have been immune to the unexpected pitfalls of life. In 2016, they had a crisis in their life that no mother and father should ever have to endure. Their beautiful daughter, Anna Charley, awoke one morning with a headache and within a few short days had passed from her loving family's life.

If willing, we will ask the Tanners to keep Charley’s memory alive and to tell their family story in the hopes that others who might be suffering from a tragic loss can find comfort in hearing how the Tanners got through it, manage their business, and navigated their pain and family relations. It is my great pleasure to welcome to the table and the microphone the restaurateur extraordinaire, Mr. Chris Tanner.

00:03:55] CT: Thank you.

00:03:55] KM: You're so welcome. So how flattered is your wife that you named a restaurant after her?

00:04:03] CT: I think she's flattered.

00:04:05] KM: I mean, why did that come about?

00:04:06] CT: I did ask her permission.

00:04:07] KM: You did or did not?

00:04:08] CT: I did.

00:04:09] KM: What did she say? That's stupid or –

00:04:12] CT: Okay.

00:04:17] KM: So how did you decide to name it after her? Was it your idea?

00:04:21] CT: Yeah. I love the name. I thought it had a personal touch, and there's a connection.

00:04:29] KM: She does wait tables?

00:04:31] CT: Yeah.

00:04:31] KM: Yeah. Inside.

00:04:32] CT: We wait tables. We bust tables. We’re fry cooks. We did it all.

00:04:37] KM: Yeah. I think you have to when you're in the restaurant business, don’t you?

00:04:40] CT: That's right.

00:04:40] KM: So how long have y'all been married?

00:04:43] CT: 25 years.

00:04:44] KM: When did y'all first meet? In the restaurant business?

00:04:47] CT: Yeah. I was. I was waiting tables at the Ruby Tuesday's and Park Plaza Mall a long time ago.

00:04:57] KM: What was she doing?

00:04:58] CT: She was in the mall working at Zales Jewelry Store. That's when we first met.

00:05:03] KM: And you kept going over there and buying jewelry?

00:05:04] CT: I was there buying jewelry and –

00:05:06] KM: For who? For another girl?

00:05:07] CT: No.

00:05:08] KM: You were just over there looking.

00:05:09] CT: I was over there just overlooking.

00:05:11] KM: So how long did y'all date?

00:05:13] CT: We dated for – Just went out a little bit in the beginning. She was dating somebody. She started dating somebody shortly after, and he was in the military. I was, again, a waiter, living day to day, having a lot of fun, so see what the more stable route. Their marriage didn't work out, and she calls me out of the blue several years later, and she started talking. I was thinking it was another Samantha, another one that lived down the street from me. I'm like, “Hey, what's going on?” She goes, “I don't think you realize what Samantha this is.” I'm like, “Oh, my gosh.”

We talked on the phone for several hours. She was in Conway, had moved back, was going through the divorce. So we talked for several hours on the phone, and I'm like, “Oh, my gosh.” I said, “I'm coming to Conway right now.” It’s probably midnight. She's like, “Well, okay.” So I drive to Conway. I hadn’t seen her in years and been together ever since.

00:06:13] KM: That's the ultimate booty call right there. Midnight, phone call. I’m driving the car or what. Are you both from Arkansas?

00:06:23] GM: And the rest is history.

00:06:24] CT: Yeah.

00:06:24] KM: Yeah, right. You are? Are you from Little Rock?

00:06:26] CT: I’m Little Rock. She was Jonesborough.

00:06:29] KM: Did you go to college somewhere?

00:06:31] CT: I went to Henderson State.

00:06:33] KM: Did you always know you liked the restaurant business?

00:06:38] CT: I've always liked to cook, trial and error. When I was a kid, I tried to make breakfast in bed for my mother, and I thought I'd looked up a recipe on bran muffins, and I'm like, “Oh, my.” So I'm sitting there trying to cook it in the morning and found a bottle oil up in the cabinet. Well, it was oil that we use to fry fish with that we saved, and I put it in it. Well, needless to say, they didn't taste that good, but I tried, and it was the thought that counted.

inaudible 00:07:06].

00:07:06] KM: What do your parents do?

00:07:08] CT: My stepfather is in real estate. My mom, she was a secretary for a construction company for a while.

00:07:15] KM: Back when we were secretaries forever. I went to college to be a secretary. That was actually a degree you could get back then. So they must have a good work ethic because restaurant business is tough.

00:07:25] CT: Yup, it is. There's something new every day.

00:07:28] KM: Every single solitary day.

00:07:30] CT: Every day.

00:07:31] KM: So how did you go from waiting tables at Ruby Tuesday to owning your own business?

00:07:37] CT: Okay. Well, I always cooked at my house and have folks over. Put something together.

00:07:42] KM: What were you cooking? Let me guess. Chili.

00:07:45] CT: A little chili, maybe a little shrimp bowl or something like that. Just having folks over. One of our friends said, “You ought to start a business.” I’m like, “Golly, yeah.” So I kind of started a little catering business. Back then, I was cooking out of my house and I like – Then I was doing a little Cajun and Creole. I would do some shrimp, lobster. Crawfish bowls were cooked on site, and that's kind of where it started.

00:08:13] KM: Corn.

00:08:14] CT: Oh, yeah.

00:08:15] KM: Potatoes.

00:08:15] CT: Corn, potatoes. It’s kind of like slowly grew. Samantha's brother got us into Toad Suck festival one year. We did that for a couple of years, and that was fun, and I learned a lot. I learned what not to do. That's for sure.

00:08:29] KM: Did you have a little truck there, a food truck that you –

00:08:31] CT: Yeah. I had an old ideal bread truck that I bought, and I’d run everything over there and set up outside.

00:08:37] KM: Well, that's hard work. So were you married to Samantha by now?

00:08:41] CT: Yeah. We married a few years later.

00:08:43] KM: That catering business is a tough, tough business. But you got into your own restaurant and ownership and took that leap. I think the first one was Cheers Restaurant. So before we get into that, I want to hear how you ended up with Cheers Restaurant. Before we do that, let's take a quick break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Arkansas restaurateur, Chris Tanner, Owner-operator of Cheers, Samantha's, and Oyster Bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. We'll ask him how they successfully navigated the changes in their industry during the pandemic of 2020 and even held a grand opening of their newly renovated Oyster Bar. Amazing. I want to know is it better to open from scratch or buy an existing restaurant. This couple has done both. We'll be back after the break.

00:09:32] GM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of FlagandBanner.com. Over 40 years ago with only $400, Kerry founded Arkansas Flag and Banner. During the last four decades, the business has grown and changed, along with Kerry's experience and leadership knowledge. In 1995, she embraced the Internet and rebranded her company as simply FlagandBanner.com. In 2004, she became an early blogger. Since then, she has founded the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland Ballroom, began publishing her magazine, Brave, and in 2016 branched out into this very radio show, YouTube channel, and podcast.

In 2020, Kerry McCoy Enterprises acquired ourcornermarket.com, an online company specializing in American-made plaques, signage, and memorials for over 20 years. If you'd like to sponsor this show or get involved with any of Kerry McCoy's enterprises, send an email to me, Gray. That's G-R-A-Y@flagandbanner.com. Telling American-made stories, selling American-made flags, the FlagandBanner.com. Back to you, Kerry.

00:10:42] KM: Thank you. You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Mr. Chris Tanner, Owner-operator of Cheers In the Heights, Cheers in Fayetteville, Samantha's Taproom, and most recently the newly renovated Oyster Bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. Okay, your first job before the break, we've talked about how you and Samantha got together and met in the best booty call I've ever heard and then your first job at Ruby Tuesday. I mean, who would think working in the mall at Ruby Tuesday's was going to lead to being – You’re a well-known restaurateur in Little Rock, Arkansas. I mean really well,

and anybody's who’s ever worked in the restaurant business knows it is tough. It is hard work and long hours.

So you're doing Toad Suck Ferry festivals. For people that don't know, Toad Suck Ferry is a festival in Arkansas and a big one. You've got food trucks up there. You're learning about the restaurant business. How did you end up buying your first restaurant, and what was it? Cheers?

00:11:42] CT: It was Cheers. So, yeah, we're catering, doing some festivals. Last place I was waiting tables was the Faded Rose. Then I took a job with Moon Distributors, all selling wine and liquor. I had Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas was my territory. I called on all the restaurants, so I learned a lot, just talking with all the chefs and owners. I did that for seven years, commuting back and forth as I continued to cater a little on the weekends and do what we did.

But I also called on Cheers. I was just going, “Man.” I was talking to a guy that was a manager. He wasn’t the owner. I was like, “God, I think if you just did this or this, I mean, you could really boost this.” But he didn't have any skin in the game. He didn't really care. Anyway, it never happened. We happen to be up on a supper club deal with a couple that owned it, and Samantha brought it up, “Hey, if you're ever interested in selling Cheers, let us know.” Well, they did, and that's kind of how it came about.

So we continued to do that, continued to cater, bought the restaurant, started fixing it up. Till this day, I'm still doing, thanks to that building. Just trying to improve things and make things better. But we did that, and I continued to work also at Moon Distributors for the next couple of years. Then as we grew that business, it was failing. There's no question.

00:13:10] KM: Cheers was?

00:13:11] CT: Yeah. So we're bringing it back to life and had it going. At this point, you get pretty tired because I'm catering on the weekends. I'm usually working Thursday, Friday night, after I'm working Monday through Friday.

00:13:23] KM: It's your real job.

00:13:23] CT: It’s the real job. Anyway, it got – We're fine. I was like, “I need to concentrate on this, and we've got it built up.” I feel safe now. That's kind of how that came about.

00:13:35] KM: People don't realize that often entrepreneurs have to work two jobs. Very few jobs are like, “I have enough money in the bank that I cannot work for two years.” Or the business makes so much money the very first year. You're just rolling in money. Did you buy it from Randy Breeze?

00:13:51] CT: Yup.

00:13:52] KM: So do you know that I worked there?

00:13:54] CT: I did not know that.

00:13:55] KM: Did you know that I met my husband, I was the waitress and he was the busboy at Cheers Restaurant, and that's how we met up 30 something years ago? So my husband was 15 and living next door to the Harrisons, Paul and Cookie Harrison. They were opening Cheers Restaurant in about the 1980s I think. They went over and asked my husband's parents if his teenage son could come over and wash dishes for them while they open the restaurant. They said okay and they let him go over there. He worked there, I don't know, through college.

After my divorce, I went to Cheers because I knew the Harrisons that first opened it. Cookie Harrison was a friend of mine, and she gave me a job because I had my own Arkansas Flag and Banner and I needed a part-time job. So I waited tables there, and I met my husband there. That's a good story.

00:14:50] CT: I like that.

00:14:50] KM: I bet there's a lot of people that –

00:14:51] CT: In a long time.

00:14:52] KM: I bet there's a lot of people that have met their husbands at that kind of a job.

00:15:00] CT: There's been people I've met and several proposals at several – Definitely at Cheers and Samantha's.

00:15:07] KM: It's just a social atmosphere. Then when you get off work, everybody's excited, and you're tired, and you've worked together as a team, and you really get to know the people that you're with and who you can depend on. Describe the menu and the food.

00:15:23] CT: At Cheers?

00:15:24] KM: Uh-huh.

00:15:24] CT: Just a little Americana, great salads,

inaudible 00:15:27].

00:15:27] KM: It's got really good vegetarian food.

00:15:29] CT: We got some good vegetarian. Again, probably the number one selling salad in the state is that chopped salmon salad.

00:15:35] KM: Salad?

00:15:37] CT: Yeah. Oh, yeah. It's the number one seller at Cheers, Samantha's, and Cheers in Fayetteville.

00:15:43] KM: Cheers in Fayetteville, when did you open that?

00:15:46] CT: I did that. It’s a franchise. Mike Arnold and his son, Curtis, run that. Own it and run it.

00:15:51] KM: Did they approach you?

00:15:53] CT: Yup. I've known Mike. It's crazy. I catered his rehearsal dinner in Hope, Arkansas 20 something years ago.

00:16:02] KM: So he was already a restaurant owner?

00:16:05] CT: Yup. He has Razorback Pizzas.

00:16:08] KM: In Fayetteville?

00:16:09] CT: Mm-hmm. And the one – A couple in Little Rock and one in Maumelle.

00:16:14] KM: Did he start a franchise?

00:16:16] CT: He's opened up a couple of them here but he bought the main one up in Fayetteville and then opened some.

00:16:21] KM: So he kind of know about how to do a franchise?

00:16:23] CT: Yup.

00:16:24] KM: How did you design and set up a franchise model?

00:16:27] CT: This is more of a business agreement, not just a true hardcore franchise. Ours is pretty simple.

inaudible 00:16:33] –

00:16:33] KM: It's just kind of a partnership.

00:16:34] CT: Yeah. We've known each other for a long time and –

00:16:38] KM: It's just more of a partnership, and he gives you dividends I guess. All right. So how long did you have Cheers when you decided to open Samantha's Tap Room and Wood Grill?

00:16:47 CT: Well, I’ve actually opened Cheers in Maumelle, so I bought that property. We built that from the ground up, set that up. I had partners there. 10 years later, I sell it. I sold the property and everything. Still some of the same employees are still there. That's been, golly, seven years ago, seven or eight.

00:17:08] KM: Too hard to run it.

00:17:10] CT: No. It just –

00:17:10] KM: Didn’t you have kids sometime in there?

00:17:13] CT: Yeah.

00:17:13] KM: I mean, you've gotten married. You end up with two kids. Now, you’ve got two restaurants open. You're like – Samantha's like, “You're going to have to give up something or –”

00:17:22] CT: She wasn’t digging my idea. We had a couple partners. So they ran it, and just things changed. The couple then moved on. Anyway, I said, “Man, I've kind of felt like I've done what I can do here.” Being that we own the property of the building, want to sell that and just sell the whole thing. I really want to do something else. I didn't know Samantha's at the time but I wanted to do something else. I'd love for it to be a little closer because I'm driving back and forth over a lot.

00:17:55] KM: You have partners at Samantha's?

00:17:56] CT: Yes.

00:17:57] KM: So how did the idea to start a restaurant in downtown that was underdeveloped and trying to make a comeback? You were kind of one of the first to go in there and renovate and be confident about and –

00:18:12] CT: I had an idea. Several of us were on vacation in Mexico, and I was like, “Hey, guys. I want to do a restaurant.” I said, “I got an idea.” He was like, “Yeah, what do you think?” That’s kind of where it all started. We didn't know the location at the time, and the concept was over the last 20 year. At that point, what, 17, 16 years of catering or really I've been catering longer than I've had the restaurants, so 20 years of catering. I said I know what people. I know

what they'll eat. I know the dishes. I've catered. I know these are my number ones. It's a dry matter if they're going to like it, so if we can execute.

I had a menu. I put a menu together, and that's kind of where that started, the name. Of course, when we travel, which I travel a lot, I'm always, always going to restaurants and looking and seeing who's doing what and checking it out and just learning. We applied a lot of things from all over the country for Samantha's. When that spot became available, and there's some other restaurateurs that looked at it, and they didn't pull the trigger. We did. I mean, it was – When I walked in, I'm like, “Oh, yeah.” It just reminded me of some corner restaurants I've been to in New York City. I'm like, “This is big city right here. I could – 20-foot ceilings on the corner, windows.” I said, “This is it.” That’s where that came about.

00:19:42] KM: It does. It’s very New York.

00:19:44] CT: Yup.

00:19:45] KM: So you've done now Cheers. You don't own the building.

00:19:48] CT: Right.

00:19:49] KM: Are you glad you don't? Or do you wish you did?

00:19:51] CT: I'd love to own everything.

00:19:53] KM: I wondered about that. There's two philosophies on that. So you didn’t – You bought Cheers and then you started Samantha's. Here's the question I want to know. Is it better to buy an existing restaurant? Or is it better to start from scratch?

00:20:11] CT: That's a tough question.

00:20:12] KM: It's – Which one's more affordable? Probably buying one that's already started?

00:20:16] CT: Yeah. I mean, you've got an idea of what you've got on an income anyway. Going from zero, you don't know. You're hoping but you also know that the restaurants are failing, so you're scared going in. You’re like, “But I think – I know I can make it better. Will people catch on?” So far, so good but –

00:20:41] KM: I would think, yeah, if you ask a banker what's the riskiest loan he’ll loan you, he’ll say restaurants.

00:20:47] CT: Yeah. It’s – We want to try to buy Cheers. Going to the bank, “Well, what do you have?” “I don't have anything. That's why I'm here.”

00:20:58] KM: Right.

00:20:59] CT: “Oh, no. You need 20% down on whatever you're trying to get.” I'm like, “If I had 20%.”

00:21:05] KM: How'd you get the money?

00:21:06] CT: We had a small partner, Chuck

inaudible 00:21:09]. Then we went to his brother-in-law, and he coughed up a little money. We paid him back with interest. Everything went great. It's all good, but that's kind of how that started.

00:21:23] KM: If you ask the SBA how to start a small business, you know what they'll say? Ask your friends and family for the down payment. I swear. That's the number one way that they recommend. If your friends and family will loan you the down payment so that you can go to the bank and get a loan, then you are pretty credible because your friends and family know you pretty well.

00:21:43] CT: Yeah.

00:21:44] KM: Is it hard to run a business in another city, now that you've got Fayetteville up there?

00:21:47] CT: Well, again, they're running it. But they call, have questions. We’d we go back and forth on different things. But they're pretty much running it.

00:21:57] KM: I can't imagine. I think one of the reasons why you are successful at your menus and everything is because you travel. I can't imagine keeping your restaurant fresh, and I know there are some restaurants that don't need to ever change and have been doing the same thing for 40 years, like some barbecue places. But you do have these kind of cutting-edge restaurants that you can tell you travel. Are you still traveling all the time?

00:22:21] CT: A little bit. A little bit. Obviously, this last year not a whole lot. You go somewhere. There's nowhere to go out. But we have here recently.

00:22:31] KM: Doesn't Samantha's have a big wood burning oven?

00:22:34] CT: Wood grill, yeah.

00:22:36] KM: Do you take that around and cater with that?

00:22:38] CT: No. But I've got some other grills. Yeah.

00:22:40] KM: Do you still have to cater?

00:22:42] CT: I did one the other night, first one.

00:22:44] KM: I'm so sorry.

00:22:44] CT: First one in 14 years. I'm like, “Whew.”

00:22:47] KM: I'm too old for this. It’s tough.

00:22:50] CT: It's hard. We were talking about that this morning.

00:22:52] KM: I catered a little bit out of my home when I was starting Arkansas Flag and Banner for extra money for the owner of Cheers Restaurant. She asked me to cook some stuff at my house, and it's tough.

00:23:02] CT: Yeah, it is. It really is.

00:23:04] KM: All right, this is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Arkansas restaurateur, Mr. Chris Tanner, Owner-operator of Cheers, Samantha's Tap Room, and The Oyster Bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. Still to Come, the life and loss of their intelligent and beautiful daughter, Miss Anna Charley Tanner. How does a mother, father, and brother find their strength to start again? When unexpected tragedy strikes, it shatters your otherwise normal work. A tough conversation but an important conversation. We'll be right back.


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00:24:39] KM: You are listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Mr. Chris Tanner, Owner-operator of Cheers in the Heights, Cheers in Fayetteville, Samantha's Tap Room, and most recently the newly renovated Oyster Bar in Little

Rock, Arkansas, The Oyster Bar. I mean, this is a Little Rock, Arkansas icon. How scary is it to go in there and make sweeping changes like you did and think, “Is the public going to love me or hate me?”

00:25:10] CT: It’s exactly what I was thinking.

00:25:12] KM: That's exactly what everybody – I mean, we’re an – I’m an entrepreneur. I get how big a risk that was. How did you find out it was for sale?

00:25:20] CT: Through a friend who knew someone that knew Virginia. It wasn't on the market yet, but we're sitting at The Oyster Bar. He goes telling me it's for sale, and she was selling the property. That’s –

00:25:34] KM: That's your Mo.

00:25:36] CT: That makes it a lot more fun. So I got ahold of her through a realtor and –

00:25:42] KM: So you started with the real estate first?

00:25:44] CT: Yup.

00:25:45] KM: Really?

00:25:46] CT: Mm-hmm.

00:25:46] KM: Virginia had had it for how long? Did she start it in 1975?

00:25:51] CT: She was close. If she weren’t there at the very beginning, shortly after she came on board.

00:25:56] KM: Can I just say we miss her key lime pie?

00:25:58] CT: Yeah.

00:25:59] KM: What happened? Where is it?

00:26:01] CT: We've got key lime pie.

00:26:02] KM: What happened to her recipe?

00:26:04] CT: Oh, no. It wasn't there when I’d taken it over.

00:26:08] KM: Is she still alive?

00:26:09] CT: Mm-hmm.

00:26:09] KM: You knew Kara —

00:26:11] CT: Yeah. No, she came and looked at it. We were still weren't done where we – I wanted to come back now that we really – I really wanted to come back, once I get this next phase going. Get it done.

00:26:21] KM: What's the next phase?

00:26:23] CT: We’re getting ready to knock out another wall that separates the hallway from the party room. That's where we're going to build a bar and utilize that stage and there for the music. So when people come in the back doors they’re going to come into that room, and that's where people will be able to wait, have a drink, have some TVs and music there also.

00:26:40] KM: How about parking?

00:26:41] CT: Yeah. It’s – They’re figuring it out. There's a lot of restaurants around the country that have no parking.

00:26:46] KM: That is correct.

00:26:47] CT: They do very well.

00:26:48] KM: Uber. It’s called Uber.

00:26:51] CT: Uber. It’ll be the front door, and you don't have to walk up one stair. You’re in there immediately.

00:26:57] KM: Wouldn't it be fun if people would just drive up in limousines and get out and drive? Everybody drive off and you’d be like, “This is New York City.” For our listeners, we've talked about Cheers Restaurant in the very beginning. It's a hamburger joint to me. It will always be a hamburger joint with great vegetarian sandwiches. Next – Then that salad that I've never had, what do you call it? Salmon salad?

00:27:17] CT: Chopped salmon.

00:27:18] KM: I kind of have to go have that. Then next was Samantha's Tap Room with a wood grill. It’s very New York. It's on the corner. It's in downtown Little Rock, always packed. You shut it down for COVID.

00:27:32] CT: Yup.

00:27:33] KM: You didn't shut Cheers down, did you?

00:27:35] CT: Shut Cheers down for just under a month. But because of Cheers, always did a lot of to-go business that we opened that up pretty quick.

00:27:46] KM: But Samantha's has just opened up. It was closed a year.

00:27:50] CT: It was closed six months. It opened. We opened up in October-ish and kind of getting back in the groove.

00:27:59] KM: But not very many days.

00:28:00] CT: No. We’re five, six days. We were six days.

00:28:05] KM: Is the hotel business coming back down there?

00:28:07] CT: Yeah. It's coming back. I'm working on a project right now with a hotel, just helping them a little bit and talking to those guys. They were in Oyster Bar yesterday, and it's picking up.

00:28:19] KM: Then right –

00:28:23] CT: So we have everything going. I'm like I've got all three restaurants back open, go in. I'm just baby step and doing different things at the different restaurants, just trying to not overdo it, just simplicity. We're not doing dinner specials. We're just doing the menu. We're just trying to make sure we don't stub our toe, and everything's going great. I run down to Florida. Snowmageddon hit. Water main breaks on Fourth Street, which floods all over the place.

Water goes everywhere. It goes over the sidewalk where the grates in the sidewalk, which are the vents to the building that we're in, water goes down to those grates, fills up, bust out the wall down below, and then fills up the basement with three million gallons of water, which is the nerve center to our restaurant. So everything we had down there, just the tap systems, water heaters, just everything was down there. All the alcohol, grease traps. You name it. Everything’s ruined.

00:29:27] KM: Is this The Oyster Bar?

00:29:29] CT: No. This is Samantha's.

00:29:30] KM: This is in Samantha's?

00:29:31] CT: Yes.

00:29:31] KM: You just gotten it going.

00:29:33] CT: Just gotten it going for a few months, and then that happens. You're just like, “Oh, my gosh.” The one thing I didn't want to do, which is why it took so long to open the restaurant is because I just like I want to make sure everything's happening downtown, enough

to support it because I don't want to close this thing again because people don't understand. It's monumental work to close and reopen a restaurant. It's a lot, and I'll be damned. We still closed and trying to reopen to this day. So they’re working on the – The heat and air of the building was down there, so all that is ruined. We’re replacing pumps and cooling towers.

00:30:13] KM: That was this year during the major snow. You're in Florida.

00:30:16] CT: February. Yeah.

00:30:17] KM: Snow hits Arkansas, and you're like, “Ha, h, ha. I'm down here. Yeah. I’m leaving right. I timed that perfectly not.”

00:30:27] CT: No.

00:30:29] KM: So COVID hits, and you have been negotiating for how long on The Oyster Bar?

00:30:33] CT: We'd already bought The Oyster Bar, October 1st, 2019. So I've been going for five months before COVID hit slowly, just doing a little bit of remodeling in the back, get things together. I’d already changed the menu, got our recipes implemented, and just had plans, getting all everything together. What are the big scheme of things and what we're going to do? Then when that hit, I'm like, “Well, I got a bunch of employees.” I said, “Hey, who wants to make some money?” We're going in and we started tearing everything out.

00:31:06] KM: What?

00:31:07] CT: That's where the remodel started, so we just went in and tore everything out and –

00:31:13] KM: So you weren't going to remodel it as much as you did until COVID happened?

00:31:17] CT: Yeah. Well, I had plans to remodel and I was putting the plan together. But since it was closed, I'm like, “It's wide open, which gives us something to do.”

00:31:24] KM: So you took your wait staff.

00:31:26] CT: Just got some wait staff, kitchen, whoever wanted to work.

00:31:30] KM: That's an entrepreneur right there.

00:31:32] CT: We did some work.

00:31:33] KM: It looks fabulous. It looks to me. You call it Cajun atmosphere, but it doesn't look like Cajun Atmosphere. It looks more like New York City.

00:31:43] CT: Yeah. We modeled it after a few raw bars that we went to –

00:31:47] KM: Where?

00:31:48] CT: Around the country. I went Washington and Portland, Oregon.

00:31:52] KM: What's your favorite food in the restaurant?

00:31:55] CT: Oh, my gosh. Which one?

00:31:57] KM: I love those oysters. Where are they at?

00:31:59] CT: The wood-grilled oysters?

00:32:01] KM: Y'all, even if you don't like oysters, you eat a wood-grilled oyster, you will be a convert. They are so good.

00:32:06] CT: They are very delish.

00:32:09] KM: They are very, very good. This is in a 1924 grocery store building. You own the building now, so you've gone in and stripped it all, changed it all, made the menu. You’ve

got behind the bar this building, this water tower. What is that thing called that flushes the oysters? This raining down water on the oysters, I've never seen that before. What is that?

00:32:36] CT: It's relatively new with this company up in Jersey that I found, and they call it a shellfish spa. But it's just basically, I keep all the East and West Coast Oysters in that, and it's 37 degree marine salt water, and it runs over and keeps them cold, moist. It extends their shelf life, but we're going through two, three times a week and getting deliveries in two, three times a week. It’s also a showpiece.

00:33:02] KM: It’s a showpiece.

00:33:03] CT: But they work out of that on to the eyes.

00:33:06] KM: Does the act – Did the idea of importing fresh fish everyday frighten you?

00:33:10] CT: It does, but I've gotten some good sources over the years.

00:33:15] KM: How many – You have like three different kinds of oysters in there.

00:33:19] CT: Shoot. We have five to six at any given time.

00:33:24] KM: Gulf?

00:33:25] CT: Always Gulf. That’s the number one seller because that goes in on the wood grill. Of course, raw oysters and then Rockefeller, bacon and leak,

inaudible 00:33:34]. So we're doing all those oysters, all those with Gulf oysters. Then we'll have about five types, either East and West Coast.

00:33:42] KM: That's what I meant, five types of oysters. Like plump fat ones.

00:33:47] CT: Plump but not necessarily real big. Some of them are – The Kumamotos that come out of Washington are super tiny.

00:33:56] KM: Really?

00:33:56] CT: They take three years to get to that size but they're just got a really neat cucumber finish. I mean, they're the Cheer connoisseurs.

00:34:04] KM: What are those called?

00:34:05] CT: Kumamoto.

00:34:07] KM: I have a reservation there tonight after the show. I'm going to go have that one and try it out.

00:34:11] CT: Yup, for sure.

00:34:11] KM: All right, here's the tough conversation if you're up for it, Anna Charley Tanner. What a darling name. Where did Charley come from?

00:34:20] CT: Me. I just – I love that name.

00:34:22] KM: It's cute. When your daughter passed, every church in town was praying for her. Did you know that? She was widely known, she was loved, and she was very ambitious with a bright future. She was graduating from Mount St. Mary's in the 12th grade.

00:34:34] CT: Yup.

00:34:35] KM: She had a boyfriend?

00:34:37] CT: Yup.

00:34:38] KM: What did she want to grow up? She was going to go to school to be?

00:34:41] CT: She was going to be a nurse.

00:34:42] KM: A pediatric nurse.

00:34:43] KM: Yup.

00:34:45] KM: Tell us about that morning if you can, if you can. It’s too hard.

00:34:51] CT: I just got a phone call from the school. She just had a real, real bad, let's say, headache but it was more than that. We got her to the hospital. After the X-rays, we got to figure out what it was. They're going to kind of go in a couple days later, so least we had three days with her before she went in for the exploratory surgery to see how bad it was.

00:35:18] KM: She was awake.

00:35:19] CT: Oh, yeah. Anyway, so they did the surgery, they're done, they're just finishing up, and that’s where it went south.

00:35:28] KM: What was it? An aneurysm?

00:35:29] CT: It was an AVM. It’s what they call it, arteriovenous malformation, and it was right by her brainstem. People can have those and have them their whole life and they don't erupt. Hers did. Usually, for it to do that – What it did, it erupted but then it stopped really quick. So that's why we had a few days with her.

00:35:55] KM: What's it like after the first week after something like that? Is it just shock? Is it –

00:36:01] CT: Yeah, terrible.

00:36:04] KM: Then when does the reality kind of hit you?

00:36:10] CT: It still is it seems like. I mean, just it's – I don't know. It's tough.

00:36:16] KM: Tell families that are kind of thinking about stuff like that, that are going through that. A lot of families go through stuff like that, and they end up blaming each other. They have misplaced pain and stuff. You and Samantha didn't do that.

00:36:32] CT: No. I don’t know. I created it maybe to – Because we've always worked together. We built everything together that we have. I don't know. But gotten lucky.

00:36:44] KM: Well, I don't know if you got lucky or not. I think you work hard at it. Then my husband lost his brother, and I know that he always, for some reason, felt kind of guilty that it wasn't him. I never realized that that was a thing. How did you go back to work? How long did you wait to go back to work?

00:37:06] CT: Yeah. I waited a few weeks. Of course, Samantha longer, but I just had to get back to work.

00:37:12] KM: Well, I saw you at Samantha's, and everybody was coming up to you. For people who are suffering, is it better for people to come up to you and acknowledge what happened to you? Do you want people to come up and say, “I heard. I know. I'm sorry,” and that's it? Or would you rather people just pretend like it didn't happen?

00:37:34] CT: Either way. If they do it, if they don't, I'm good with that too. I'm good either way.

00:37:49] KM: I remember when my husband lost his brother. It bothered him when people did not acknowledge to him that he had lost his brother. He said, “I would run into people, and it would be so awkward. They would just stare at me like, ‘Yeah, you lost your brother, but I don't know if I should say something.’” He said, “I just wanted him to say just something as simple as, ‘Sorry, I heard about your brother.’” He could say thanks.

00:38:10] CT: Right. Glad so many people come up to us. When you remember somebody didn't say anything, to be honest with you.

00:38:18] KM: I bet it’s just a fog. I bet you’re just walking through the day-to-day life of it all, trying to figure it out.

00:38:26] CT: Yup.

00:38:27] KM: All right, this a great place to take our last break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Mr. Chris Tanner, owner-operator of Cheers, Samantha's, and Oyster Bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tips on starting a restaurant and what does Chris Tanner have up his sleeve next? We know he has something going on. We'll be right back.


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00:39:55] KM: You're listening Up in Your business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with Mr. Chris Tanner, Owner-operator of Cheers in the Heights, Cheers in Fayetteville, Samantha's Tap Room, and most recently the newly renovated Oyster Bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. Before the break, we talked about how he and Samantha met, how they ended up in the restaurant business, about whether it's better to buy an existing restaurant or whether it's better to start from scratch, the risks of starting a restaurant, which are huge.

We took time to honor Anna Charley Tanner, Chris's 18-year-old daughter who passed away when she was 18 in 2016 and just was an ambitious. At the break, he was talking about she was athletic, ambitious, loved kids, everything everybody could ever want in a child and how he managed to get through it. Just put one foot in front of the other day after day and finally

going back to work. He and his wife ended up staying together through that, which it’s also hard sometimes. What's next, Chris?

00:40:53] CT: That's a good question.

00:40:55] KM: Have you got your eye on another restaurant that you can tell or you don't want anybody to know what's up your sleeve?

00:40:59] CT: Right now, I'm just trying to get Samantha's open back up.

00:41:03] KM: Yeah. That was another thing you talked about is how he was in Florida during the snowstorm of 2021, biggest snowstorm in 100 years, and the water main broke in downtown Little Rock and flooded his restaurant. There he thought he had escaped it. So what advice do you want to give to somebody who wants to start a restaurant? I think everybody deep down kind of barely in their soul wants to own a restaurant and dreams about it. What's it really like?

00:41:31] CT: It's fun if you have the passion. If you're just in it for the money or thinking you're going to make the money, definitely don't want to do it. But if you have a passion for good food, drinks, good wine, atmosphere, those things, it’s – I love it. Like you say, it's hard. It's never the same day twice. Let me tell you that. It's always different. Every day is different, and that makes it fun to me. It keeps you on your toes.

00:42:07] KM: So what's the hardest part? I would think employee.

00:42:10] CT: Everybody says employees, and I do too. I mean, but, golly, it takes a little while once you open a restaurant. It might take you two years to kind of really work through different employees that kind of buy into your philosophy and say, “See, this is what I'm talking about. This is – It all works if we do it this way.” Once you get that team, it's fine. It really is.

00:42:37] KM: How about the late nights? I don't think I could have a restaurant today at this age because I can't stand to stay up that late.

00:42:44] CT: Right. Well –

00:42:45] KM: Do you get up early or do you sleep late?

00:42:48 CT: I get up early and I sleep late.

00:42:50] KM: You do both.

00:42:52] CT: I don't necessarily stay late at the restaurant. Then some nights I do. I just – It just kind of depends. But when you have your team together, you can go in, go in early, go in late, stay late. Don't go in at all. It just –

00:43:08] KM: You opened The Oyster Bar in the middle of a pandemic. You had a grand opening. I'm driving down the street, I looked through all those plate glass windows, and I see a million people in there with the lights on, and I'm thinking, “What has Chris Tanner done?” Tell me how that came about.

00:43:26] CT: Well, we finally finished. We’re open. During COVID, once we remodeled and now reopened, we had to do something. At first, we baby stepped it. We just did. Reservation only, that was your table for the night, show up whenever you want, and here's the menu. Here's what you're going to get. This is – You don't have an option. You're going to have his appetizer, main course, dessert, what have you. That way, we could buy just for what we're going to do for a couple, two, three nights, and just baby step into it. That’s what we did, and then it kind of morphed from there. We added some things and then we kind of got away from went to their menu. Then we got off reservations and just went reservations for six or more and allow for more walk in. It’s kind of baby stepped in on.

00:44:26] KM: Takeout businesses really changed. Do you like it?

00:44:29] CT: Yeah, yeah. We like it.

00:44:31] KM: Can you order online?

00:44:33] CT: Yeah.

00:44:33] KM: You place your order online. I've noticed now that you give your credit card before you get there too.

00:44:38] CT: We're doing it online right now at Cheers. We're getting ready. We're in the process of putting in a new computer system at The Oyster Bar. We're not there yet on the online, and it never really did a lot of to-go business to begin with. It's starting to happen there.

00:44:54] KM: At the Oyster Bar?

00:44:55] CT: Yeah. It's crazy. People are getting two to three dozen oysters on the half shell to go, so we’re putting these pans of ice and putting it.

00:45:02] KM: That is a messy mess. You spill that in your car. It’s never going to be able to sell it.

00:45:07] CT: We've got it where it won't spill.

00:45:09] KM: You promise?

00:45:10] CT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It's really neat. I just flipped out on people getting oysters on the half shell to go. I would have never thought to do that.

00:45:20] KM: I know, right? Well, they're good. I mean, nobody's got oysters like you. It’s the best food around. I just love, love, love talking to you. I have a gift for you. It’s a desk set, and this is a Louisiana flag for your Cajun food.

00:45:36] CT: I love it.

00:45:37] KM: That's a US flag, an Arkansas flag, and then a Louisiana flag for The Oyster Bar with your Cajun atmosphere.

00:45:44] CT: Thank you.

00:45:45] KM: You’re welcome.

00:45:46] CT: That's great.

00:45:46] KM: Tell Samantha she's in trouble for not coming on the air with us.

00:45:49] CT: I’ll tell her.

00:45:50] KM: I want to go down the restaurant after this and I'm going to tell her myself. Never mind. In closing, I want to say to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We've hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening, and that whatever it is will help you up your business, your life, or your independence. I'm Kerry McCoy and I'll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.


00:46:15] GM: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today’s show, go to flagandbanner.com, select radio, and choose today's guest. If you'd like to sponsor this show or any show, email me, Gray. That’s G-R-A-Y@flagandbanner.com. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Stay informed of exciting upcoming guests by subscribing to our YouTube channel or podcast wherever you like to listen. Kerry's goal is simple, to help you live the American dream.


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