When COVID-19 robbed Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood of its vibrancy and vitality, local business owners came up with an idea that got the area rocking again: an outdoor dining and entertainment venue. And when the project won a small business grant from Main Street America’s HartBeat of Main Street Grant Program presented by The Hartford, the SoMa Outdoor Dining Room became an even bigger success.

The pandemic devastated SoMa’s small businesses. Restaurants and bars were forced to shut down in March 2020 except for delivery and takeout. And although indoor dining was allowed again in May, owners were limited to one-third of their normal capacity, an amount that few could survive on.

But in June 2020, Little Rock announced that it was allowing outdoor dining. SoMa restaurants then joined together to create the Outdoor Dining Room to bring people back to the area — and allow them to buy their meals and enjoy them safely in a party atmosphere.

SoMa, which gets its name from South Main Street, is a reborn section of Little Rock. It’s one of the city’s older neighborhoods that had fallen on hard times by the mid-20th century. Trendy shops, restaurants, and the ESSE purse museum have opened in the last 15 years, drawing people who are looking for something different to the area.

“It created this vibe of being like a little funky area,” says Gabe Holmstrom, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, the local business development group.

But the vibe was dormant amid the pandemic. Not only was dining severely restricted, but many people were also uneasy about going into small shops and boutiques. The SoMa restaurants and merchants — a distillery, crafts shops and home furnishing retailers — were hurting.

Holmstrom and restaurant owner Jack Sundell were among those who came up with the idea for the Outdoor Dining Room and made it happen. It opened June 11 in a SoMa parking lot with about 20 tents supplied by the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. Each open-sided tent had a table and chairs to seat six people in a socially distanced way. The dining room also provided a diversion for those who spent most of their time at home and had few places to go for fun. Besides food and drink, there was entertainment — live music and artists’ shows.

small business grant

The dining room accomplished its mission, attracting local residents and also people from well beyond SoMa.

“They would come from all over the city and surrounding communities,” Holmstrom says. On busy weekend nights, several hundred people would fill the row of brightly-lit tents. Others showed up with their own chairs to listen to the music, a variety of acts that included one of Little Rock’s most popular bands, the Rodney Block Collective.

The Outdoor Dining Room operated from 5 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, the prime dining out hours. But while it was quickly a hit, Holmstrom and Sundell saw the HartBeat of Main Street Grant Program as a way to make the dining room even better.

When Holmstrom heard about the grants, he immediately told Sundell about the opportunity. Both thought the Outdoor Dining Room would be a great fit for the program.

And it was. The HartBeat of Main Street Grant Program aimed to help small businesses hurt by COVID-19. Applicants needed to have brick-and-mortar locations in older or historic main streets, downtown areas or commercial districts. The grants, which ranged between $5,000 and $15,000, could be used for COVID-related purposes, including physical improvements to help a company meet reopening requirements — and the dining room was structured to comply with social distancing rules. The money could also be used for operating expenses, like paying for the dining room’s entertainment and security. The grant program ran until December 2020.

“When I heard about the HartBeat of Main Street Grant Program, I saw it as a great way to take this small project we were already doing and take it to the next level with better tents, increased marketing and more programming,” Sundell says. Mockingbird Bar and Tacos, the restaurant he owns with his wife, Corri Bristow-Sundell, participated in the dining room.

Sundell began working on the application, which Holmstrom described as fairly straightforward, and it was submitted in July. While everyone involved in the Outdoor Dining Room waited to hear if they’d get the grant, the project continued to thrive — especially as Little Rock’s searing summer heat dissipated.

“In the fall, it was fantastic — we just typically in Arkansas get a run of this beautiful weather in the spring and fall when there’s electricity in the air, and it feels good to be outside,” Holmstrom says.

The good news arrived in November: The Outdoor Dining Room had received a nearly $15,000 grant. Sundell was excited by the news, although the project was winding down for the year.

He and the other dining room participants were looking ahead. “We broke it down for the winter and then relaunched the project in April,” Sundell says.

“This spring, the grant funding has been used for new infrastructure like tents and a stage, staffing and security, and programming like live music and outdoor trivia,” he says.

The grant money allowed the project to book more musical acts than it had in 2020. That, Sundell says, “brings out more people to support the local restaurants.”

It also made a difference financially to the restaurants and other businesses that took part in the project. Without the grant, they would each have had to contribute $150 or $200 a month toward security and entertainment costs, Holmstrom says. That’s a lot of money for a restaurant that can only fill a third of its seats.

Holmstrom found another benefit from the process of applying for and using the grant. He and Sundell have forged a working relationship that has already gone beyond the Outdoor Dining Room.

“Now we’re talking about what other things we can do. We’re working on bigger ideas and concepts,” Holmstrom says.

The Outdoor Dining Room flourished even as Arkansas ended its COVID-19 restrictions, including capacity limits in restaurants this past spring. But as summer approached, people had plenty of alternatives once again to have a good time inside and outside of Little Rock. As Holmstrom puts it, the Outdoor Dining Room was no longer “the only game in town.”

So the dining room closed after the July 4 weekend — for now. Holmstrom hopes to revive it for special occasions.

But the project served its purpose, helping SoMa’s small businesses survive the pandemic’s devastating first year and then return to normalcy in 2021.

“It’s been a godsend,” Holmstrom says.

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Disclaimer: Applications were weighed and grants awarded without consideration of applicant’s being or not being a present, past, or prospective customer of The Hartford.