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Mark Abernathy.

Mark Abernathy

Despite A `Starry-Eyed Innocence,' He's Made Juanita's And Looks To Other Deals At Cleaning Up Main Street Little Rock

Aspiring graffiti artists wishing to make their mark on the scrawled white walls at Juanita's Bar & Grill must be willing to eat a worm for the privilege -- and fork over $4.50 to boot. Owner and operator Mark Abernathy dreamed up the gimmick and set an example by chewing up and swallowing the first in a long line of pickled meal worms snatched from their resting places at the bottom of a tequila bottle.

Though he characterizes himself as a late bloomer (for having produced his only child -- two-year-old Jack, by his second wife Janet -- near the end of his third decade) Abernathy is clearly fit to hang out with the early-bird crowd.

A fast-starter among restaurateurs in the early 1970s, Abernathy opened Juanita's in February 1986 and owns 62 percent of Hot Stuff, Inc., the restaurant's corporate entity, with partners Frank McGehee Jr. and Jean Gordon. Last year, Juanita's, which employs 85 people, paid more than $200,000 in taxes (not including sales tax) on $1.6 million in gross sales and will take in about $1.8 million in 1989, according to Abernathy.

He is sole proprietor of Abernathy Development Co., which owns half of the block occupied by Juanita's and leases it to the restaurant and other tenants. RUSHING INTO THE SOUTH Main bar, apologizing to the reporter he has kept waiting for a half hour, Abernathy explains, "I was at the mercy of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission," referring to a seminar he was attending on Arkansas liquor laws. He leads the way through the kitchen, out into the alley, and up the steep flight of stairs to his offices over the restaurant.

He wastes no time shedding the coat and tie -- "I'd like the 10 minutes alone with the guy who invented the tie!" -- and releasing the top buttons on the dress shirt, settles briefly behind his desk, then moves around front to face his visitor.

Abernathy has the fresh-faced look of a young actor, never mind the gleaming circle of scalp visible on the back of his head and the sharp inroads his forehead is forging in front. The hair that's left is honey brown and hovers in the vicinity of his shirt collar. Like many men losing the hair on their heads, he covers his face in it.

There is about Abernathy a quality rare in a man nearing his forty-first birthday -- an ingenuousness Gordon calls "starry-eyed innocence." He says he's "a hippie and proud of it." His friend and one-time business associate Stanley Friedman thinks Abernathy means he "still has faith; he's still a believer. He's a combination of laid-back and enterprise."

A fifth generation Arkansan who grew up in the Hall High area in Little Rock, Abernathy was greatly influenced by his father, John, a diabetic and heart patient who faced a life of pain bravely and without complaint. His mother, Charlotte, recently retired after 26 years as secretary for Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church.

When he was 22 years old, cocky as all get out, and proud new possessor of a business degree, Abernathy joined a group on its way to open Dallas's first T.G.I. Friday's. In about a month, he was a manager of Big D's hottest restaurant. "I've never seen anything that rivaled [it]," he says. "We did $10,000 a day back in 1972 and that was when you could get mixed drinks for 85 cents. Pretty heady stuff for a guy right out of Fayetteville."

It was the old right place/right time story. "Friday's was one of the first to capitalize on the swinging singles, fern bar, free love -- that whole thing that was going on -- and it was wild."

Abernathy was himself single and says, "We worked all day and played all night. Got a few hours sleep and started again."

Then, he was lured to San Antonio by a group of investors who gave him a piece of the action plus a salary for setting up a Friday's clone. But he didn't mesh with some of the partners, so he left and over the next few years started several businesses of his own.

One of the more interesting was a place called The Bijou. The club was a "player" in the progressive country movement that was sweeping the southwest. He drank bourbon with Willie Nelson (whose talents Abernathy bought for a few hundred dollars a night in those days) and played with his own group, the On Hand Band -- "meaning whoever was around and wanted to play, that was the members of the band."

San Antonio still hears the occasional Abernathy tune -- "kind of tongue-in-cheek, humorous-type material, a la Jimmy Buffet," he reveals. And these days, he performs with a local group, the Torpedoes.

Deciding it was time to "go on to bigger and better things," the young entrepreneur sold The Bijou and opened a French restaurant called Abernathy's. There were rave reviews. Booked two weeks in advance. And his first failure.

"I lost my ass," he admits. "It was my first and greatest lesson." The airstream golden boy had a flop. "It was a real humbling experience to wake up one day and find that I really had nothing. It was the best and the worst experience I've ever had."

"I ran out of luck," he figures. Then, changing his mind, he says he doesn't really believe in luck.

"I didn't have enough time in the trenches. I had places that were so popular that gross sales covered up a multitude of sins. When you're not doing such a big volume, those little mistakes become a pea in the mattress. But when you've got lots of money flowing, hey, what's 5 percent here, 2 percent here? Bartender stealing a little bit here, cocktail waitress stealing a little bit here."

He's applied what he learned to his latest restaurant venture. "The reason we make money at Juanita's is not just because we have good gross sales, but because we watch every penny. And that's the difference. When we get just a little bit lax in our management, it's amazing what it does to the bottom line, and pretty quick too."

For some time, Abernathy had dabbled in restaurant and hotel design and had even formed a small company, The Design Group, to serve that interest. "One of the things I had discovered was that architects have no real feel or knowledge of what a restaurant should be like, what the kitchen should be like, what the flow should be like, because they never worked in one."

At this point, at the age of thirty, he plunged headling into running The Design Group with his partner, Gary Sprott, living high on the hog servicing wealthy clients all through south Texas and Mexico. He and Sprott sketched their ideas, then handed them to architects or draftsmen to do the working drawing. McGehee sees this rare combination of business and artistic sense as one of Abernathy's most important strengths.

But after two years, Abernathy spiraled down and burned out. "I'd been going strong for ten years, nonstop boogie, working hard, playing hard, and I was tired."

He exited a short-lived marriage, sold his restaurant and design interests, and went to work as a Boy Scout executive. "I basically stepped off the merry-go-round and took a wonderful, emotionally-rewarding job, and it was great."

Friedman thinks that move says a lot about the man. "People are important to Mark. People, not things. And most people are so fearful of their own situation that they can't see other people's needs and requirements unless it directly affects theirs."

Abernathy worked for the Boy Scouts for seven years, transferring to North Little Rock with his new wife in 1985.

"I'd like to say I was clairvoyant and could see the catering of the [San Antonio] real estate market," Abernathy says, "because I had quite a bit of real estate built up by that time, and I sold about half of it. But I wasn't. We just wanted a change. And I wanted to come home."

"As soon as we got here, it became apparent that we were going to have to do something about the Mexican food," Abernathy says, smiling beatifically.

Though he stresses that he's not putting down his competitors' food, central Arkansas' enchilada cuisine didn't exactly make Abernathy and his wife, a San Antonio native, feel like shouting "Ole!" It wasn't what they were used to. It wasn't Tex-Mex or Santa Fe. It was Ark-Mex.

"I was on a mission from God," he jokes. "I like Mexican food that slaps you around a little bit. If you've got hot sauce, then damn it, it ought to be hot or don't call it hot sauce."

Jaunita's opening menu heralded "Relief is here," and Abernathy could almost hear the collective sigh of a grateful clientele. But his critique of the food not the presentation of others in his corner of the restaurant business.

"There's plenty of room in this market for both types of Mexican fare. In fact, Casa Bonita does almost twice the volume that I do. They're one of the largest -- if not the largest -- grossing restaurants in this city. They do over $3 million a year."

Abernathy was discouraged by almost everyone from opening Juanita's -- christened in honor of Janet Abernathy's San Antonio nickname, "plus it conjures up a vision of a nice, portly Mexican woman back there patting out tortillas," he says. "I didn't have all these preconceived paranoias about downtown, south Main Street, and Mexican restaurants. I just looked at it from a marketing standpoint."

The strength of his conviction came from four basic beliefs:

* There was a market for a different type of Mexican food.

* Downtown's work force of 40,000 could use another lunch place.

* The opening of the Wilbur Mills Expressway would drastically alter the city's traffic.

* And, a downtown eatery could be opened for a fraction of what it would cost to put it out west.

"And it just didn't look like I was going to get raped and murdered down here," he adds.

Not even trying to resist the smug grin that splits his beard, he adds, "And I was right and they were wrong." "PART OF MARK'S SUCCESS is that he's just real determined," McGehee believes. "He makes up his mind he wants to do something and he takes action."

Juanita's has been expanded four times in less than four years, and plans are in the works for a different kind of restaurant in west Little Rock.

"Three years ago, this corner belonged to the winos and the prostitutes," says an obviously-proud Abernathy. "Now a thriving business is here, and we saved a building that was built in the 1920s."

The restaurant building formerly answered to the names Puddy Tat Lounge and Regina's Place and the bar was last known as Tiny's Tavern. "When I walked in the door of Tiny's Tavern," recalls Abernathy, "the first thing I stepped on was a .38 slug."

Part of his sixties self-image comes from his devotion to causes like neighborhood preservation. As chairman of the board of the Quapaw Central Business Improvement District, Abernathy pushed for the million-dollar renovation of the five-block area encompassing Juanita's. The city's share of the tab is just $300,000.

"It's really kind of a unique situation in that we [the property owners] are spending that money to fix up city right-of-way. My prediction is that once the improvement district is fixed up, you will see a steady redevelopment of that whole street. And all we did was help reclaim some of this at a fraction of the cost to the city of what it costs to put in a new area out west."

The money being pored into westward development peeves Abernathy, because he views it as happening at the expense of existing neighborhoods. His voice, which normally perches somewhere in the middle of the tenor register, rises with frustration, then excitement, as he talks about plans for his upcoming tenure as president of the Quapaw Quarter Association. (He's also a board member of the Downtown Partnership, a group of business executives and property owners promoting the downtown area.)

People leave downtown and other older neighborhoods, he believes, "because the city neglected to put money back to keep those borders safe."

Abernathy has purchased the historic Taborian Hall on Ninth street with the intention of saving the building, a landmark for black music in the city. And he's announced plans with partners to convert a dilapidated apartment complex across from Juanita's into offices.

So, if Abernathy is devoted to downtown Little Rock, why does he live in North Little Rock, instead of in one of those restored mansions in the Quapaw Quarter? There's a quick reply.

"If you could see where I live, you wouldn't even have to ask," he answers.

Later, sitting on the deck of his sprawling, rustic home, watching orange leaves drift down from the trees sheltering the pool below and blinking against the sun that glints off Lakewood's Lake No. 1, you sees what he means. Inside, the house he calls "a hang out for a grown-up hippie" is a study in old Mexico.

Among the Abernathy's artifacts is a ceramic folk sculpture whose dark-skinned disciples feast on a Last Supper of watermelon and beer. In his driveway sits his old Ford pick-up, with 300,000 miles on the odometer.

"If Sam Walton can drive one...." He leaves that sentence dangling and talks about his '49 Buick convertible "just like the car that was in `Rain Man.'"

Abernathy thinks of himself as an intellectual, though he doesn't read books. Claims he doesn't have the time. He once had to drop out of a seminar because they wanted him to read five books. "I discuss a lot, with friends and other people, and I think that's the most valuable. I try to get a lot of opinions."

Juanita's is completely departmentalized and Abernathy calls his staff, including Janet Abernathy, who is restaurant manager, "the best restaurant team in this town."

Gordon says of her partner, "I see he gets restless and wants some new challenge. He doesn't like things to be under control."

Abernathy counters: "I'm better at creating than I am at the day to day follow-through. One of the most important business lessons that I've learned is to try to concentrate on what you do well and then become involved with people that can cover your weaknesses."

Abernathy says Janet is "just the kind of wife that I need. She's sort of the rock, ruthlessly honest, and yet she is real secure, which is good for me because I just go."

What he means is, he takes guiltfree trips without her. But, then, she sometimes goes off alone with her friends. "It's great to have that sort of freedom," he says.

He frets, "[My partners] often get overlooked because I'm in the driver's seat, but they've been very supportive." McGehee, who develops new recipes for the restaurant, is a perfectionist, tending to details while Abernathy focuses on the big picture.

"We have a bit of an adversarial relationship, and it's good for business to have someone who is not a `yes man.'"

Abernathy recently served as a chairman for the successful Sunday drink campaign in central Arkansas, and has strong ideas about Arkansas's liquor laws, calling them the "screwiest in the nation.

"They're singling out one industry and just beating the hell out of it."

But, he's committed to the industry's responsibilities, and Juanita's safe-drinking policies run the gamut from cutting off obviously-intoxicated customers to serving free soda to designated drivers. For a quarter, drinkers can even monitor their alcohol intake with a machine that monitors blood-alcohol content.

The key to Abernathy's success is his fearlessness, says Friedman. "Mark sees opportunities and he may have his uncertainties, but he's not afraid to take a chance."

Gordon adds: "I think he's in [business] to make money, but he's also in it to enjoy life while he's doing it. People feel like they've been to a party when they leave Juanita's."

Letha Mills is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Profile
Author:Mills, Letha
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 20, 1989
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