Mex­i­can roots, crops in Arkansas

Ben­tonville fam­ily farm grows al­liances with lo­cal eater­ies

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - ROB­BIE NEISWANGER

Rafael Rios didn’t know any­thing about North­west Arkansas when he made a brief stop in Bella Vista dur­ing a cross-coun­try trip more than 10 years ago.

Rios, who was born in Cal­i­for­nia and spent a good por­tion of his child­hood in Mex­ico be­fore mov­ing per­ma­nently to the U.S., said he was just tired from be­ing on the road and needed some rest. He pulled over at a gas sta­tion, grabbed a real es­tate magazine and be­gan flip­ping through the pages.

“I said, ‘Wow. The cost of liv­ing must be good here,’” Rios said.

His first im­pres­sion of North­west Arkansas be­came the be­gin­ning of the Rios fam­ily’s deep con­nec­tion to the

re­gion and, more specif­i­cally, the culi­nary move­ment in down­town Ben­tonville.

The fam­ily — which is

headed by Rafael’s fa­ther, Hec­tor, and in­cludes Rafael’s six brothers and sis­ters — main­tains a 12-acre farm just out­side the Rogers city lim­its that plays a key role in Ben­tonville’s grow­ing farm-to-ta­ble move­ment. Pro­duce from the farm sup­plies lo­cal restau­rants like The Preacher’s Son, Press­room, The Hive, Pedaler’s Pub and Eleven at Crys­tal Bridges.

Rafael Rios also is founder of Yeyo’s Mex­i­can Grill, a food truck set up in down­town Ben­tonville. He’s pre­par­ing to un­veil an­other big ven­ture as well by ex­pand­ing Yeyo’s into a phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion in the com­mu­nity-fo­cused food hub called 8th Street Mar­ket, which is an­chored by North­west Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s culi­nary pro­gram, Bright­wa­ter.

“What they’re do­ing has been very sig­nif­i­cant to the area,” said chef Matt Cooper of down­town Ben­tonville restau-

rant The Preacher’s Son. “And they’re just an amaz­ing fam­ily.”

ARKANSAS OR BUST

Farm­ing has al­ways been part of the Rios fam­ily’s lives. Rafael’s par­ents were sea­sonal farm­ers in Cal­i­for­nia in the 1970s and 1980s, spend­ing months each year in the U.S. be­fore re­turn­ing to their home in Mex­ico. Hec­tor, who is known as “Yeyo,” was able to move his fam­ily to the U.S. per­ma­nently in 1989 and con­tin­ued to work in the fields to make a liv­ing.

But Rafael said his fa­ther al­ways dreamed of es­tab­lish­ing his own farm, and the fam­ily be­gan to imag­ine the pos­si­bil­ity af­ter dis­cov­er­ing North­west Arkansas. They re­searched the area, mapped out a plan and de­cided to make the move — as a fam­ily — around 2006.

A few years ear­lier, Rafael said, he and sev­eral fam­ily mem­bers pooled their money to pur­chase a home in Cal­i­for­nia for about $100,000. It had ap­pre­ci­ated to a lit­tle more than $500,000 a few years later. So the fam­ily de­cided to sell the home and use the money to move to Arkansas. The tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter. It was just be­fore the U.S. hous­ing mar­ket crashed.

Rafael’s younger brother, Ro­man, was the first to ar­rive in North­west Arkansas. He had a real es­tate li­cense and went to work find­ing homes for the fam­ily. Ro­man scoured the area and used the money from the Cal­i­for­nia sale to pur­chase houses and prop­erty for each fam­ily mem­ber.

“He set up ev­ery­thing for us,” Rafael said. “We had never been to our houses when we came. Ro­man would just send us pic­tures and say, ‘This might be a good one. This might be a good one.’ He found the prop­erty where we farm now” at a great price.

The Rios farm started as a small op­er­a­tion meant to feed fam­ily mem­bers. But Hec­tor’s farm be­gan pro­duc­ing more than they needed, so they joined the Ben­tonville Farm­ers Mar­ket.

That’s where their con­nec­tion to the Ben­tonville culi­nary scene — which has been built around the use of lo­cally grown prod­ucts — be­gan. It has strength­ened the past few years.

“They’re so com­mu­nity minded,” said Daniel Hintz, who was ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Down­town Ben­tonville Inc. and is now chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment firm Ve­loc­ity Group. “Their abil­ity to look at win-wins and say­ing this is what we need, but at the same time ask­ing how do we sup­port the com­mu­nity? How do we bring other folks along with us? That’s one of the rea­sons why I think they’ve been so suc­cess­ful is that they’re al­ways think­ing beyond just who do they need and what do they need to be suc­cess­ful.

“So they’ve been in­cred­i­ble part­ners in the grow­ing down­town Ben­tonville scene.”

MAK­ING PEO­PLE HAPPY

Rafael’s role in the culi­nary scene as founder of Yeyo’s food truck didn’t be­gin un­til 2012. He served in the U.S. Army for about 15 years in places like Ger­many and Afghanistan, but was forced to re­tire be­cause of an in­jury.

Rafael wasn’t cer­tain what he would do in the next phase of his life, but wanted some­thing that would con­trib­ute to “mak­ing peo­ple happy” in the com­mu­nity.

Food has al­ways made Rafael happy, dat­ing back to his child­hood, when he spent hours in his grand­mother’s kitchen in Mex­ico. Later, he was the un­of­fi­cial chef for his unit in the mil­i­tary, and his cu­rios­ity about food led to some risky sit­u­a­tions while in Afghanistan. Rafael said he would wake up early in the morn­ing to pre­pare food at a Turk­ish res­tau­rant, work­ing side-by­side with the lo­cals.

“I got in trou­ble a cou­ple of times for do­ing that be­cause it wasn’t the safest thing,” Rafael said. “But when you meet peo­ple that have the same pas­sion as you, you be­come friends in an in­stant. You just find the peo­ple that are pas­sion­ate for food and they will share ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Even­tu­ally, Rafael — with sup­port from his fam­ily and com­mu­nity lead­ers — thought he could of­fer a unique ex­pe­ri­ence in North­west Arkansas with a food truck that served street tacos, salsa and other au­then­tic Mex­i­can cui­sine. He named it Yeyo’s af­ter his hard­work­ing fa­ther. The busi­ness would be sup­plied with some of the home-grown to­ma­toes, pep­pers, onions and herbs from the fam­ily farm.

But suc­cess didn’t come easy. Rev­enue for the first year was $39,000.

“It was very scary be­cause we spent ev­ery sin­gle penny on this project,” Rafael said. “But it was mine. So that was the pride that I took. It got us to the sec­ond year and that’s when ev­ery­thing changed.”

Rafael be­lieves it just took time to catch on in the com­mu­nity, but, be­tween the food truck and a cater­ing busi­ness, ev­ery­thing is “sta­ble” now af­ter nearly five years.

It has led to an­other big step as part of the 8th Street Mar­ket, where Rafael will open a lo­ca­tion later this year.

Rafael said the lo­ca­tion will serve as an ex­ten­sion of the food truck, help­ing Yeyo’s be­come ac­ces­si­ble to a wider au­di­ence. In ad­di­tion to counter ser­vice, Rafael said, the 2,800-square-foot op­er­a­tion will also serve as a pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity for Yeyo’s tor­tillas and sal­sas. He wants the place to rep­re­sent the “soul of Mex­ico,” go­ing as far as sourc­ing the fur­ni­ture from the coun­try.

“They are a part of that dis­cus­sion of how we con­tinue to move the North­west Arkansas culi­nary scene for­ward,” said Hintz, one of the de­vel­op­ers be­hind 8th Street Mar­ket. “You now have five or six years of that fam­ily be­ing a part of that con­ver­sa­tion and they fit bril­liantly into the over­all mis­sion and brand of the 8th Street Mar­ket.

“You will be able to walk in and get a very unique ex­pe­ri­ence and that’s ex­actly what we wanted to see in our ten­ant part­ners within this project.”

WORK­ING IN THE SOIL

On a re­cent sum­mer morn­ing, Rafael and a few fam­ily mem­bers had their hands in the soil in var­i­ous parts of the farm, har­vest­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles that were be­ing pre­pared for de­liv­ery to lo­cal restau­rants.

Rafael’s sis­ter, Christina Al­varado, was work­ing on car­rots while he stood a few feet away pick­ing black­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries. A lit­tle later, Hec­tor ap­peared, pulled out a knife and be­gan cut­ting the arugula and mizuna that are used in a spicy green salad mix at The Preacher’s Son and other restau­rants.

To­ma­toes are the farm’s main prod­uct, but the fam­ily also grows dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of pep­pers, zuc­chini, squash, herbs and beets. There’s a dairy cow and free-range chick­ens, which pro­duce eggs the fam­ily eats. There are black An­gus cat­tle as well, which Rios said are a test to de­ter­mine if Yeyo’s can be­gin sup­ply­ing its own meat.

“The rea­son they’re so suc­cess­ful is be­cause they’ve been able to bond to­gether as a fam­ily,” said Cooper, who gets two reg­u­lar de­liv­er­ies a week for The Preacher’s Son. “It re­ally has made a dif­fer­ence in the culi­nary scene be­cause the qual­ity of their stuff is un­ri­valed. It’s amaz­ing.”

Cooper and his staff are among lo­cal restau­rants that take a cou­ple of trips to the Rios farm each year to help with the har­vest. The events are part work, part party, but they con­tinue to strengthen the Rios fam­ily’s ties with the com­mu­nity and its culi­nary lead­ers.

Al­varado said those re­la­tion­ships are among the many “bless­ings” the fam­ily has en­joyed since mov­ing to North­west Arkansas.

It has been hard work, but what started as a few rows of pep­pers and to­ma­toes on a fam­ily farm has ex­panded into a sus­tain­able fam­ily busi­ness.

“We’re hard­work­ing peo­ple,” Rafael said. “Dad al­ways says there’s noth­ing more dig­ni­fy­ing than work­ing. And I think the com­mu­nity sees us as peo­ple of faith, peo­ple of prin­ci­ples, peo­ple ded­i­cated to fam­ily and peo­ple wor­thy of em­u­la­tion.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

Rafael Rios picks black­ber­ries as his sis­ter, Christina Al­varado, digs car­rots on their fam­ily farm in Rogers. The farm sup­plies pro­duce to sev­eral Ben­tonville restau­rants.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

Isaac Al­varado and his grand­fa­ther, Hec­tor Rios, pick the in­gre­di­ents used in a spicy green salad on the menu at The Preacher’s Son in Ben­tonville.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

Christina Al­varado digs car­rots on her fam­ily farm in Rogers. The Preacher’s Son chef Matt Cooper said the qual­ity of the prod­ucts grown on the farm is “un­ri­valed.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

Rafael Rios picks black­ber­ries with his nephew, Isaac Al­varado, at their fam­ily farm in Rogers.

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