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GINA PARKS LEFT THE CORPORATE WORLD TO DISCOVER HER PASSION AS OWNER OF THE BIG CHILL
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Interview conducted by Lindsey Wells, photography by Grace Brown
From stockbroker to bar owner, Gina Parks has gone from one spectrum to the other in her professional life. When she became tired of corporate America in the 1990s, and her mother fell ill, Parks said she took some time off of work before asking herself what would truly make her happy and give her a steady income at the same time. It turned out that opening a bar was the answer. Just over two decades ago, she opened The Big Chill. The bar began inside the Park Hotel in 1997 before moving to its current location at 910 Higdon Ferry Rd. The location has changed since the bar’s inception, but the music has remained the same. Had you been in this kind of business before opening your bar? Gina Parks: Not really. I had been a stockbroker and a computer technical rep, and I just decided that I was really sick of corporate America. My mom was ill, and she ended up being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, so I took some time off for about six months and then she passed away. After that, I had to do something, so I thought, ‘When did I not mind going to work?’ and it was when I was in college and a bartender with a bunch of other people in this town. So, I thought, ‘I’ll just get a bar job.’ I went down to the newspaper and looked in there, and there was an ad that said ‘Bar help or lease to right person.’ I went down and looked at it inside the Park Hotel and I said, ‘OK, I’m the right person,’ and I leased it.
I had a friend, John French, who I went to high school with, and he came through and said, “We need to just build you a stage over there in that corner and put a guitar and a microphone in here, and musicians will start coming through and playing.” So I did, and they did. After a while everybody started liking it, and they started coming by and before long I had to hire a cocktail waitress, or a bartender, and then I started paying a couple of different people to come play on Friday and Saturday nights. It was just nuts. We started having parties up on the roof at the Park. We had a bunch of weddings and before long the hotel started doing a lot better than they had been and their books started looking better, so the owners said, “Well, this would be a good time to sell it,” so they did. Long story short, the new manager ended up being a crook and decided that he wanted all the business that I had in the bar, so he told me, “We’re going to take the bar over.” It was New Year’s Day, and I said, ‘I just did my year-end inventory, it’s yours. I’ll have my stuff out tonight.’
I took a year off. I ended up renting this building on Higdon. My friend, Joe Hall, who’s a great musician and a great friend of mine, helped me and was kind of my partner for a little while in the beginning. We kicked it off, and we had all these musicians that would come by and say, “What can we do to help?” and I had a list for them. It was really a community thing because they were all wanting a place to play. A lot of people were wanting a place to go. We opened here on Dec. 13, 2000, and I bought the bar a few years later. What do you love about your job as a bar owner? GP: The music, no doubt. I like to sing; I have performed with some people through the years, and the musicians are my brothers. I love them. They are
what I support. I’m not going to lie to you, there have been some hard times where I’m just like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this anymore,’ but something always comes back around and makes me happy that I’m here. Nights when I’m in here, and there’s a good crowd, and the music is playing—sometimes magic happens in here. I live for that. I’ve made a good living, and I’ve got an awesome crew that’s been here. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced? GP: The responsibility of dealing with alcohol and people is something that I don’t think a lot of people understand just how hard it is. Living up to the ABC’s expectations. Not serving minors when there are so many people that’ll bring fake IDs in. Mainly it’s just people, men and women, who come in with an attitude. You can see it the minute they walk in. Just the negative personalities, but the positive personalities far outweigh the negative.
Does it keep you up at night to think about the people who leave the bar in their vehicles after drinking?
GP: It doesn’t keep me up at night because my staff is very conscientious about it. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t ever happen, but my bartenders will cut you off, and it makes people mad. That’s really hard to deal with. If you come in and you do a shot, and then 10 minutes later you order another one, and then 10 minutes later you try to order another one, we won’t serve it to you. The thing is, we don’t know how much you’ve had when you walk in the door or what other substance you might be abusing. Yes, I’ve lost sleep over it, but at some point people need to take responsibility for themselves. It’s really gotten easier lately because of Uber. How many employees do you have? GP: Currently, about seven. What’s the secret to staying in business this long? GP: In Hot Springs, it’s really seasonal, and so you have to really budget yourself. September is really one of the hardest months to make it, when the kids go back to school and the tourists aren’t here. I guess just putting the money back and saving it and staying on top of your sales tax, your payroll tax—I do all that myself just because I don’t trust anyone else. I want to know it got mailed, and that it was right. Having somewhat of an accounting background has helped me.
As far as longevity, I think treating your employees right and making sure that they’re happy, the ones that are doing their job and doing great. That, in this business, is very important. Do you have live music every night? What kind of music do you stick to? GP: I did have live music every night up until a year ago. It just seems like—I don’t know if it’s the generation that’s coming up now or what, but they’re less involved in live music. It’s hard to get people out for it. The whole dynamic has shifted, and it’s been kind of interesting to watch it.
Choosing the music is another area that I’m really having to adjust to. I have Mike Mayberry, and I’m just going to call him a cover band. He does classic rock, country, a lot of different things. That kind of band, right now, is what’s working. It seems like the younger women are really into country. They sit there and know the words to every song. It’s just trial and error.
I’m also trying to go to always charging a cover on weekends. I didn’t up until this year. I kind of feel like musicians need to be paid. They haven’t gotten a raise since the 70s as far as I can tell! They play for the same amount of money, so the cover charge is going towards the music.
Gina Parks at The Big Chill