More than just great food
I n just a few short months, Vault, 723 Central Ave., has started developing its reputation as an overall experience more so than a restaurant.
Owned by Dr. Daron Praetzel, the restaurant is located within a former bank building, and with the work of General Manager Randy Womack, the structure itself pays homage to that history.
“What we elected to do with the exterior of the building, which was kind of grand with the granite — that beautiful, green granite out front — and the halo lit signage out front at the entrance, kind of led people to believe that there might be something like (a club) coming in,” Womack said. “But truth of the matter is, it wound up being a choice that I thought was really healthy for the exterior of this building because it’s an old bank building and I thought it needed to be really majestic looking, and beautiful.”
Womack said not many general managers in the industry are given the free license to create a space like Praetzel allowed him to do. Their friendship began years ago, and Praetzel had said at that time should he ever have the opportunity to start a business in the hospitality industry, Womack would be his choice for leading it.
“I feel like I’m in an extension of my living room here. As much as I’m here, I don’t ever get tired of it,” Womack said. “He’s been a real joy to work with and basically he and I have seen eye-to-eye on about 99.5 percent of everything that we’ve discussed to happen here. It’s been a very symbiotic relationship.”
The restaurant, he said, is very ambient and ensures that if guests like seeing the place in the daytime, “you’ll love it at night.”
“People that I know they’re food lovers, they’re wine lovers, a lot of them are friends of mine just because I’ve been in the industry a long time. … I also know how much they cherish times like that with their friends,” he said.
“We have specials every night and dessert specials every night. All of our fish is flown in overnight, fresh. Our lobsters arrive to us alive. Our oysters and clams arrive to us live. We keep them alive in 75-gallon saltwater tanks downstairs.”
Womack, who is a sommelier, said the wine list is extensive, and for the signature cocktails, the restaurant uses dry ice for a unique smoke effect.
But when guests finish a meal and search the menu for a taste of something sweet, they’re met with an opportunity to give back
in a big way. One employee of the kitchen, Colton Miller, 17, created his signature Colton’s Baklava, which is served with a cardamom raisin ice cream and all proceeds go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“I hired Colton before we opened,” Womack said. “A girlfriend of mine was going to come to work for us and told me about his journey. She met him through Make-A-Wish Foundation. She was participating in the Diamond State Chef’s Competition in Little Rock and part of their outreach was to go visit children in the hospital.”
Womack said Miller had been very specific about his intentions to pursue his passion for cooking should he survive his cancer diagnosis. During chemo and radiation, Miller said he watched the Food Network to pass the time.
“I wanted to cook whatever I was watching in the hospital,” Miller said. “I would say ‘Write this down, mom,’ because I was in and out of it all the time and couldn’t write down all the things I was wanting to make. I always wanted to make what I’d seen when I got home. That’s pretty much what drove my passion to this.”
Miller had wanted to travel to Greece with his family, a wish that was granted to him through the foundation, but his journey with the organization did not stop there.
“His mother and father had been contacted by Make-A-Wish Foundation to use Colton in a national ad campaign and Colton was the first child from Arkansas to be used in a Make-AWish campaign,” Womack said. This prompted his mutual friend to set up a photo shoot in the restaurant with Miller.
“He made some chicken jicama tacos with guacamole and salsa, and he made Baklava because his wish was to go to Greece with his mom and dad,” Womack said. “After they spent all these hours of cooking just to get these photos, he served us all.
“His Baklava is really good. I’ve been doing this over 45 years, I recognized it was actually very delicious and something I’d be proud to serve. So my chef at the time who was going to open with me, I said to him ‘Michael, what do you think of using Colton’s Baklava in the restaurant?’ And he goes ‘I’ll pair it with homemade cardamom ice cream and serve it with that.’”
The more he visited with Miller’s parents who were at the photo shoot, Womack said he decided he would like to give the budding chef a job. Miller has now been with the restaurant for about a year and the idea to pay it forward through his signature dessert fit with other missions the restaurant’s owner is known for in the community.
“What we’ve discovered based on our sales so far in the first six months of business based on those profits, we will be able to pay to grant a wish for one child a year through the profit of the sales of his Baklava desserts,” Womack said. “So it’s a really cool, groovy story about reciprocity and paying it forward.
“Make-A-Wish Foundation Mid-South said they have never had a child who was in a position to pay it forward because, generally speaking, they don’t survive their condition. Things are set up in their memory or in memoriam, or in the estate of, and in the name of. Things are done in the child’s memory to continue granting wishes for someone else, but in this case, literally Colton works five days a week here doing many other things than just make his Baklava, but continues to make his Baklava and the money is going toward Make-A-Wish Foundation.”
Womack said that pursuing passions and honoring people’s journeys in life is patrons often forget about the restaurant industry.
“I always tell my staff every day when we have meetings before we open to please remember, everyone who walks through that door is on a journey,” he said. “Everybody is on their individual journey. You don’t know where they are in their life, just like they don’t know where you are. … We’re supposed to provide the best for people and we’re supposed draw out the best in people. It’s supposed to be a mutually beneficial experience where you guys have the best time possible.”
Personally, Womack said being able to create a place that will stand the test of time has been most important to him in this venture.
“I feel like I planned for a marathon here and designed a business that will stand the test of time — not just a passing, fancy something that will leave quickly, but something that people will cue with, that will resonate with them. That they’ll want to stay longer and have a good time,” he said.
“Daron will have a legacy to pass on to his children if this is done properly. And for me, in spite of all the testing and all the tension, it’s about that. It’s to give him a legacy to pass on to his family.”