@story TONYA MCCOY
@images CATHERINE FREDERICK
Long before he was President, a much younger Bill Clinton stopped by for breakfast here. The late business mogul Don Tyson, of Tyson Foods, ate lunch here. And get this, the Senior Vice President of Worldwide Policy for drug giant Pfizer used to be a cook here. Restaurant On The Corner and Grill, or as Fayetteville locals call it “ROTC,” has a rich history. But whether it’s the tradition, the friendships, or the cuisine, patrons refused to let a recent fire burn out this nostalgic corner of their past.
On December 22, 2009, a fire alarm went off at ROTC and firefighters rushed to the restaurant to put out the flames. After an investigation, firefighters said that a trashcan on top of an extension cord which had been running electricity through a compressor could have been to blame.
That evening, after the fire, friends and family stopped by ROTC to survey the damage. Owner T.L. Nelms says they stood on the patio drinking warm beer. “A lot of it was burned up, but we had to test it to make sure.” T.L. has kept his sense of humor about these things. (He even has memories of a local top executive who used to dress up as 70’s Budweiser commercial super hero, the Bud Man, but we won’t go into that.)
Despite appearances, the restaurant was not a total loss. However, the smoke, water and fire damage totaled a hefty $75,000.To make matters worse, T.L. did not have fire insurance. “Most of the damage was from smoke. Every square inch of this building, every- square- inch, was covered with black soot. Even inside the filing cabinets was covered. Every square inch of this building had to be scrubbed.”
At first the job of cleanup and rebuilding seemed daunting for T.L., and he thought he’d have to close the doors forever. “Originally I said. ‘Well, we can sell the property and they’ll bulldoze the building and we won’t have to clean it up.’”
The ROTC extended family did not want to see the place go. “I was ready to give it up, and everybody started showing up and pitching in. And it was all volunteers. If it wasn’t for the volunteers it would have never happened. We would have never reopened.” Even Don Tyson and other community businessmen donated money to help with expenses.
And this March marks the one year anniversary of the reopening of ROTC. Folks are still coming to visit with friends, have a drink, grab a bite, and even enjoy some local art. T.L. says the addition of the art shows are his wife, Mary Sanchez-Nelms,’ idea. Paintings by Bertha Guitierrez, who is originally from El Salvador, hang now in a room just off the main dining area. Mary plans to show work from different local artists about every three months. But you can’t look to the future without at least acknowledging the past.
At the age of twenty-four, T.L. could not have foreseen what an interesting hangout ROTC would become when he opened the restaurant in 1974. ROTC was on Dickson Street where the Three Sisters venue is today. A couple of years after he opened ROTC he added “The Grill,” which was a bar next door. “I didn’t think it was going to be as much work as it all was. And then all of a sudden, we opened it [ROTC] and it got popular, and it just kind of snowballed.”
No matter what brings folks here, or what makes this place so memorable, this Fayetteville tradition endures through generations. Now thirty-seven years later, T.L. still sees old friends. “In the old days everyone that was associated with the University [of Arkansas] went to ROTC. I’m always seeing people from thirty years ago or twenty years ago coming in and bringing their grown kids. Some you don’t recognize; some look exactly the same.”
In 1997 the death of his business partner who owned the ROTC property forced T.L. to move off Dickson Street, and away from the crowd of University customers. That’s when he bought his property at 3582 North Highway 112 in Fayetteville, and combined ROTC and The Grill into one business. However, the move off Dickson and the ups and downs of the economy started to take its toll on the small restaurant long before the fire.
“What’s hurt us the most out here is we used to do a lot of business with people that were in construction like plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. They’d grown up with us and they came out of their way to come here to eat. Then when the economy went south, they didn’t have as much money because there wasn’t any building going on.”
T.L. says business comes in waves, “You have to be rediscovered all the time I guess, but it comes and goes. And we’re lucky that when it goes, it comes back.”
However T.L. has some regulars – and employees – who have been with him for decades. “Many of the cooks have worked for me for thirty years. So if you liked the food then, you’ll still like it now.”
Cooks here make homemade fries daily, and meats are prepared fresh and in-house. The pizza’s made from scratch too. His menu includes country favorites like chicken fried steak, southern fried catfish, and po’ boy sandwiches.
Look around the dining room and you’ll see farmers and businessmen. Friends and lovers. Young and old. They’re all at home here at ROTC. And they’re a resilient bunch around here. The menu even proclaims, “You’re Back and We’re Still Here.”
ROTC and Grill is located at 3582 North Highway 112 in Fayetteville, just past the 112 Drive-In Theatre.
Lunch Daily at 11:00 am
Open all day for dinner Wednesday thru Saturday
Closed Sunday, Monday, & Tuesday nights
Bar is open 4:00 pm daily