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Ciao Baci’s Blair Wallace Talks Restaurant Industry

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This global pandemic has been especially hard on the food and drink industry. With that in mind, I wanted to reach out to a new restaurant owner to see what it is like to weather the storm through such unsettling times. Here is my Q & A with Blair Wallace of Ciao Baci in Little Rock.

When did you officially take over ownership of Ciao Baci?
Paperwork was signed in July 2019, but Suzan, the previous owner, is still an integral part of the business. She’s one of the hardest working women, a true mentor, and helps me with day-to-day things, so she’s still very much a part of Ciao Baci.

What is your history with the restaurant?
I worked there for ten years as a server and bartender. It is where I developed my love for food and wine and where I really learned about fine-dining and what it was like to be part of a restaurant family.

What is it about the restaurant that made you grow so attached to it?
It’s hard to say. There is just something so unique about the place. I guess it’s really what Suzan set up as a format for the business. You get attached to it and fall in love with it. I met my wife there. My family has worked at Ciao Baci, and I am still to this day friends with the people I met ten years ago at the restaurant. There is just something special about Ciao Baci.

As a new restaurant owner, you’ve had to endure one of the hardest prolonged periods for the industry. Given that, do you feel like you can get through just about anything now?
Short answer, yes. I can’t imagine a scenario that would be more difficult than the one we’ve endured this first year. But it gives me the confidence to feel like I can get through anything. I have learned to think on my feet and have figured out different business models.

As the person in charge, what has been your message to your staff over the past several months?
My biggest message to the staff has been to just stay positive. I know it sounds kind of cliché, but I think that positivity works in the end. I don’t get down. I don’t say, “Oh, this is not going to work, or numbers aren’t where they need to be.” I just really try to stay positive.

What do you miss most about how things used to be at Ciao Baci before the pandemic?
Having a packed house! [laughs] But seriously, just the human connection that we’ve had with our guests. We are a very neighborhood restaurant. We love to have that connectivity and would hug all our regulars. We wouldn’t wear masks, of course. So, it’s just been that human connection with our guests and clientele that I miss the most.

I have to know, what has been your most popular takeout menu item during this time?
Chef Owen and I work hard at trying to promote some of his popular items. The People’s Choice Burger and the Tandoori Chicken Sandwich have just been flying off the shelf.

You’re now open for dine-in and takeout. How has that transition been?
It’s been very smooth for us. I know a lot of restaurants have had problems with it, but we’ve somehow managed to do it well. We’ve got our staff trained properly and it’s all been good for us.

No doubt, it’s been a stressful year. What do you do to unwind and take your mind off of things?
I try to go outside, get some exercise, and just be in the sun. We spend so much time in the restaurant, as we all know. We have a cabin in Jasper, so we will go float the Buffalo or something like that. But really, those outdoor activities are how I love to unwind.

Ciao Baci
605 N. Beechwood
Little Rock, AR
501-602-0238
Monday – Saturday 4 p.m. to Late
ciaobacilr.com

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Kevin Shalin is a food writer living in Little Rock with his wife, Sara, and two daughters, Natalie (12) and Sydney (7). He started his own blog, The Mighty Rib, seven years ago while living in Houston. Six months later, he began writing for Eating Our Words, a Houston Press food blog. After a year in Boston, he moved to Little Rock, where he’s been for almost five years. During that time, he’s written for Little Rock Soiree, Rock City Eats, Treatsie, and Bourbon and Boots.

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