Our oral history of Vino’s is an AAN Awards finalist

Our oral history of Vino’s is an AAN Awards finalist

Our oral history of Vino’s is an AAN Awards finalist

We’re extremely proud to announce that “Pizza, beer and punk: An oral history of Vino’s,” our cover story from February 2022, has been named a finalist for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia‘s annual Journalism Awards. Written in collaboration between Lindsey Millar and Rhett Brinkley, it was recognized in the Music Writing category alongside Nashville Scene and the San Antonio Current.

If you haven’t read it (or it’s been a while), here’s the piece in its entirety:


It’s easy to imagine the story of Vino’s ending before it ever got going: “Three finance guys with no restaurant experience start a pizza place in a dilapidated punk rock playhouse in a neglected part of town” does not sound like a winning recipe for success. But three decades later, Vino’s Brew Pub not only persists, it’s widely considered a Little Rock institution — one of the few true mixing places in town, where you’ll find people of all classes and backgrounds communing over a slice and a pint and live music. 

Vino’s New York-style pizza and calzones belong in any conversation about the best in town. Filling up a growler of Firehouse Pale Ale or Pinnacle IPA on a Sunday remains a Little Rock tradition (thanks to years of lobbying by Vino’s founder and owner Henry Lee). And you can’t tell the story of Little Rock’s modern music scene — and bands it launched into the national spotlight, including Trusty, Living Sacrifice and Evanescence — without telling the story of Vino’s.

That’s what we attempted to do in what follows, an oral history featuring dozens of the people and patrons who helped shape the landmark at Seventh and Chester.

Henry Lee: (Vino’s co-founder, owner): I grew up in Morgan City, Louisiana. When I got out of college, I was working out in the oil fields, building offshore oil rigs. I did that for eight years or so. Then I moved to Florida to sell unregulated securities. We were basically funding the savings and loan crisis back then. Most of my customers were in Little Rock because Little Rock had the highest number of investment firms off of Wall Street at the time, so I came to work here.

Alan Vennes (Vino’s co-founder): I’m from Atlanta and was in a band called The Roys. We were signed to Stiff Records and toured with U2 and R.E.M. and Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse and all sorts of other folks from that era. 

I moved to Little Rock Jan. 1, 1981. I was going, “Goddamn, this place is so depressed. What have I done?” But I said, “I bet there’s some good punk rock.” Sure enough, Trusty.

Paul Bowling (Trusty, Il Libertina): Before the DMZ [a short-lived punk venue in what became Vino’s] and Vino’s there was no scene at all. It was completely vacant. All the bands that were in town were all cover bands.

James Brady (former employee, Trusty): Me and Bobby met Alan because we started going to see his band Ebo and the Tomcats. 

Bobby Matthews (Trusty) They were a cover band, but they were doing cool old rockabilly stuff like Charlie Feathers and obscure stuff. 

Andy Conrad (former employee, Numbskulz, 5-0): Alan made sense when it came to the punk thing because he was this rockabilly dude with a full pompadour. 

Henry Lee: [Alan] was probably my biggest client. He and I probably talked on the phone 20 times a day. I probably knew him better, before I met him in person, than most of my close friends. I moved to Little Rock in 1989. 

Alan Vennes: I was running the money market desk at First State Security Investments, but the bull market was petering out, and I didn’t like any pizza in Little Rock at the time.

Henry Lee: Everything here was based on Shakey’s Pizza, which had been here for years. It’s kind of what U.S. Pizza, I think, was based on. There wasn’t much in the realm of pizza like there is now.

Alan Vennes: I had really good friends in Atlanta that had Fellini’s Pizza, which is really successful. I said, “Why don’t we open up a pizza place?” Henry said, “All right, cool.” Henry’s a great food guy, a great cook. We got into it a little bit and realized we needed another partner with some money. Bill Parodi was leading producer at the brokerage firm I worked for. I asked Bill to come onboard and he said, “Sure.” We had our eyes set on the old DMZ building. 

A LOCAL LANDMARK: Vino’s at Seventh and Chester.

The 1910 building, owned then by Tom Chipman of Chip’s Barbecue fame, had previously been art gallery Urbi Et Orbi; punk venue DMZ; and several other short-lived clubs, including The Zone, Nemesis and Mandrake’s.

Henry Lee: I’d been to a show a few years there before on vacation. It came up and we felt really good about being there. We kept trying other places, but kept coming back to that building. 

When we got it, the windows were boarded up and everything was painted black. There was nothing in the front room aside from a gigantic painting of the solar system on the side wall and bare bulbs hanging from string. 

James Brady: I remember seeing Flock of Seagulls there one time. 

Colin Brooks (former employee, Numbskulz, Substance, Red 40, The Big Cats): It was the first time kind of being in a room when we were kids sort of seeing other punks. And kind of that realization that there’s a lot more of these guys around than we ever thought.

Fletcher Clement (longtime Vino’s promoter who also did stints booking bands at The Antenna Club in Memphis and The Troubadour in West Hollywood, California): I remember seeing Alan, Bill and Henry walk through the room when I was at a show at Mandrake’s and remember thinking, “Three of these things don’t belong.” They were either suits or cops or something weird. They were definitely tourists. 

Andy Conrad: Numbskulz went to play [Mandrake’s] and these three slightly older dudes showed up and were like, “Hey, we just bought the place, we’re gonna turn it into a pizza joint,” and everybody was like, “Who the fuck are these guys?” and kind of laughed at ’em.

Colin Brooks: I remember them saying, “We’re still going to do shows and we’d still love to have you guys play here,” and I remember feeling good, like I had kind of made some adult friends.  

Bobby Matthews: I remember going, “Good luck, y’all.” I thought it was gonna flop.

James Brady: None of them knew anything about running a restaurant.

Courtesy the Colette Tucker CollectionPUNK PARADISE: Soophie Nun Squad and The Big Cats were huge in Little Rock. Vino’s concertgoers got to see Green Day before it got huge — and one of The Big Cats, Jason White, later joined the band.

Alan Vennes: We contacted Clay Harper and Mike Nelson, the owners of Fellini’s. They hooked us up with a deal to give us their recipes and help us design the kitchen. 

Henry Lee: The three of us got in there and started working ourselves, renovating the place. There was roofing tar paper on the floors. It took us three days to scrape up all that stuff off the floor. All those cool scalloped picture windows in the front of Vino’s were painted black. We had to use paint remover and toothbrushes to get all that off.

Alan Vennes: I took over making the place look good. What we wanted was a place that would be cool anywhere in the world. And it was. My future ex-wife was going to the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York and was home in Little Rock for the summer and that’s how we met. She’d come over for lunch every day, and I’d sit and talk with her. She said, “This place, it’s like being in New York.” 

Paul Bowling: So when it became Vino’s, one of the big facelifts that it got was they put in a real PA [public address system] back there and built a booth and all that kind of stuff, which really drastically improved everything as far as being able to be heard. 

James Brady: Alan being a musician helped a lot. 

Jason White (Numbskulz, The Big Cats, Green Day): People always complained about the sound and stuff, like, “Oh this is a horrible-sounding room,” but I never noticed. I always thought it sounded loud and glorious. 

Paul Bowling: I suppose technically it was horrible. You were there for the experience as much as you were for the music, so we didn’t even really think about it. Also, if you had a good-sized crowd in there that was close to the stage, they’d kind of soak up a lot of that echo that could occur in that space and it could sound really fucking great in there. 

Henry Lee: Before we took over the space, they were having all-ages live music shows. We debated whether we wanted to keep doing that. It was probably a big point of contention quite often among the owners. But because it was able to give us cash flow early on we decided to stick it out even though we had to fight through kids sitting at all the restaurant tables and eating cheese out of cheese shakers, and throwing crap around and making a godawful mess every night they were in there, raising hell and cussing at us, saying we were stealing their building and how could we do that and we were going to ruin everything. The adventuresome diners of Little Rock kind of helped pull us through all that because we were giving them good food at a good value.

James Brady: The restaurant itself was pretty immediately popular. There weren’t a lot of places to eat downtown. In the beginning it was just the one long, narrow room and then the back. 

HENRY LEE: Co-founder and owner of Vino’s.

Henry Lee: We were the first place in the state to bring in Guinness and Bass on tap. The guys at Harbor Distributing really worked with us and backed us. They had to send trucks to Dallas to get the imported beers because I don’t think anyone was delivering here at that time. Whatever they brought that first week, we sold it out in six days.

Brandon Brewer (former employee, Sugar In The Raw): It was an all-ages place where you could chain-smoke and listen to music and get free refills. 

Jason White: It used to be like a space where you didn’t see anybody but punk kids or people going to the show and then it became sort of this place where I would see my geography teacher in there drinking a beer. 

John Pugh (former employee, Rat Fink a Boo Boo, Uptown Prophets, !!!): Looking back on it, kudos to Henry, he really wasn’t like the evil mustache-twisting villain we kind of wanted him to be because every punk needs some kind of authority figure you have to throw rocks at. That’s part of the sport. But it didn’t take long for him to start hiring a bunch of punks and giving us jobs and money, so we couldn’t be that mad at him. 

Chris (C.T.) Terry (Vino’s music booker, Rwake, Iron Tongue): The way I was being taught up in our scene was that Vino’s was, like, the enemy. The man. ’Cause we were just a rough bunch, so anyone whose ass we had to kiss to get a show, we thought was not cool. So when I got the job there my friends just kinda treated me like the mole, you know? I ended up loving it. 

James Brady: The Little Rock scene has always been very supportive of itself. The owners and people that booked were willing to give a lot of unknowns a chance. And they paid fairly as opposed to DMZ. They actually paid you a substantial cut of the door. And at our shows that was pretty nice because they weren’t making a bunch of money on beer sales when the punk bands played. 

Alan Vennes: I thought it was going to be a mid-20s and mid-30s hip place. Instead, it was teenagers playing Monopoly at my tables with squirt guns and shit. It was like, “Damn, where are the hot chicks I thought would be coming in?” (laughs) As time went on, next thing you know I was drinking with them at the bar.

John Pugh: No one was in charge of setting the vibe. It was just kind of a natural, organic thing that would happen because you have all the elements: the relatively cheap eats, a location that was really central and also you have loud music, and people just like loud music and are attracted to it like moths to the flame. 

Alan Vennes: We only thought we knew what hard work was until we started the restaurant business. After six months of that, my feet were like snowshoes. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we could shut down at 10 p.m. like most restaurants do, but having to be up super late with a nightclub, it was a grind.

Henry Lee: I ate a lot of pizza and slept on the couch upstairs many a night. We would take turns sleeping during the day. We were only open six days a week back then, which kind of gave us a break on Sundays to reoxygenate. I had my dog living upstairs and on the roof. We spent all our waking hours here.

When we started looking for employees, we said we’re going to pull them from the people who hang out here all the time. We weren’t going to hire anyone out of the investment business, that was for sure. 

Andy Conrad: I quit high school to work there. I was terrible in high school, and I was all about chasing music, and my dad was like, “You’re going to have to get a job,” and I remember specifically going, “OK, I know exactly what I’m gonna do.” And I went directly to Vino’s and James Brady, Bircho [of Trusty], everyone I knew from music was already working there. 

Matthew Martin

Alan Vennes: A couple years into it, we were treading water. I said, “Dude, I’ll get out. I can get out and get back into the investment banking business.” I got a job on Wall Street. Then Bill did the same thing. We left Henry as the managing partner. He bought us out several years later. 

Henry Lee: I booked bands for a little while. I was never very good at it. We were lucky enough to hire Fletcher Clement, who was booking at the Antenna Club in Memphis.

Fletcher   Clement: I’m from Little Rock, but went off to Memphis State [now the University of Memphis] in 1987. I had a fake ID, so I could go see shows. My friend from Little Rock, Tim Lamb, who did Lighten Up fanzine and was interviewing bands like Fugazi and Dag Nasty, would get bands asking him where to play in the area and he’d give them my number and I’d send them to the Antenna Club. So people there got familiar with me, but they knew me as another name because of my ID. So there was a little confusion up front, when I started sending bands their way, and they were like, “Who the hell is Fletcher?” 

Once Vino’s opened up, I could piggyback a Little Rock date. A band would call the Antenna and say, “We need a $750 guarantee,” and I’d say, “I can get you a $400 guarantee and the next night I can get you a $350 guarantee and all the pizza you can eat and beer you can drink.” And they’d say, “OK.”

I don’t remember if it was a girl or if I was tired of school or what, but I came back to Little Rock and Henry and I struck up an arrangement where I’d cook pizzas and book bands. But I told him, “You guys have got to back off the $2 extra charge for people under 21.” I flat out told him the names of bands that wouldn’t play there. We had a real hemming and hawing meeting and he finally caved in. When they dropped it, they became an institution.

Alan Vennes: The club was doing fantastic in the early days. We had the Arkansas Folk Club who would have a once-a-month show. They brought in some legendary people.

Brian Hirrel (former general manager, Big Boss Line, Loch Ness Monster, Nessie): The folk club brought in Fairport Convention, one of the giants of English folk. They gave an iconic, unbelievable performance. 

Sulac (former employee, Hector Faceplant, Winston Family Orchestra): It was so cool because they had a really eclectic mix of music and it wasn’t even just it’s all metal shows tonight or it’s all punk rock tonight, it would sometimes be all mixed up in one show.

Fletcher Clement: There was a little bit of something for everyone whether it was the AIDS Brigade or Red Octopus Theater. It went from being a kind of secret clubhouse to the secret’s out.

John Pugh: Vino’s was like that nexus point because you would get kids from Fort Smith and Hot Springs and Searcy. They knew at least one place they could go and get a slice for cheap and maybe run into someone who’s in a band or maybe the dishwasher and they’ll tell you where the punk house in town is where you can spend the night. It became what Little Rock needed at that time and what every town needs, really — kind of a folk, community gathering that’s not official. Vino’s was this crazy mix of family pizza place/dive bar/gutter punk hang space/honky tonk/college dorm/beatnik coffee house where all the cool kids would hang out in the back. 

©BarrieLynnBryantLOCAL LEGENDS: Substance performs in 1991.

Fletcher Clement: Vino’s was so legit within the confines of punk rock and underground and indie music. It was the most legit version I’d ever come across. Not just in Memphis and Little Rock, but from my experience traveling around with bands on road trips around the country. The bathrooms worked. It was well lit. They had insurance. They had a first-aid kit. The PA wasn’t the greatest in the world, but it was enough. Bands got fed; they got beer. Vino’s didn’t take a cut of bands’ merchandise. 

Matthew Thompson (publisher of the Fluke zine and longtime chronicler of punk history in Central Arkansas and beyond): We weren’t interested in the front room. It was just a hallway to get to the back room. All the action was in the back room. That first Fugazi show — I was in high school, a senior — it was a transcendent moment. It was packed. It was in May, so it was really hot. I can remember their guitars were actually dripping with sweat. 

Fugazi is a legendary post-hardcore band from Washington, D.C., whose frontman, Ian McKaye, co-founded Dischord Records, which later signed Trusty.

Fletcher Clement: There was no air conditioning in the back — that was the most punk rock thing about it. It was like, “Hey, if you want to see this show, you’re going to sweat through your clothes.” When Fugazi played the first time, water ran down the walls. It wasn’t raining outside; the roof wasn’t leaking. There was water running down the walls to the floor because we were all cramped in and stinky and hot. 

Jason White: You could just look at steam coming off the walls. 

Colin Brooks: Anybody that was in a band, in a younger band, was just as close as they could get to the stage to watch Fugazi.

Burt Taggart: (Chino Horde, The Big Cats, Max Recordings founder): My parents were Southern Baptists listening to Sandi Patty. They didn’t go to Vino’s. They were hesitant to let me go down that road, but my friend David Burns was in Hatful Day and my parents knew David and liked him, so that was probably my segue to going every weekend. 

As someone who was getting into music at the same time, it helped ignite that interest. It was like, “Maybe my band could do this.” If David and Hatful Day got a show there, maybe we could. Hatful Day opens up for a band on a national tour; maybe we could open up for Firehose or something. Before Vino’s I was listening to heavy metal with all the pyrotechnics and all, but it wasn’t close to you. It wasn’t on a 2-foot stage. It was a lot more exciting when it was visceral and up close. Being at the front of the stage and seeing Fugazi was mind-altering. I walked out afterward and felt like a new person.

Andy Conrad: I was working that night. When Fugazi started, the restaurant was empty. I was working side-by-side with Henry Lee. The backroom is packed, people are standing trying to get near the door. Henry was like, “Hey, man. I got this kitchen, why don’t you go see the band.”

Colin Brooks: Green Day played their first show in Little Rock, as I recall, on maybe a Sunday afternoon at Vino’s and, no joke, there were less than 150 people there. Maybe even less than 100 people there. The very next time they came back, the place was packed, 400 people easily. 

Fletcher Clement: When Green Day came through the first time, you can go on YouTube and find it: Aug. 17, 1991. You look at the set list, and they don’t play any of those songs anymore. They open with a song called “I Was There.” I think about that. The second time they played Vino’s [in 1993], they were kind of shell-shocked from being bombarded by major label people. The first time they came, they were touring in an old Bookmobile. The second time, they had a brand new 15-foot van and 15-foot trailer. Billie Joe [Armstrong] said Geffen Records took them out to dinner before the tour and just gave them that hoping they’d sign with them. Of course they ended up signing with Warner Reprise. 

Ben Nichols (Red 40, Lucero): Seeing Green Day there in 1991 or whatever it was, I remember [my Red 40 bandmate] Steve Kooms turned around and said something like, “Oh man, if everybody finds out about this band, when the frat kids get a hold of this, they’re gonna be huge.” And he was right.

Matthew Thompson: Every punk kid from all the different high schools in the Greater Little Rock area, that’s where we went on weekends. It seemed like Trusty and Numbskulz played every other weekend. The scene solidified around Trusty playing a lot of shows. The kids who would come see Trusty would start their own bands and then they would open up for Trusty. 

Jason White: They were our common denominator in a way. 

Bruce Fitzhugh (Living Sacrifice): We looked up to them because they were already putting out records and they seemed professional in a punk rock way. 

James Brady: I think it was great to get to a point where you could see bills that were all local bands and the space would be full. That was exciting when that started to happen without Trusty on the bill. 

Bruce Fitzhugh: I recall walking in with our demo and setting up a meeting with Bill Parodi and just handing him our tape and saying, “Hey we’re a band, we’re here in town, we’re a metal band.” I said I didn’t want to end up on a bill with a cover band. I was like, “We’ll play with hardcore bands, whatever.” We were basically still in high school so we got a lot of our friends to come out and that looked really good for us. 


Brandon Brewer: Living Sacrifice was the first one to sell it out so hard that the fire department was coming in there and having to put a cap. They had people standing outside all the way out of the restaurant shoulder to shoulder. 

Nate Powell (Soophie Nun Squad, founder of DIY label Harlan Records): My first real show I went to was January 1992. It was Living Sacrifice and this other Christian metal band, I assume they’re Christian, called Chalice. At that time Vino’s had recodified itself so it was all ages but it was $5 if you were over 18 and $7 if you were under 18. So the next night Metallica was playing [Barton] and my parents gave me an ultimatum that I could go see Metallica or I could go see Living Sacrifice but not both. It was “too much metal.” 

I made a very important decision where I was like, “Man, I’ve wanted to see Metallica for my whole life this last year and a half, but going to see Living Sacrifice is only $7 and this is essentially an underground thing, this is secret, this involves a secret knock and I can get in the door because I know the secret knock,” so I chose Living Sacrifice. 

I was able to get in my first pit, get my glasses knocked off for the first time. I was able to experience the pungent waft of unbridled cigarette smoke. It’s easy to forget just how dense that smoke was. By the time I left, the world was different for me, having seen people play loud, aggressive, incredible music and seeing all different kinds of misfits together for the purpose of music. That set me on a path. And even though I was leaning more in a punk direction than a metal direction at the time, it was kind of a perfect crossover, and that’s kind of the beauty of Little Rock is that due to the size of the city, in order to have a music scene you can’t just limit yourself to one genre of music. There’s such a beautiful crossover in order to have a vibrant scene, and that’s what makes our scene creative and weird. 

Samantha Allen (former promoter): My first time ever going to Vino’s, I was 12 and my sister took me to see Living Sacrifice, Crankbait and Sickshine. I was just a little one from Cabot who had never experienced anything like that. I was hooked from that moment. I was up there every weekend, no matter the genre of who was playing, always bugging the crap out of Fletcher and trying to get bands to let me roadie their drums.

Colin Brooks: Once we got out of high school, I remember the scene sort of changed, at least for me, and the Soophie kids, I call them kids, but the Soophie people kind of kept it going. 

Jason White: [Soophie Nun Squad] took it to another level. They were almost like a cult or something. When I first heard about them I was like, “Oh, they’re these weird kids from Sherwood or something.” I didn’t know anything about them. And then once they kind of were like, “Oh, these guys are up to something,” seeing them was like, “Oh my God, who’s actually in the band, this is like a collective and they’re just going bananas and there’s this crazy energy.” They were just incredible. 

Andy Conrad: Something like that will probably never happen again, a band like that. 

Nate Powell: Our first show at Vino’s was on a Wednesday night during the school year. It was with the Bloodless Cooties and a band called Stinkhorn, and it was April of 1995. It was right after our 7-inch came out — 9 p.m. on a school night. Some of us had to bring homework to Vino’s, and we did not get paid. I do remember hearing like, “Oh yeah, the way they do it is the first time you play you don’t get paid,” which is probably complete bullshit. They were probably just like, “These are 15-year-olds, fuck them; we’re just gonna give them pizza.” But they were like, “Hey, you guys want a pizza?” and we were like, “Holy shit, they’re giving us pizza!” 

Jason White: [Vino’s] became kind of a hub for almost like further out in the state where people would be like, “I’ve got to get out of my shitty town and go to Little Rock and hang out at Vino’s.” If you were into any sort of counterculture or art or anything, you ended up there. 

Maralie Armstrong-Rial (Soophie Nun Squad, Tem Eyos Ki, Humanbeast): It’s just your early touchpoint for meeting other weirdos and finding out there’s places outside of Vino’s. 

John Pugh: Open mic was like the most exciting time because it’s like everyone gets their validation card punched. It’s like, “OK, you played Vino’s. Now you’re valid. Go do some more stuff,” and sometimes that’s all you need as an artist.

Sulac: 7-Minute Max, you’d sign up and it was kind of an open mic thing, get up and do whatever you wanted for seven minutes. 

Jeff Matika (former employee, Ashtray Babyhead, Green Day): The Seventh Street Peep Show — they were doing it on Monday nights. So we decided, hey let’s just jump up there, Ashtray Babyhead, it’s kind of a goofy band that we’re not super serious about, let’s go play all these songs we wrote at the Peep Show. Went down there, played to a nearly packed room, had a blast. Decided to go back and do it again a couple weeks later, same turnout, same reactions, same feeling. So at that point Henry was like, “Let’s get you guys a show in here.” That just became home base for us. 

Colin Brooks: They had Fresh Blood night where newer bands could play.

Chris (C.T.) Terry: It was your dream to play Vino’s. God, when we finally got our shit together, we were like, “We gotta play Fresh Blood night at Vino’s. It’s a thing we have to do. It’s a step to conquer the world.” It was important back then. 

Fletcher Clement: Evanescence played their first shows at Vino’s. I was around for their first Fresh Blood show. I can’t ever forget Amy Lee hiding out behind the drums. She was kind of afraid of the crowd. She wanted to be a part of it. She knew she had it in her heart, but didn’t necessarily have it in her head that she could stand there and be looked at and be talked about. It took her a while to come out of that shell.

Henry Lee: We started brewing in 1993. A couple of local fellas who brewed at home approached us with the idea. It seemed like a good thing. You could look around the country and see all these brew pubs popping up. But in Arkansas, the idea of brewing on-site in a restaurant was really new back then. 

We piecemealed a system together. Our first kettle, a steam kettle that we modified, came from Cummins Prison. We were mashing out with an ice chest with a copper screen bottom and fermenting in open 50-gallon trash cans upstairs. We didn’t have a lot of temperature control. The beer was either really good or really bad. The first weekend, we sold 14 kegs of beer, which was basically all we had. It kind of opened our eyes. People really want this. 

It didn’t take us long to realize we either had to spend some money or move on and not do it anymore. We were washing kegs by hand in an old bathtub upstairs, laying the kegs in there, spraying them with a hose, putting cleaning solution in there and spinning them by hand in the bathtub. I built a two-by-12 folding slide down the stairs, so we didn’t have to carry them. It was a real pain in the ass.

After six months, we bought a real system, a 3½ barrel operation, at the time the smallest commercial system anyone made. Lucky enough, David Schindler was one of our big customers. He said, “If you ever need anything, come see me.” He was a commercial lender for what later became Iberia Bank. He was willing to jump in with us and back us. 

We started out leasing the building next door before eventually buying it. We put the brewery in the second building and made it our nonsmoking section and added 30 seats.

The initial beer was brewed by the guy who did the installation of the system. He brewed enough to fill up probably 21 kegs we’d bought to get started with. Our total sales tripled in about three months. I started to think, “Maybe this could work.”

John Pugh: I remember Henry would be experimenting with all these different home brews upstairs in his office and shit would get overly fermented and explode and you would have this weird fermented beer juice leaking out of the ceiling into the dish pit in the middle of a dinner rush. That weird smell of yeasty beer exploding in a pizza place is very stuck in my brain.

Lee was instrumental in shaping Arkansas’s local brewery laws. He successfully lobbied the legislature to allow brew pubs to sell their product to-go — for Vino’s that’s always come in the form of growlers — and to allow them to sell the to-go beer on Sunday, which liquor and grocery stores in Arkansas still can’t do.

Henry Lee: When I got the law changed to allow sales out the door for growlers on Sundays, that was huge. It took me 12 years to get to that point. I would lobby the legislature every other year. We’d always put in the line that said microbrewery licensees could do everything they could seven days a week. It got thrown out the first 10 years we tried it. 

Sunday went from being our second worst day to second best day of the week. We had people lining up outside at 11 in the morning to fill up their growlers. 

Vic Snyder was probably the guy who helped me the most. When I moved here, I didn’t know anything about Little Rock. I was in the investment business and went straight to the restaurant. Mostly, what I knew were the four walls of Vino’s. I knew Vic from the restaurant. When he would come in, I just knew him as Vic. But one day, I heard someone say, “Hey, Senator, how you doing?” So I took advantage of that. He really helped me learn how to build coalitions and talk to people to get things done. [Former state Rep.] Sam Ledbetter helped and lobbyist Bob Edwards spent a lot of time working for free helping me out. 

David Raymond (former brewer, Mulehead): I went to brewmaster school and started chasing breweries after I graduated from Texas Tech. 

Henry Lee: Dave Raymond was our first serious brewer. 

David Raymond: I moved to Little Rock with $300 in my pocket, a couple of dogs and a beat-up truck. They had their standard beers already established. Henry didn’t allow a lot of room to manipulate those. I put my efforts into speciality ales. One Christmas, I made this huge Belgian-style ale that was highly alcoholic. It was like 8 or 9% alcohol and people were drinking it as if it was the pale ale at 3% alcohol. The bathrooms were destroyed and fights broke out. It was mass chaos. We had to establish a two-pint limit on that. All the customers lost their minds on it. 

Matthew MartinREGULARS: Mulehead with Amy Garland with former brewer David Raymond at far left

Henry Lee: Bill Riffle won two medals for Vino’s at the Great American Beer Festival for Rock Hopera. 

Bill Riffle (brewer from 2001-2011): We grew quite a bit, just about doubled production from when I started to when I left. And we made some improvements to the brew system — added another seven-barrel fermenter and added a cooling tank, and some other things. Yeah, I was pretty proud of what I did there.

I wanted to do a really good IPA so I started doing a different version of the Pinnacle — we kept the same name, but it was a totally different version. And that became our second-biggest-selling beer over the years. I tweaked it for a few years to get just where I wanted. I started doing a lager rotation, and of course the Rock Hopera was the Imperial IPA that I developed a recipe for. It was a lot of work so I only did it every once in a while — I did a double mash, and I cask-conditioned the whole batch and dry-hopped. 

Brian Hirrel: For the longest time, there was a black-and-white photograph hanging up in Vino’s of the five guys from the local metal band Fallen Empire and Vic Snyder in the middle. They all hung out in the same bar. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in town. You don’t see politicians hanging out with punk rockers. I remember some election times when you’re getting these real heavy-duty right wingers coming in and hanging out. They looked out of place and you go, “Why are you here?” These guys would go, “Well, there’s great beer and it’s right down the street from the state Capitol.”

Bill Paschall (political consultant): Campaign meetings seem to flow a little better when you have good beer and good pizza. We made it kind of a home away from home to gather and strategize. In the ’90s, Democrats were in power in the legislature, and a number of those guys would come over after the session to drink beer and talk about what was happening at the Capitol. Sometimes I went four to five times a week.

Vic Snyder (former state senator and U.S. representative): I did a considerable number of campaign fundraisers at Vino’s when I was in the state senate, and I did a handful there for the congressional races, too. When Bill Clinton ran for president, his first headquarters for his campaign was two doors down. If Henry supported a candidate, he’d stick their sign in the window. A lot of businesses won’t do that, but he never shied away from it.

Chris New (longtime general manager): It’s always been super cool to think that you could go in there, especially at a Friday happy hour, and there would be the table of suits, maybe some lawyers or politicians, and right next to them would be the stinkiest train-hopping punk rock kids. You just give people the same service no matter what they look like.

Brian Hirrel: I remember some big political candidate coming in and saying, “We’ll be sitting in the nonsmoking section.” And one of the waiters saying, “Well, you can sit there all fucking day if you like, but you’ll have to order at the counter.”

Amber Uptigrove (former employee): The regulars were like prominent politicians, people you would consider high society in Little Rock. This one customer comes to mind, we called him the noodler because he noodled fish during the day. He would come in and drink with the politicians and lawyers in the afternoon. 

Brandon Brewer: I was working weekends and nights while I was still in high school. I remember playing a show when I was on the clock. So I was actually cooking pizza, and it was an opening gig, and they allowed me to take 30 minutes off for the set and play music and then get back in there and start making calzones.

Chris New: I’m always disappointed in shows on cable like “Top Chef.” Those aren’t real restaurant challenges. Give me a pantry of some items I don’t know beforehand? If you’re a halfway decent cook, you can throw something together. A real challenge is, let’s have a waiter show up drunk on a Friday at 4:30 and let’s back the toilet up in the men’s room at 7:30 during dinner service. 

John KushmaulTHE CREW: (From top left clockwise): Jeff Matika; Ginny Sims and David Jukes; Tim Braslavsky with longtime general manager Brian Hirrel; David Jukes; T. Drexel Baker throwing dough; (from left to right) Josh Griffin, Jerri Wooten and Kevin Kerby; and general manager Chris New.

Ginny Sims (former employee, Magic Cropdusters): Plywood and cardboard is all that’s holding the place together. A part of the bathroom wall would rot and Henry would just add another piece of plywood over an existing piece of plywood. Every time I go back, it’s like the bathrooms are shrinking. I feel like I’m in “Alice in Wonderland.”

Chris New: This building is something like 110 years old. It’s definitely not air tight. Could you close Vino’s where’s it at and put it in West Little Rock in a brand-new building and keep it the same? No. You couldn’t even do that in the River Market. There’s character. Let’s be honest. Vino’s is a dive. Henry has never made it any more than that, and I don’t think people would enjoy it anyway else.

Brian Hirrel: You get these kids who would work for a while and then hand in notice to go jump trains and go to California. They would do a great job and then come back six months later and say, “Can I get my job back?” and you’d say, “Yeah.” You never burnt your bridges or walked out in the middle of your shift. You got that loyalty with some kids. We had one dishwasher that came back three or four times. He was like a professional dishwasher. One time, he walked into the kitchen and said, “Wow, you put in one of the new Autoclear machines!” This kid knew every dishwasher under the sun. I told him he should be a rep for a dishwasher company. He said he just wanted to save up enough money to move to Dallas for a while.

Brandon Brewer: I was the youngest. I was literally 16 and 17 years old. I worked there till about the time I moved out. Everyone to me was family and I was like their little kid, you know, they’re like, “Man, I wish I was doing this when I was your age.” 

Amber Uptigrove: I started going there as a teenager in the ’90s. We’d come up to Little Rock to see shows, eat pizza at Vino’s. I guess it wasn’t until 2001 Jeff Matika got me a job. 

Jeff Matika: I remember telling her, “I don’t know if you’re going to like this.” 

Amber Uptigrove: Nobody thought I would make it very long. Nobody thought I had the Vino’s grit. They were like, “She’s gonna work here maybe two days,” and I ended up working there on and off probably 16 years. 

Ginny Sims: If you worked the lunch shift, it was, “Y’all got sweet tea?” all day long. People would tell me the same things: 

“Why don’t you smile more?” 

“You’re too pretty to smoke. Get that out of your mouth.”

Some guy called me “honey,” and I said, “Don’t call me that.” He said, “I’ve got a sister who’s a feminist.”

It was smoky and gross, but it was also the best years of my life.

Sulac: Once I started working there and realized, “OK, everybody that works here is either an artist or musician.” I don’t think I had realized that I had just landed in the most perfect place. 

Justin Collins (former employee, Sugar In The Raw, Go Fast): It shaped so many musicians’ lives inadvertently, and as much as I used to make fun of Henry Lee, he put up with so much shit from just me alone, but from so many people.

John Kushmaul (former employee, local artist): It always seemed like a real reasonable place to sort of center life. I always thought of it as a portal to the outside world. I modeled my life on some of the musicians who worked there who would go on tour for six months and then show up and work at Vino’s again. 

Colin Brooks: Even if you didn’t know anybody that was there hanging out, somebody you knew was probably going to be there working. 

John Kushmaul: In the 1990s, Kevin Kresse had a studio upstairs, and I thought that’s kind of what I’d like. I started renting in August 1998 and I’ve been there ever since. One time, I set up across the street and painted the building. I’d make copies of it and paint on top of the copies. I did several dozen of those and would sell them for $50 or $75. Henry was always good at letting local artists sell work on the walls.

Sulac: One time somebody stole a piece of my art. Scottish Brian [Hirrel] was like, “That motherfucker just took your art.” I was like, “What!” He was like, “He’s already across the street.”

We ran out on the sidewalk and I was like, “Hey man, you gonna pay for that?” With his head hung low, he came walking back across the street and he was like, “Sorry, my friend dared me to do it.” 

Amber Uptigrove: I don’t think it’s cool to say that your restaurant is your family anymore, but I feel like Vino’s really was because you only got hired there by word of mouth and it was like nobody from the outside was hiring and you had to know somebody. We really were all best friends and we rode to work together and rode home together. 

Sulac: I stuffed myself inside the dishwasher once and they turned it on. 

Amber Uptigrove: David Jukes [a longtime former employee and musician] was kind of the reason we all worked there. He was the best. 

Jeff Matika: He quit Vino’s to go to the library, and I was like, “Why are you doing that? Let’s do this forever.” Now I work at the library. 

Justin Collins: I can still make a fucking calzone. 

Jason White: My wife and I had our wedding reception at Vino’s in 2005. 

Andy Conrad: I’ve been to weddings there. I’ve slow danced to “Unchained Melody” in that room.

David Raymond: I still think about it. I wish I could have made a million dollars at it. It was a lot of fun. I used to summarize to people: I made beer during the day and played in a rock band during the night. That was a pretty awesome way to live in my mid-20s. 

Henry Lee: Vino’s means a lot to a lot of people. We’re almost to our third generation of people, definitely well into the second. Kids who started out hanging there and have worked for me over the years have gone on and are bringing their kids in.

Bobby Matthews: The last time I went back there was before COVID, and there was a punk show where three different Little Rock punk bands played — not even on the stage — on the floor in front of the stage. But my daughter, who was like 15 at the time, she was like, “Oh, this is cool.” And she likes punk, dresses like a punk, has a Black Flag poster on her wall. So it was full circle for me. It’s that space, it’s kind of hallowed ground. When I go back there, I feel like it’s like 500 years ago and I’m in a pub in a town and my family’s been there forever. It’s that kind of feeling. Like I’ve been here forever, you know. It’s neat, because I haven’t. 

Matthew Thompson: I was just back in Little Rock over the holidays and drove my kids by Vino’s and explained the importance of it and what it was. When you’re gone for a long time and you see the building, just this old and dilapidated building, there’s so much magic and history in it.

Brian Hirrel: It’s not the cleverest restaurant in the world. It’s not the smartest restaurant in the world. It’s not the cleanest restaurant in the world. It’s a hole in the wall. But it’s got this legendary thing going on.  


The post Our oral history of Vino’s is an AAN Awards finalist appeared first on Arkansas Times.

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