A combination of gut-instinct, market research, a love for Springfield and proximity to Harrison, Arkansas, led to the second Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Cafe settling in the Queen City. The first opened in January 2016, and now the family behind the Harrison, Arkansas-based cafe is planning another.
For the operators in Springfield, Clif and Lauren Brown, the journey started in New York City. Clif was working in the tiny, high-volume Levain Bakery in Manhattan – which is known for making massive cookies and rustic breads raved about by Oprah and featured on Food Network.
“That was a great opportunity for him,” Lauren says.
As the couple became apprehensive about a lifetime in the Big Apple, they began considering expanding her parent’s family business.
The concept of Neighbor’s Mill had been in the works since before 1974, but it began to take shape when Lauren’s father Mike Nabors purchased an 18th century gristmill. He and his wife Karin spent the next 26 years conceptualizing a modern business that pays homage to the old ways of pure ingredients and a machine built to last. In 2000, they opened the flagship bakery and cafe in Harrison, Arkansas.
“It came down to asking the question, ‘Where do we want to put roots down?,’” Lauren says. “Nothing can prepare you for opening your own business, but I think we were pretty well prepared.”
As Clif continued working for Levain Bakery, Lauren earned a culinary management degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. While in school, they also began eyeing the Midwest for a prime location, knowing they wanted to be within a three-hour drive of Harrison in order to share resources and facilitate training from the flagship bakery.
“We also looked at northwest Arkansas and Little Rock,” Lauren says, admitting she has a soft spot for Springfield. “Springfield is a really good area for new restaurants, especially if you’re a new restaurant concept.”
After Lauren completed schooling, the Browns packed up and moved to Harrison in order to train with her parents – a sort of nine-month internship.
“We worked every position two weeks at a time, so we really learned the business holistically,” she says. “It was nice that when we opened the business we were never asking employees to do anything we haven’t done ourselves.”
Mixing it up
The first Springfield cafe is at 1435 E. Independence St. in Paige Reese Plaza. Lauren says even in 2016, the couple knew they would likely open a second in town when the property and time was right.
They discovered the mixed-use development by Sagamore Hill Development Co. at the northeast corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue. Others signed on to the $4 million development are Duff Family Dental and the Craft Sushi restaurant.
The Browns signed a 10-year lease for undisclosed terms, though the development had listed rates around $18 per square foot. They’ll occupy 3,100 square feet of the development’s third building, on the east end.
“The build-out for the inside is the next step for us. We’re working with an architect, with Dake Wells [Architecture Inc.], now and will start building by the end of the year,” Lauren says of the planned February opening date.
As for design of the new property, they want some continuity – for it to feel like Neighbor’s Mill, but with some twists.
“It will be smaller and with more windows in it. We are going to use some more unique design elements inside,” Lauren says.
Clif said the new central Springfield cafe will focus on grab-and-go menu items, while continuing to offer custom salads, sandwiches and soups, as well as pastries and bread. He said the south-side cafe will remain the primary baking location for the company, but some pastries will be made on-site at the new space.
One of the biggest continual struggles is finding specialized employees.
“We are always looking for people who have some kind of culinary degree or baking background. Usually when we find a good baker, we try to hold on to them,” Lauren says.
Neighbor’s Mill regular Audrey Jones believes the hard work is paying off.
“I frequent Neighbor’s Mill because they are local, they have an amazing and friendly staff, the quality and freshness of their product is unmatched, and the atmosphere is lovely,” she says.
It’s essential to love the business, Lauren said, and to build a solid team.
“We’ve been lucky to find great people. Our staff is family. There’s a lot of camaraderie working in a restaurant,” she says, declining to disclose annual revenue.
Dion Peyrefitte, vice president of finance and business analysis for Red Monkey Foods Inc., says Neighbor’s Mill does much of the catering for his office. He outlines quality food, excellent customer service and diverse menu options as the reasoning.
“We host visitors from all over the world, and we are always confident that whatever we bring in from Neighbor’s Mill will be thoroughly enjoyed,” he says. “It is also a source of pride for us to show off a local business that has, in our opinion, higher quality food than the large chains offering similar menus.”
An additional Neighbor’s Mill in Rogers, Arkansas, is the first franchise location. The family business has kind of come full circle, as the Naborses got into the restaurant industry through a franchise.
“They had a dream to open a restaurant back in the ’90s, but they knew that most people who don’t have a lot of restaurant experience will fail,” Lauren says.
Her parents purchased a Dairy Queen in Harrison, Arkansas, which they owned for about 10 years.
“That was their goal, to get out in about 10 years and start their own restaurant, which they did,” she says.
SBJ staff contributed.
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