Home cooking helps to keep rural communities alive

Rise & fall of rural Arkansas
Renee's (Source: KAIT)
Renee's (Source: KAIT)
Penny's Place (Source: KAIT)
Penny's Place (Source: KAIT)
Meacham's (Source: KAIT)
Meacham's (Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)

WEINER, AR (KAIT) - The last decade has been hard on rural Arkansas communities. Schools across Region 8 have closed, leaving many towns in despair.

Last May, Region 8 News took viewers on the road with the rise and fall of rural Arkansas, where towns struggle to stay relevant after the lights went out at their schools, but these rural Region 8 towns refuse to quit.

Each still has a bright light that shines, and it says "Open."

The sights and sounds of home cooking live within the walls of locally-owned restaurants.

At Penny's Place in Weiner, the daily buffet brings in many diners.

"Just look at those dumplings," Frances Cohoon told us the day we visited. "Aren't they wonderful?"

While delicious, it is not easy keeping the burners going, something owner Penny Sitzer knows all too well.

"It was really hard because the school closed," Sitzer said.

Her restaurant has been a staple in Weiner for 12 years.

She opened up when she felt the town needed it most.

"The town had really gotten down where it was more or less dying, and there was nothing open," Sitzer said.

"I do not know what several of us would do if she was not open," Cohoon said.

Customers like Cohoon are thankful for Sitzer's determination.

With the school closed and several businesses moved to Jonesboro, Penny's took a hit.

Nevertheless, Sitzer believes it is the farmers in the fields, the hunters, and the small town atmosphere that keeps people coming in.

"The good food, the rapport," Sitzer said. "Everybody knows everybody,"

Penny's table offers more than just good food, though.

"Meet all my buddies here, we have coffee, and fuss, carry on, have a good time," Cohoon said."

While Sitzer admits the business of keeping people fed is hard work, unlike the school, the buffet is not going anywhere.

"Everybody keeps everybody else going, and that is the way small towns are," Sitzer said.

Renee Lawrence echoes that sentiment in Black Rock.

"I've told my kids that they will pick me up off the floor when I die," Lawrence said.

She has owned Renee's at the top of the hill in Black Rock for nearly 14 years.

"We love her, we feel like she is part of us," customer Pat Whitmire said.

Whitmire and her husband eat at Renee's every Sunday.

"The atmosphere is wonderful," Whitmire said. "It's just like family."

"Most of my customers are faithful, loyal," Lawrence said.

Lawrence, like the other owners, has been asked the same question many times.

"Why don't you open one up in Jonesboro," Lawrence said.

She said she knows it just would not be the same, particularly living so close to work.

When Black Rock closed its school, Lawrence said they lost some business but not for long.

"When something stops, something starts it seems like," Lawrence said.

The daily specials displayed on the walls join a number of pictures of family along with mementos her customers have given her.

Lawrence is proud of her little restaurant on the hill and happy strangers enjoy her cooking as well.

"People that are on the road a lot, truck drivers, you know they wish there were more places out there for them," Lawrence said.

Another home-away-from-home can be found in Ash Flat at Meacham's.

"It is like coming in to have dinner with your family," customer Barbara Hyslip said.

Roberta Meacham's customers have called her Bert for more than 20 years.

"If it wasn't for the majority of the locals, Cherokee Village, Horse Shoe Bend, Ash Flat, we wouldn't be in business," Meacham said.

While battling cancer, Bert's taken some setbacks.

She, like Lawrence and Sitzer, know the restaurant business is not one to take lightly.

"If you have a restaurant, and you're married, you have 2 marriages," Meacham said.

Even with the added stresses, Meacham isn't locking up just yet.

"It kind of keeps me going in a way. Gives me a reason to get up in the morning," Meacham said.

Beyond her own family's livelihood, she knows others depend on her doors staying open.

"There're 11 families that make livings, you know, out of this 1 restaurant," Meacham said.

Beyond the good food and the reasonable prices, longtime customer Mary Syer said you get more at Meacham's than big chain restaurants.

"The personal attention, and the fact that it is like family," Syer said.

"We wouldn't be here without them," Meacham said. "They are everything."

Across Region 8, it is places like this that keep the once thriving towns alive.

"It is home," customer Noble McCord said.

A home and place where all 3 of these women plan to keep their open lights on.

"I've been in this building over half my life, and I don't see it changing anytime soon," Meacham said.

And while some can't imagine the small town lifestyle, locals can't imagine it any other way.

"It's more than just Arkansas," McCord said. "America is made off these little restaurants."

All of these women work hard, and they do it because they love the communities they've invested in, communities they refuse to let go of, communities that make this Region 8.

The focus may be on the food, but local restaurants are a big part of what keeps small towns going.

These are just 3 of the many local restaurants across Region 8.

Be sure to tell us your favorite restaurant on our Facebook page, we'd love to hear about them, and maybe visit as we travel across Region 8.

Copyright 2016 KAIT. All rights reserved.

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