Photographs by Spencer Tirey
Rafael Rios picks blackberries as his sister, Christina Alvarado, digs carrots on their family farm in Rogers. The farm supplies produce to several Bentonville restaurants.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Rafael Rios didn't know anything about Northwest Arkansas when he made a brief stop in Bella Vista during a cross-country trip more than 10 years ago.
Rios, who was born in California and spent a good portion of his childhood in Mexico before moving permanently to the U.S., said he was just tired from being on the road and needed some rest. He pulled over at a gas station, grabbed a real estate magazine and began flipping through the pages.
"I said, 'Wow. The cost of living must be good here,'" Rios said.
His first impression of Northwest Arkansas became the beginning of the Rios family's deep connection to the region and, more specifically, the culinary movement in downtown Bentonville.
The family -- which is headed by Rafael's father, Hector, and includes Rafael's six brothers and sisters -- maintains a 12-acre farm just outside the Rogers city limits that plays a key role in Bentonville's growing farm-to-table movement. Produce from the farm supplies local restaurants like The Preacher's Son, Pressroom, The Hive, Pedaler's Pub and Eleven at Crystal Bridges.
Rafael Rios also is founder of Yeyo's Mexican Grill, a food truck set up in downtown Bentonville. He's preparing to unveil another big venture as well by expanding Yeyo's into a physical location in the community-focused food hub called 8th Street Market, which is anchored by Northwest Arkansas Community College's culinary program, Brightwater.
"What they're doing has been very significant to the area," said chef Matt Cooper of downtown Bentonville restaurant The Preacher's Son. "And they're just an amazing family."
ARKANSAS OR BUST
Farming has always been part of the Rios family's lives. Rafael's parents were seasonal farmers in California in the 1970s and 1980s, spending months each year in the U.S. before returning to their home in Mexico. Hector, who is known as "Yeyo," was able to move his family to the U.S. permanently in 1989 and continued to work in the fields to make a living.
But Rafael said his father always dreamed of establishing his own farm, and the family began to imagine the possibility after discovering Northwest Arkansas. They researched the area, mapped out a plan and decided to make the move -- as a family -- around 2006.
A few years earlier, Rafael said, he and several family members pooled their money to purchase a home in California for about $100,000. It had appreciated to a little more than $500,000 a few years later. So the family decided to sell the home and use the money to move to Arkansas. The timing couldn't have been better. It was just before the U.S. housing market crashed.
Rafael's younger brother, Roman, was the first to arrive in Northwest Arkansas. He had a real estate license and went to work finding homes for the family. Roman scoured the area and used the money from the California sale to purchase houses and property for each family member.
"He set up everything for us," Rafael said. "We had never been to our houses when we came. Roman would just send us pictures and say, 'This might be a good one. This might be a good one.' He found the property where we farm now" at a great price.
The Rios farm started as a small operation meant to feed family members. But Hector's farm began producing more than they needed, so they joined the Bentonville Farmers Market.
That's where their connection to the Bentonville culinary scene -- which has been built around the use of locally grown products -- began. It has strengthened the past few years.
"They're so community minded," said Daniel Hintz, who was executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. and is now chief executive officer of the community development firm Velocity Group. "Their ability to look at win-wins and saying this is what we need, but at the same time asking how do we support the community? How do we bring other folks along with us? That's one of the reasons why I think they've been so successful is that they're always thinking beyond just who do they need and what do they need to be successful.
"So they've been incredible partners in the growing downtown Bentonville scene."
MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY
Rafael's role in the culinary scene as founder of Yeyo's food truck didn't begin until 2012. He served in the U.S. Army for about 15 years in places like Germany and Afghanistan, but was forced to retire because of an injury.
Rafael wasn't certain what he would do in the next phase of his life, but wanted something that would contribute to "making people happy" in the community.
Food has always made Rafael happy, dating back to his childhood, when he spent hours in his grandmother's kitchen in Mexico. Later, he was the unofficial chef for his unit in the military, and his curiosity about food led to some risky situations while in Afghanistan. Rafael said he would wake up early in the morning to prepare food at a Turkish restaurant, working side-by-side with the locals.
"I got in trouble a couple of times for doing that because it wasn't the safest thing," Rafael said. "But when you meet people that have the same passion as you, you become friends in an instant. You just find the people that are passionate for food and they will share experiences."
Eventually, Rafael -- with support from his family and community leaders -- thought he could offer a unique experience in Northwest Arkansas with a food truck that served street tacos, salsa and other authentic Mexican cuisine. He named it Yeyo's after his hardworking father. The business would be supplied with some of the home-grown tomatoes, peppers, onions and herbs from the family farm.
But success didn't come easy. Revenue for the first year was $39,000.
"It was very scary because we spent every single penny on this project," Rafael said. "But it was mine. So that was the pride that I took. It got us to the second year and that's when everything changed."
Rafael believes it just took time to catch on in the community, but, between the food truck and a catering business, everything is "stable" now after nearly five years.
It has led to another big step as part of the 8th Street Market, where Rafael will open a location later this year.
Rafael said the location will serve as an extension of the food truck, helping Yeyo's become accessible to a wider audience. In addition to counter service, Rafael said, the 2,800-square-foot operation will also serve as a production facility for Yeyo's tortillas and salsas. He wants the place to represent the "soul of Mexico," going as far as sourcing the furniture from the country.
"They are a part of that discussion of how we continue to move the Northwest Arkansas culinary scene forward," said Hintz, one of the developers behind 8th Street Market. "You now have five or six years of that family being a part of that conversation and they fit brilliantly into the overall mission and brand of the 8th Street Market.
"You will be able to walk in and get a very unique experience and that's exactly what we wanted to see in our tenant partners within this project."
WORKING IN THE SOIL
On a recent summer morning, Rafael and a few family members had their hands in the soil in various parts of the farm, harvesting fruits and vegetables that were being prepared for delivery to local restaurants.
Rafael's sister, Christina Alvarado, was working on carrots while he stood a few feet away picking blackberries and raspberries. A little later, Hector appeared, pulled out a knife and began cutting the arugula and mizuna that are used in a spicy green salad mix at The Preacher's Son and other restaurants.
Tomatoes are the farm's main product, but the family also grows different varieties of peppers, zucchini, squash, herbs and beets. There's a dairy cow and free-range chickens, which produce eggs the family eats. There are black Angus cattle as well, which Rios said are a test to determine if Yeyo's can begin supplying its own meat.
"The reason they're so successful is because they've been able to bond together as a family," said Cooper, who gets two regular deliveries a week for The Preacher's Son. "It really has made a difference in the culinary scene because the quality of their stuff is unrivaled. It's amazing."
Cooper and his staff are among local restaurants that take a couple of trips to the Rios farm each year to help with the harvest. The events are part work, part party, but they continue to strengthen the Rios family's ties with the community and its culinary leaders.
Alvarado said those relationships are among the many "blessings" the family has enjoyed since moving to Northwest Arkansas.
It has been hard work, but what started as a few rows of peppers and tomatoes on a family farm has expanded into a sustainable family business.
"We're hardworking people," Rafael said. "Dad always says there's nothing more dignifying than working. And I think the community sees us as people of faith, people of principles, people dedicated to family and people worthy of emulation."
SundayMonday Business on 08/13/2017
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