Food Insider: Michael Carpenter of Mugs Café

Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Rock City Eat’s latest series, Food Insider, takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, we have Michael Carpenter, owner of Mugs Café in North Little Rock.
Could you briefly describe Mugs Café to someone who has never visited your establishment?
Mugs Café is a place to eat and drink without the pressure to consume and move on. The food and drink are the entry fee – not necessarily the point. We really do hear it again and again from our regulars … they love our coffee and food, but Mugs is more like a home away from home, an office away from the office. And we do consider our customers a part of our family.
How long have you been open?
We opened on July 15, 2013
Is this your first place?
No. We previously owned a similar place in Tennessee. It was a wonderful disaster. We learned a lot.
What made you decide to get into the restaurant/coffee shop business?
I’ve been in the industry since the first job I ever had at Little Caesar’s Pizza. I was 16 at the time. Since then I’ve worked in many kitchens from places like Little Caesar’s to high-end fine dining establishments. That experience has given me a great passion for cooking.
I developed an affection for great coffee simply as an avid drinker. More recently, I’ve gained an understanding of the craft and science of brewing a perfect cup. I love how each coffee we source has its own individual character and inherent qualities.
But a lot of people are good cooks, like a great cup of coffee, but don’t open up a restaurant. What drove me to open Mugs is to try and recapture the sense of community downtown Main Streets and neighborhoods used to have. One of the most important aspects of any city is its collective commons, the shared public spaces where people gather…like coffee shops. Yet, even in the heart of a city in neighborhoods like Argenta, isolation is a word that describes the kind of lives many people are living today. More and more people are spending less and less time with one another. People no longer give time to civic participation and neighborhood relationships. More often than not, people spend much of their time alone. So hopefully, Mugs is the antithesis to the loneliness many people feel by providing a place where “everybody knows your name.”
Every time I pop into Mugs Café, it seems to be hopping. What do you attribute the success to?
Word of mouth from our regulars and my great staff. I cannot say enough about both.
What are some of your more popular menu items?
For coffee, it’s our Cuban and Cafe con Miel. For breakfast, I’d say the tacos and pancakes on Saturdays. And for lunch, it’s the 1/2-lb burger and chicken salad.
Some folks can be quite specific with their coffee orders … have you ever gotten a request that was a bit of a head-scratcher?
“Do you have any coffee that doesn’t taste like coffee?” That is my the worst question I’ve ever been asked.
What are some of the different events you host at Mugs Café?
This time of year we host a lot of Christmas parties in-house and cater many others. The art work in the front of our space rotates once a month. We host an opening reception for the month’s artist(s) every third Friday from 5-8 p.m. The next reception will be in January.
Any news coming down the pike regarding the cafe or is it business as usual?
Mostly business as usual, but we’ve developed some relationships with some of the most respected coffee roasters in the country and will start featuring them soon. Also, we are looking into opening a coffee bar and tap room on the Little Rock side of the river called Speakeasy.
You’re a man of many tattoos, do you have a favorite?
My favorite is the first one I ever got. It’s on my ankle and is just a black blob now. It was done by a friend with a homemade tattoo gun. That friend died several years ago.
What city would you travel to just for the food?
I hop on a plane right now to go back to Taipei, Taiwan for these amazing dumplings from a street vendor in the night market.
Who’s your favorite band?
Jack White is probably producing some of the best music out there right now.
What is one thing that might surprise folks to learn about you?
I’m the founding pastor of The Church at Argenta that meets in our space. Also, I used to be a hopeless heroin addict and even spent a couple of years homeless. I’ve been clean for 13+ years. That’s more than one thing, but people are usually surprised to learn these things.
If you could have dinner with one living celebrity, who would it be and where would you eat?
Anywhere with Anthony Bourdain. He seems like a really smart guy who knows food and is willing to take us with him on an adventure.

Rock City
Author: Rock City

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