Dickson Street icon Joe Fennel builds lasting legacy with Chile Pepper festival

Fayetteville restaurateur and Chile Pepper co-founder Joe Fennel

Photo: Dustin Bartholomew / Fayetteville Flyer

Joe Fennel may be the dean of Dickson Street restaurateurs, but this weekend, he answers to the nickname “The Godpepper” for his role in establishing one of the region’s most renowned running events, the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival.

Fennell, 62, will watch the festival launch its 27th edition this Friday at the University of Arkansas Experimental Farm on Garland Ave. with the Tom Lewis One-Mile Pepper Dash at 6:30 p.m. The festival itself begins in earnest at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the same location with the Chile Pepper 10K open followed by an open 5K, collegiate, high school and junior high races.

Before the day is done an estimated 6,000 runners including 120 high school and 80 collegiate teams will compete in 11 races. The event, which is expected to draw 5,000 spectators this year, has contributed $497,000 to Northwest Arkansas high school cross-country programs since its inception.

Fennel, who founded Jose’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in 1980 and Bordinos Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar in 1996, stepped away from actively running the festival, which is one of the largest and most-respected cross-country events in the nation, but he still regards it as one of his greatest collaborations.

“It was a way to give back to the community in a needed area,” Fennel said. “By the time we started the race in 1989, we were getting on solid footing with Jose’s, and I had a little more time to put into something outside the restaurant. But the success of the Chile Pepper has come from the involvement of so many — sponsors, volunteers, supporters, the University of Arkansas. Everyone came together to make the Chile Pepper what it is today and to show support for the local high school cross-country programs.”

Seeds for the festival were planted during a run when then Fayetteville High School cross-country coach Kelly O’Meara mentioned to Fennel and Randy Rhine that his team’s budget was $100.

“Things were different then,” said Fennel, who is president of the 39-member Dickson Street Merchants Association. “There wasn’t as much money to go around, and most of it went to football and basketball. But, even back then, $100 wasn’t a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about buying shoes and uniforms and paying for trips. We decided to do something about it.”

Fennel and Rhine mustered enough volunteers, and they hosted the first Chile Pepper 10K in May at Razorback Golf Course where the event was held for years. The proceeds from the initial race went to Fayetteville’s program, but as the race grew into the event it is now the Chile Pepper Board of Directors made the decision to spread the wealth to other cross-country programs in the Northwest Arkansas area.

“For a while, we had a place where each entrant could mark what school to support,” Fennel said. “The board’s got a better system in place today.”

At a news conference Wednesday at Jose’s, the board distributed a total of $47,000 to 15 Northwest Arkansas cross-country programs, all of which will participate in Saturday’s festival. Larger programs, like Fayetteville, Bentonville, Springdale, Har-Ber, Springdale, Heritage, Rogers and Siloam Springs, received checks for $5,000 apiece, while Elkins, Farmington, Gentry, Gravette, Greenland, Haas Hall, Prairie Grove and West Fork took home checks for $1,500.

Several of the coaches struggled with their emotions while accepting the checks. The gratitude was palpable, and the smile on Fennel’s face was broad.

Fennel said the Chile Pepper grew from a competitive hometown race to the massive event it has become when its board of directors and the UA track programs combined efforts in the early 1990s.

“We asked Arkansas if they wanted to join with us and run the Chile Pepper and their home meet together,” Fennel said. “It just made sense to run them together, along with Fayetteville High’s home race. John [McDonnell, the legendary former UA men’s track and cross-country coach], Bev [Lewis,, former women’s athletics director and UA track coach] and later Lance [Harter, current UA women’s track and cross-country coach] and Chris [Bucknam, current UA men’s track and cross-country coach] had always been supportive. They liked the idea of combining the two as long as we orchestrated the event around it. It’s been a great partnership. Everyone involved has benefitted from it.”

Having the Razorbacks involved in the Chile Pepper was a drawing card locally and around the region, particularly when the high school races were added to the event in 1994.

“All we do is show up,” UA women’s coach Lance Harter said. “The volunteers and supporters and sponsors make it such a wonderful and meaningful event that we enjoy being a part of.”

Razorback runner Dominique Scott will make her season debut Saturday for Harter’s squad. She is the reigning Southeastern Conference champion, All-American and co-favorite to win this year’s individual national championship.

Bucknam, whose Razorbacks squad will also run its top competitors for the first time this season, said the festival lauded praise on the event and the people who make it go.

“There’s two ways you can give back, monetary and then time and effort. Sometimes the time and effort are more valuable than the money,” Bucknam said. “I want to thank everyone who gives so much to make this such a phenomenal event. It’s that spirit and camaraderie and commitment that makes this area so special.”

When the Chile Pepper expanded, Arkansas’ men’s program was at its height, winning championship after championship and the women’s program was also in the hunt for conference and national accolades.

“It really means a lot for high school kids to run in an event that draws so much competition,” Fennel said. “Then you have the collegiate race at the same event with a nationally known program. The Razorbacks have so much respect in the cross-country community. They get taken for granted a little bit around here. All those kids have dreams and aspirations, and the Chile Pepper is as big of an event as many of the teams run in all season.”

It’s also a great recruiting tool for the University of Arkansas.

“A lot of the kids that compete won’t be running competitively in college, but with this meet, they do have the chance to see look at the campus when the race is done and experience our community,” Bucknam said. “It’s a great community event.”

One of the reasons high school coaches from Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas travel their teams to the Chile Pepper Festival annually is that it caters to the entire cross-country teams, Fennel said.

“We extend the awards to eight runners in each race,” Fennell said. “Most just award six. We also have an invitational and an open race for the boy’s and girl’s teams as well as a junior high race. The open gives the younger runners on the team the chance to gain experience and a have a chance to run in a competitive environment. It’s good for them to get that experience.”

The Chile Pepper continues to evolve. The event had traditionally been held in mid-October, but to make sure the Razorbacks teams could remain involved, the meet was moved forward to this weekend. Race director Ray Lewis said the move helped push the entries over the 6,000 mark for the first time in the event’s history.

But rolling with the changes and punches is something the Chile Pepper board and Fennel himself has excelled at through the years.

“You adjust and evolve and work and try new things to see what happens,” said Fennel in speaking of the festival and his restaurants. “You can’t sit still or you’ll be left behind.”

On restaurants, Dickson Street and Fayetteville

Fennel, a native of Stillwater, Okla., has worked to stay ahead in the restaurant business all his adult life.

“I started working in a restaurant — washing dishes — in high school, and it’s been a part of my life ever since,” Fennel said. “I worked hard and learned and made mistakes and had successes. It’s been good to me.”

Fennel moved to Dallas in 1973 to be near his high-school girlfriend Jean Ann, who was attending SMU, whom he married in 1975.

“Following her to Dallas was one of the best decisions of my life,” Fennel said. “Jean Ann was my sweetheart then and she still is all these years later. She’s really the backbone of everything we’ve built.”

Fennel gained experience and trust of the franchise owners he worked for in Dallas, and was tasked with opening two restaurants for the organization in Tulsa. He knew of the company’s plans of opening a restaurant in the Northwest Arkansas, and made a deal with the owners that once the Oklahoma locations were up and running, he could open and manage the one in Fayetteville.

“I fell in love with Fayetteville, visiting here a couple of times with my mom and my brothers on vacation as a kid,” Fennel said. “The hills and the greenery and the people, just made an impression on me. We moved here in 1978 and never regretted it.

“I love the passion of the people here. I don’t care which side you’re on. I’m a person who can still agree to disagree, but I just love the passion and life that we have here.”

Upon moving to Fayetteville, Fennel got the new location up and running, but then turned his attention on opening his own place, Jose’s. As with any new business, money was tight. While Fayetteville and its business were inching north on College Avenue, Fennel targeted Dickson Street as the location of his first restaurant.

The Dickson Street of 1980 does not remotely resemble Fayetteville’s entertainment district of today. Seedy bars and vacant businesses were the norm. It was a tough area, and not exactly the ideal place to locate restaurant.

“It wasn’t a grand plan,” Fennel said about the prime locations of his Dickson Street restaurants. “Restaurants like Coy’s and Herman’s were locating further out. For me, it was about being able to afford the rent.

“But growing up in a college town, I always liked the energy. Being close to the university made me think we had a chance. But our first year open, three dead bodies were found on Dickson Street, and one of them was right outside our back door. Attracting customers was a task in itself.”

Fennel said it was touch and go with keeping the doors open during the first three years of business.

“I knew the restaurant business when we opened, and I had a knack for working with and managing people, but there is so much you don’t know when you start any new business. Things you don’t even expect. The big thing is making sure everybody else paid before you see a dime.”

Fennel tried any number of ideas to draw business, from live music and wild promotions to his signature “Ole for Jose’s” radio spots that still run today.

“We wanted to have a fun, festive atmosphere where people could enjoy themselves,” Fennel said. “That plus great food, great drinks and great service. We worked hard and made it work.”

Through sweat and diligence, Fennel had Jose’s on solid ground by the end of the 1980s, but he said the major step in making Dickson Street and Fayetteville’s entire downtown area what it is today was the opening of the Walton Arts Center in 1990.

“It’s really the heart, to me, of what Dickson Street has become over the last 25 years,” Fennel said. “It brings world-class entertainment to us on a regular basis, and along with draw of Razorbacks athletics and the UA itself, Dickson Street has built up around it. It’s been a great partnership.”

Fennel believes the $23 million Walton Arts Center expansion could be just as significant to the future of Dickson Street as the initial donation and investment.

“It’s big,” Fennel said. “I really believe if we look back in 15 or 20 years, we’re going to see this second investment pay off like the first. We’re still growing. Will another arts center be built to the north of us? Probably so, but this region can support it. Fayetteville is going to continue to benefit from arts center. The Dickson Street area’s going to continue to grow”

After creating a partnership in Jose’s with Doug Allen, who started as a dishwasher with the restaurant, Fennel decided he needed a new challenge in 1996 when he introduced Bordino’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, which features upscale Italian dishes, to Fayetteville.

“In traveling over the years to Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and other places, I visited a lot of establishments and got the itch to try something a little different,” Fennel said. “I think we have a great contrast in what the two restaurants offer.”

Fennel takes as much pride in the growth and prominence of the Chile Pepper Festival as he does his restaurants. Wednesday’s presentation of the checks to the local coaches was like a cross-country Christmas, and no one was happier than Fennel, who took time to greet and speak with nearly everyone in attendance.

“When we started the Chile Pepper, we knew there was a need, and we went to work,” Fennel said. “We had no idea what it would grow into, but it’s a great event that helps so many kids. I just have a ton of gratitude for all of the support and work that goes into making it happen.”

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.