From left: Reese Roberts, Jeff Allison, and Joe Fennel / Staff photo
After four decades on Dickson Street, longtime local restaurant owner Joe Fennel is ready to pass the torch.
Fennel, who opened Bordinos nearly 24 years ago, told us last week he plans to sell the restaurant to local hospitality veteran, Jeff Allison.
Fennel said he hopes to slow down a little bit after many years in the hospitality business, and spend more time with family (although those who know him might have their doubts about the slowing down part).
“It has truly been a wonderful journey,” Fennel said. “I have been blessed to be able to do what I love to do, and now it’s time to spend some more time with my high school sweetheart.”
It has been quite a ride. Fennel opened Jose’s on Dickson Street in March 1980. The restaurant specialized in Tex-Mex cuisine, and took on Fennel’s colorful personality and propensity for fun. It quickly became known for its free-flowing margaritas, party atmosphere, and “chimi-changa, chimi-changa, chimi-changa” radio ads.
The success of Jose’s led to Fennel opening Bordinos in 1996. The restaurant focused early on Italian cuisine, before expanding into other fine dining avenues as time went on. The business began in the small space currently home to Smoke and Barrel Tavern, and a few years later, had outgrown that space, and relocated to its current building on Dickson Street.
Fennel said he and Allison have been in talks for several months about the sale, and getting to know him over that time has helped assure him he is the right person to take over Bordinos’ legacy.
“I have been impressed with Jeff’s understanding and excitement with the culture we have created at Bordinos,” Fennel said. “That culture, and our people, are what make Bordinos a very special restaurant.”
Allison, who studied food and human nutrition at University of Arkansas where he graduated in 2010, has been in the restaurant business since college. He has worked at Ruth’s Chris in Rogers, and as a beverage manager and assistant steakhouse manager at a casino in Tunica. Recently, he’s been working in sales for a commercial restaurant furniture company from Joplin.
Allison said one of the most attractive things about Bordinos is that there isn’t much that needs to be changed.
“It is so impressive to me what Joe has done,” he said. “We will definitely keep our staple menu items that people love and keep them coming back. I want to be able to continue (Joe’s) legacy, and keep this place running as it has been for as long as Fayetteville allows me.”
Allison said he does see some opportunities for growth for the restaurant.
“I am excited to see more of the creativity of chef Corey McCain,” he said. “I see opportunities that maybe we can flex our muscles in other cuisine, and catering has been a focus and a great opportunity for growth for things like weddings, events at the UA, etc.
“I think we can grow and improve going forward, and if I can accomplish half of what Joe has, I’ll be thrilled,” he said.
One of the keys to that, he said, is continuing to let general manager Reese Roberts manage the day-to-day operations.
“From day one, I’ve known how important Reese was to Bordinos,” Allison said. “For this to work, I knew she had to be attached.”
Roberts said she and Allison have built a quick rapport, and she is excited to help continue to build on Bordinos legacy in Fayetteville.
“I think I am most excited to know that Joe has really picked the new owner to fit with our employees, our culture, and to continue to work in the environment and be a positive leader of our team,” she said.
Other key leadership and staff, including executive chef Corey McCain, are also planning to stay on board.
Fennel said he will continue to focus on his work as president of the Dickson Street Merchants Association, and will also continue to have a role with the restaurant.
“My new role will be one from a consultant position,” he said. “This will allow me to continue to be a coach and a cheerleader for Bordinos, and allow me to be around the part of the business that I enjoyed the most – our people.”
“All those young, smart employees through the years made my career a special one. Don’t know how many thousands of young people I’ve coached and mentored through the years, but I want each one of them to know, I will always be fondest of the friendships that were made.”
Roberts said, for her, that value placed in people is one of the biggest things she has taken from working with Fennel over the years.
“I started working for Joe in March of 2010, and I realized pretty quickly that we value people in the same way,” she said. “Joe is one of the first people I worked for that found value in me, and to work for someone that actually cared about me, I got excited about that, and that made me want to move into a leadership role here. Without him, I wouldn’t be here.”
In addition to stepping into Fennel’s role at the restaurant, Allison said he also hopes to step up the way Fennel has as a leader in the community as well. Fennel is one of the founders of the Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival benefitting local Cross Country programs, and has been heavily involved in whatever is happening on Dickson Street over the years.
“I hope to full his shoes in some of the civic groups he is involved with, to be an integral part of this area,” he said. “I believe firmly that we have a responsibility to give back to the community, and we definitely want to carry on that tradition.”
Allison is set to take over ownership of Bordinos on Feb. 3.