Your Mama's Good Food, one of Little Rock's most beloved meat and threes, has been serving up some of our favorite home cooking for two decades. I met recently with owner Fleming Stockton, who runs and co-owns the business with his wife Barbara, to talk about his early days of veganism (!), flipping burgers, serving political celebrities during the Clinton campaign days and much more.
Tell me a little about your background. Did you grow up eating good food?
I'm actually writing a book called "So You Think You Can Own a Restaurant," and my first chapter is about how the fry oil and hamburgers got in my blood. I was about 16 years old and worked in a Dairy Queen, making burgers, shakes and malts, and it kind of got in my blood. Then about nine years later I was up in Fayetteville and started with this pizza company called Kids Pizza Parlor, on Dickson Street, the biggest place in town, so I got the pizza in my blood. Then I moved back down to Little Rock and worked for Pizza Hut and I started the first delivery system in Little Rock — this was like 1972 — and then I became the manager of Shakey's Pizza Parlor, which is where Dixie Cafe is now. So basically I've kind of stayed in the restaurant business.
Were you always cooking at these places?
No, no. I've done everything. Most of the pizza places I managed, but I've done door hosting, bartending, dessert shift — I've done it all. In the mid-'70s in Fayetteville I was a strict vegetarian. I was into Eastern religion and meditation.
You were such a hippie!
I am a hippie! I had to learn how to cook because nobody else cooked vegan food at that time.
What were you cooking then?
Spanish rice, vegetables, peas, beans, rice, tofu. The first thing I did when I [quit being vegan] was buy the juiciest steak I could get my hands on.
In 1989, I had been waiting tables, made a really good living at it and worked for The Terrace, back when the Terrace was one of the places. And I just got tired of working for other people so I said, 'Hey, I want to open my own restaurant,' and I hooked up with this guy I had met waiting tables at The Terrace. His name was Chuck Pointer, who also like me, had been in the restaurant business most all of his life. He was an outstanding cook and invited me over one night and served me his meatloaf, and I hated meatloaf, but it was the best meatloaf I had ever put in my mouth, and that's how it all got started. I would say that 60 percent of our recipes are his and 40 percent I either got from somebody else or developed on my own. But I never started out to be the cook. I always wanted to be the entrepreneur. I wanted to own this restaurant and count all the chips. But it didn't work out that way.How did y'all get started?
We opened July 1st of 1990 and our original concept was pick up and delivery home cooking. We put in a restaurant about a third of the size we have now. So the restaurant was kind of like an extra. We got so we much good press from the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette that it turned into a restaurant and we didn't get that much delivery or pickup business.
Then, in September — we'd only been in business for two months — Operation Desert Storm started. There was one of these diversified post offices next door to us and there were so many people sending packages to soldiers that our parking lot was packed and people couldn't get in there to park. Our business went down and on top of that, a Black Eyed Pea was built right in front of us. So by December of that year I was facing bankruptcy. I talked to my dad and my brother and they both put in $20,000 between them and I opened this place down here, where I had built in traffic. See back in 1991, everybody was downtown. You could look out the window and there'd be all kinds of people walking down the sidewalks, there were crowds of people down here and its not like that anymore. There were four home cookin' places at that time, and we're the only one that’s left.
Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to serve at your restaurant?
Yeah, I read an article — it was a bad mistake — in the Arkansas Gazette, where they said comfort food, or "soul" food, was going to be the next cuisine of the '90s. And I said, 'Well, maybe that's not a bad idea. Maybe I'll do that.' But what I didn't understand was that your food costs for this kind of operation are much higher than say for pizza or hamburgers. Food costs for hamburgers and pizza are only like 15 or 20 percent and we were like 35 percent.
We use quality products. We don't use canned vegetables. We use frozen vegetables or fresh vegetables and dried beans that we soak overnight. We don't use canned goods. The chicken fried chicken and country fried steak are frozen products but everything else we do ourselves.
How do you season your food?
What I use is bases. And Chuck taught me that. It's chicken-based, beef- or ham-based. The base has salt in it but it also has the flavor. It's like a stock but the dry version. You add the water.
Is that how you do your greens?
I put other things in the greens, but I'm not giving away my recipes. But everything I make is made with a base. We do turnips and spinach. On vegetables, the only combination we do is a squash medley of zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes and onions, and we saute it. Then we do a medley of vegetables for primavera pasta and I have a special seasoning packet for that.
Let's talk about your glorious rolls. They're as big as your head. There's nothing like them.
The rolls were invented by a young man, Joe, who used to work at The Terrace and at Zach's Place on University. He did their home cookin', and then he came to work for me.
He married a Native American and moved with her back to a reservation in Oklahoma.
Are you the sole baker of the rolls?
Oh yeah, I'm the only one. Let me rephrase that. About three years after Joe initially invented those rolls there was a girl who worked for us — great, great cook — and she made the rolls for three years. There's actually two other guys who know and they were brothers — one of them is dead and the other I haven't seen in seven or eight years. You'll never find him and he's probably forgotten the recipe.What’s your daily baking routine?
I start making the rolls around 10 a.m. Well, actually I'm an eccentric person and I set my clock 15 minutes ahead, so if you want to be technical I start my rolls at 9:45 a.m. I make them in this big old container and when it rises it starts overflowing all over everything, like a blob or something. So what I learned to do is rather than at 7 a.m. is I start at 10 and by 10:30 or 10:45, the dough is done and I've already got my rolls panned up and then I’ll set them up over the oven and they'll rise.
They are labor intensive. It takes me 30 minutes, by hand. I don’t roll them. It's a kneading and turning process. Once I get it to the right texture that I want it I take a big glob and pit it out on a powdered table and I'll make a long log and take a baker's knife and cut it and put it in the pan
What happens if you're sick or can't come to work?
Do you ever hear the expression SOL?
How did you come up with the restaurant's name?
I don't know if you remember, but back in the '90s the cool thing to say was "your mama" so I named it Your Mama's.
What was business like in the '90s? Your Mama's was a favorite in the Clinton days.
When the Clinton campaign hit we just went over the top. People were coming in 30 minutes after we closed and begging for leftovers. It was incredible. This was 1992.
Who were the regulars then?
James Carville, Diane Sawyer, Brit Hume, [George] Stephanopoulos, the head of the Democratic National Committee — all came in every day. Hillary ate with us but Bill never did. He recommended us and talked about us — as a matter of fact when Air Force One flew in, and they had a press corps thing, we were invited to cater that, but Bill never did eat with us. Hillary did because the Rose Law firm [was] just down the street; we had a lot of Rose Law firm lawyers. And the man who supposedly committed suicide — Vince Foster — ate with us almost every single day
What's it like running a business with your wife, Barbara?
It's a miracle we're still together, it really is and I'll tell you this — if it hadn't been for her, we wouldn't have been a success. She is the business end, and I'm the idea man. She runs the front and is indispensable and I couldn't have made it without her.
What does Barbara make here?
She makes the key lime pie, Neiman Marcus cookies, strawberry shortcake — real shortcake, not sweet, and nothing spongy — banana pudding and the salads.
Who does the cooking at home?
She does. I used to do the cooking but after you do it every day — I live in that kitchen — I just get tired of it. I should help her more often. But sometimes I'm so sick of food I don't want to eat.
What will you do when you retire?
I want to write. Barbara wants to garden. Especially at our age, you get to a point where there's not much time left and you want some quality time. I'm a frustrated artist.