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08.13.2021

Arkansas Dairy Bars: Nostalgic and Pandemic Perfect

Today I’d like to talk about a sector of our culinary industry that is the perfect business model for dining establishments during a pandemic.

Ninety-four of these eateries dot the Natural State’s rural landscape, and next week, Arkansas PBS will release a documentary about these short-order diners.

The subject of the film is the Arkansas dairy bar, a remnant of the time before the proliferation of franchised restaurants.

The idea for this project came to Arkansas foodie Kat Robinson in the early months of COVID-19. Kat, a 1995 broadcasting graduate of Arkansas Tech, has made her name as a food historian, author, and foodie, with some public television shows thrown in. She is a member of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s selection committee. She grew up eating sugar on her rice for breakfast and country-fried venison. Her books include Another Slice of Arkansas Pie and two volumes of Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die.

One day when Kat was hankering for an ice cream, as she says, she traveled to Malvern to see whether the dairy bar from her childhood was still in business. Mel's Dairy Bar was still standing, it looked just like she remembered, and the place was hopping. That’s when she decided to write a book. In March, she and the team at Arkansas PBS began to work on the  companion documentary.

The documentary, Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats & Cool Treats, will premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday, August 19, on Arkansas PBS. This week, Arkansas PBS hosted a free advance screening at the Kenda Drive-In in Marshall.

Dairy bars evoke nostalgia for many of us who had the good fortune to live in a town with a dairy bar or whose grandparents lived near one. That was the initial appeal for Kat.

But as she traveled more than eight thousand miles to visit all ninety-four of Arkansas’s diners, she realized that by their very design, dairy bars may be the perfect restaurant for a pandemic.

Think about it. A dairy bar generally doesn’t have a dining room. You order your food through a window. You eat in a car or at a picnic table. Textbook social distancing.

Arkansas PBS sustained the social-distancing theme by holding its premiere of Arkansas Dairy Bars at a drive-in theater. The Arkansas PBS event was perfectly crafted as public family entertainment during a worldwide pandemic.

Kat is an Arkansan who understands Arkansans. Like the 3 million other people who live here, Kat took the pandemic head-on and blazed a different route. In one of her books, she writes about the character of her state. “Arkansas is a stubborn, hang-on-by-your-teeth subsistence land that adapts to weather, new folks, and the lay of the land.” That’s an accurate description.

With this documentary, Kat Robinson and Arkansas PBS preserve a piece of our culinary history. They also demonstrate that with imagination, sweat of the brow, and a dash of courage, we can work our way through anything.

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