Last week, I had the privilege of speaking before the Arkansas Festival and Events Association. I talked with many of the great people who are organizing celebrations around the state, including a group from Malvern. Several of those individuals asked me if I'd been to Keeney's.
Why yes. Yes I have. But it's been about 30 years.
Back in the 1980s when the earth was still molten and rocks were soft (that's a joke), I was a young pre-teen spending time with relations in the Malvern area. I rode my bike a lot on the weekends. I mean, a LOT. I loved to roll over to the junior high and ride up and down the slight ramps in the courtyard... there were no security gates back then, no one trying to keep people out or in. I'd head up Cherry Street from there, rolling down the sidewalk into a dip and back out of it. I have recollections of a small grocery store at Cherry and Highland, where I could get a peach Nehi out of an old machine. But just as often, I'd turn left onto Mill Street and roll down, cross Main Street and hit the grocery store a block further down. That was Keeney's.
Back then, there were drinks inside the door to the left, produce further back and a deli counter where, if I asked nicely, I could get either a pickle loaf or bologna sandwich on white bread. It was always cool and a little dark going in, but it was a welcome spot and no one ever ran me out. I'd catch my breath, eat my sandwich and maybe some Cheetoes, drink my peach Nehi and get back out on the bike.
|The prices are denoted by grocery tags.|
While I waited, I watched the people around me. Several had come in when I had, and this front room was bustling. I could see, too, through the kitchen counter to the other dining area with so many people bustling around, including a gentleman with a white paper hat on his head. This, I'd discover, was Mr. Charles Keeney.
Seems I came in one day after a milestone. That's right... on February 3rd, 1956, Keeney's Food Market opened. Charles bought the building and opened the store when he was just 20 years old. He and his wife Maureen still run the place after all this time.
Seems I also started listening in the heated part of the conversation. The two gentlemen voiced their disappointment that the television station hadn't dropped by. Coverage of a rally by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock bumped the Keeney's story from the assignment sheets of just about every news outlet in town. But that didn't keep the local paper, the Malvern Daily Record, from sending over a photographer. I also heard that Mayor Weldon came by and read a proclamation.
This large, nicely marbled flame-licked piece of meat had been brought to me with a side order of macaroni salad in a styrofoam cup, a buttered and toasted slice of Texas toast and its own juices... on a paper plate. Okay, a high end paper plate, but... paper.
Either this was a cost-cutting measure that resulted in a lot of messes, or the cook knew how to properly treat a ribeye. My willpower weakened, and I poked at it with my fork and it almost fell apart.
When my waitress dropped back by mere seconds later to ask if I needed any sauce, I only grunted, a mouthful of perfectly cooked medium rare beef preventing anything more than the most Neanderthal of communications. I nodded, finally picked up the knife, and poked at the steak some more.
It was seasoned perfectly - perhaps salt, pepper, a little onion powder maybe, but otherwise just the flavor you only get with a barbecue grill. And it was everything I could do not to inhale it.
I finally, about a third of the way through, caught my breath and sat back, sampling the macaroni salad (also homemade from the sort of noodles you think about in a Kraft Macaroni and Cheese packet) and its lovely mayo blend of flavors. The rest of the room began to exist again for me, and I could pay attention to what was going on around me.
You think I'm kidding? No, really - this steak could be the best steak I have ever had for lunch.
I was catching bits of conversation again, and I looked to my left and noticed Mr. Keeney was talking with the diners at the table across from me. He chatted with a few other people, then sat down at the chair across from me at my table and asked me how I liked my steak.
Oh, I should have mentioned, the moment I came back to this world, I asked for pie and got it. But the steak had left a blur. It was THAT GOOD.
|Before I left, I asked if I could take his photo. Mr. Keeney obliged.|
He honestly had no clue who I was, but that didn't matter. We talked for a while about the TV station and the Trump fiasco and Arkansas politics and the history of the store. It had been his whole life, for him and his wife. But in 2000, it almost went to naught. See, back when I was small and riding my bike around town, the first knell had come for the myriad of little corner grocery stores and shops that peppered Malvern's neighborhoods - like that one I recall on Highland and the one over by the cemetery. This is where you went when you needed just an item or two or if you were just walking the block and decided to pick something up. Back when Keeney's Food Market opened, we dined differently, and while the neighbors were folks who lived in a city, they weren't that different from folks in more rural communities. The local corner grocery was a place to meet, to grab a sandwich at lunch and to pick up items for a dinner at home later. So many of our great long-lasting restaurants around the state share a similar history, particularly Cotham's Mercantile in Scott and Taylor's Grocery (now Taylor's Steakhouse) west of Dumas.
There was a Walmart in town when I was a little girl, over on the edge of Malvern close to Perla. It was located off the northwest side of Highway 67 down off the side of the road, and it just sold merchandise. By the late 1980s, another bigger Walmart, located on the border between Malvern and Rockport, had opened. A few years later, a Walmart Supercenter opened out by the interstate.
It's hard to tell it from the outside, but there are around 70 seats for diners tucked in the back of the old grocery store. He and Maureen are still running the place - he cooks, she runs the register. Today, two of the Keeney's granddaughters were waiting tables. Other days of the week, a daughter is in there as well. And every person in there seemed to be someone the Keeney's knew... except me, this girl in a hat sitting at a table by myself. So Mr. Keeney sat and talked with me.
He doesn't look 80 to me. He mentioned Maureen is 78. They're just moving along, keeping going somehow. He seems to enjoy the cooking, and answered all my questions about the steak and the little restaurant. He was interested in what I had to say, too, even though I never revealed who I was. Today, I was just a customer.
Mr. Keeney says he doesn't plan to retire unless he just can't work any more. His knees hurt, and it was an effort for him to get back up out of the chair, but he's surrounded by family and the locals appear to adore him. I think he already has a pretty good retirement.
I finally managed to finish my pie and get out of my seat a while later, after listening to Mr. Keeney talk with the two gentlemen sitting at that corner table for a while. There were no hard feelings about that TV station not coming out. There was a little pride shared about the local newspaper.
I bought a copy of the Malvern Daily Record outside, the first time I can remember purchasing a newspaper out of a box in a long time. The Keeney's were on the top left corner, and there was a photo of the proclamation being presented by the mayor on page 3 and a whole page of photos on 12. This community is proud of this little neighborhood grocery and the family that still runs it - and still, somehow, manages to keep prices very low. My fine steak dinner with drink and pie came out to $20.15 after tax, before tip. I don't know of any other place you can get a decent 12 ounce ribeye for that.
If you are heading to Malvern after reading this, know that Keeney's Food Market is only open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Fridays and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. That's right - one of the best steaks in Arkansas is not available for dinner. Mr. Keeney said staying open for dinner would mean not being able to sleep all that much, since he and his wife are both up at 4 a.m. to get things started. Keeney's serves breakfast and lunch each of these days, and I will need to make a return trip for breakfast at some point. I hope there's steak and eggs on that menu.