Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online

Hotstuff: On this spot from 1988 to 2014 ... it rocked

Hotstuff: On this spot from 1988 to 2014 ... it rocked
Who is that right in the center of the crowd? It's Linda. 

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On this spot from 1988 to 2014 ... it rocked

Some prime downtown property at 815/817 Garrison Avenue may, or may not, have a new owner when you read this column. 

But one thing is certain – whoever buys or leases this unique restaurant/music venue from its longtime owner, Bill Neumeier, will be on hallowed ground. It has been an important piece of downtown Fort Smith food and entertainment history from 1988-2014.

Bill's popular food and music businesses began when he opened a bright, friendly diner called Coney Island at that location with the help of a friend and former boss, Bob Hartness. Coney Island immediately became a place where downtown workers – including most of the staff of the nearby Southwest Times Record, where I worked at the time – could get tasty, inexpensive lunches in a hurry. 

Most of our news room crew, including this magazine’s senior editor Donna Payne, especially enjoyed the loaded baked potatoes – giant russets baked to perfection, generously topped with melted cheese, the best chili in town and all the fresh jalapeño peppers a pepperhead like me could hope for.

In 1989 and 1990 Bill and his friend Bert Wright, a downtown supporter and banker, organized free street dances.

“That's when I learned free events are not so good, or easy to do,” Bill says. “But I still have people tell me how much they enjoyed those free dances on the Avenue.”

In 1990 Coney Island added a mobile Downtown Pizza Wagon service for which Bill made the pizzas early each morning. In his “spare time” he started making improvements to the little garden area next to the restaurant. In 1994 the restaurant and its patio became Coney Island's Beer Garden. That same year Bill and his friend Mark Perry also combined their barbecue skills to win first place in pork ribs at the Arkansas State BBQ Championship.

In 1991, having no prior experience at such a task, Bill organized and produced the city's first Riverfront Blues Festival featuring Texas bluesman Anson Funderburg, the Famous Unknowns, Glen R. Townsend Band and Hoodoo Rhythm, featuring Barry Ratliff. This year will mark the festival’s 24th continuous year as one of the city's favorite annual events, presented ever since by the non-profit Riverfront Blues Society.

In 1995 the Beer Garden hosted its first national touring act – Poppa Chubby. In 1996, Bill put up the Garden's first “real”stage. He moved pizza sales to 508 Garrison, establishing Papa's Pub & Pizzaria.

In 1998, Coney Island officially became Neumeier's Rib Room & Beer Garden, where Bill shared his award-winning wet and dry-rubbed barbecued rib, along with music. 

People flocked there for both the food and to see, up close and personal, some of the best musicians in America.

The roster of artists who have played on Bill’s stages is astonishing. As he and I talked, we each pulled out old photos and clippings. Please see Hotstuff online at our website, efortsmith.com, or his, ribroom.com, for more pics and lists.

In 2008, he closed for major renovations and reopened in 2009 as the two-story Neumeier's Rib Room & Beer Garden, with more new and famous national acts. Bill also fondly remembers a Travelocity report about America's top 250 restaurants during that time. It rated his Rib Room the No. 1 restaurant in Arkansas.

But Arkansas' hottest summer on record in 2010 slowed the Rib Room's  outdoor dining and that hurt business, Bill said. Each following year he scaled back hours until he only served food when the Garden was open for live music. 

When asked what motivated him to put his landmark Rib Room up for sale in January, Bill said, “I've been doing live music for 20-plus years , but it's seasonal, and I'm due for a break – I'm ready to go see some live music!” And, although he has no immediate plans for it, he said he'd like to get back in the barbecue business someday.

Bill says his love of music and bringing top performers to Fort Smith will also continue. As a condition to the sale or lease of the Rib Room property he has made a three-year no compete agreement for club promotion – but he can participate in planning and promoting events such as festivals. And he's already doing that.

He's been working with a local group planning a three-day music and arts festival to be held at Riverfront Park July 31-Aug. 2. 

Bill said helping plan the new festival is exciting. 
“It takes me back to helping start the first Fort Smith Blues Festival. Helping Fort Smith is always my goal.” 


 See more of Bill's photos of memorable artists at ribroom.com

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online