From Easter champagne brunches at their family home to annual themed Halloween parties at Maxine’s Taproom in Fayetteville, it’s safe to say Hannah Withers and Ben Gitchel know how to have a good time. So much so, the couple has brought these experiences to the NWA community through their businesses Leverett Lounge, Little Bread Company and the seasonal pop-up bar Holidaze, as well as through their work as self-described caretakers of Maxine’s.
Although they have since sold Little Bread Company to new owners, Hannah and Ben have made downtown Fayetteville all the more magical since moving here from Eureka Springs over a decade ago. Between balancing and tasting their menus or working with the Fayetteville Independent Restaurant Alliance to help raise awareness of and support for the service industry, their love for the region is evident in every conversation. According to a close friend, each space they create gives guests a feeling of connection, community, and celebration—and that’s because these experiences and places are authentic to who Hannah and Ben are.
Where does your culinary inspiration come from?
HANNAH / Ben makes the menus, and he gets his inspiration from all over the place. He really loves discovering food and cultures that he’s never found or understood before.
BEN / Food I like to eat!
HANNAH / We like street food—he finds a lot of inspiration from simple dishes that can be made inexpensively from a lot of different cultures. That’s what we kind of fell in love with Southwestern cuisine; it’s a lot of chilis, and a lot of corn and beans—things you can work with and make different.
BEN / Lower-income people have to make food taste good with the least amount of ingredients possible, and they do a damn good job of it, and you can trace a lot of fine dining like braised meats and spices and all that back to that.
HANNAH / We can make a really good quality cocktail without having access to the same kind of spirits that a lot of big cities do, and I think in the bakery, we always wanted to be super casual and accessible, and I feel that way about Leverett (Lounge), too. It should be affordable, casual, fun, and not a pretentious experience, but with quality products, and I think that’s the way we’re drawn to do the things we’ve done. And part of the reason it’s successful is because it’s authentic to who we are.
How do you hope to be remembered?
BEN / Being a nice person. I don’t care if people remember me personally or not, but if they did, I’d rather that be what it was. They were [our] community; in everything we do, that’s what it’s about.
HANNAH / I think what I’m proud of and hope people remember is that we really make a big effort to take something out of what we earn in our places and find ways to support other things in the community with it. I think that’s the way business should be done […] I would hope that what (people) would remember are the things we supported through these places. Working in social culture; we use these spaces to do good work.
How are the drink menus conceptualized?
HANNAH / We have this collaborative bar program. We change our menu three or four times a year, and we give our bartenders two weeks, and they all bring two to five drinks to the table depending on how inspired they are. They all try them together and tweak them, and then Ben and I balance out the menu to have a certain amount of gin, bourbon, tequila, and we balance it out depending on what the best of the best was. Sometimes we’ll bring back an old drink just because it seems like the right time of year to have it on the menu, but we all decide together. Ben usually has the final word.
What’s been your favorite part of this journey so far?
HANNAH / I think when you work with the public and have a public face and relationship with your community, you’re going to have ups and downs. I’ve definitely had moments of feeling claustrophobic with the “small town-ness” of Northwest Arkansas, but I can say during COVID, I’m never going to forget the gratitude I felt when I was able to sit in a city task force meeting and hear people that were in city hall and work on our A&P team, and how devastated they were to see what was happening to our business community and how quickly they were to just say, “How can we help?” The response of the community in Fayetteville has given me a lot of hope. There’s as much good in a small town as there is bad, and I think the good has shown me this is a really special place. There is a positivity and hope living here because people are so willing to help.
Tell us about the transition from running a beloved bakery to a timeless bar.
HANNAH / Ben is a certified baker. When we wanted to open Little Bread Company, we moved to New York City for a few months, and he studied at the International Culinary Institute. New York’s another one of those hospitality towns we love, and it was just an amazing experience. Since then, I think a lot of [my taste has evolved] from being with Ben. My mom used to make things from scratch and grew a lot of things in her garden, and I’ve always known certain things are better than others, but I really started to fall down the food wormhole when I married Ben. He just loves it so much, and he loves to see people enjoy it.
How do you balance your business partnership with your marriage?
HANNAH / We have different strengths and weaknesses. I’m a little bit of a micro-manager and he grounds me. Ben and I have this way of making decisions of what we’re going to do together where we know when it’s right, and we go with it. Sometimes it’s not what we expected [it] to be, but most of the time it’s exactly what we wanted it to be. We both love to travel together and have those experiences in food and drink. We do different things that make us one whole.
BEN / It works out of blind luck!
Tell us about the famed annual events at Maxine’s.
HANNAH / I love to throw a party! We’ve been doing it the whole time we’ve been married; I love to have a group of people from all different walks of life in my backyard, having a good time, and they haven’t met each other before. That’s a really small slice of what [Block Street] Block Party was and these events that we do […] Halloween has been one of my favorite holidays my whole life, and we really experienced that in Eureka, and we felt like [kids] again. It’s a multigenerational holiday where everyone has a great time together. After we moved into this space [Maxine’s], it just kind of became an extension of what we used to do at home […] When you take everything off the walls, it’s kind of a blank canvas. It’s just a different setting for what we’ve always done, but we get to make a living doing it. Does it get any better than that?