A fter visiting the restored boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess, Arkansas, I circled back to the historic Dyess Colony Administration Building, a plantation-style structure that dominates the quiet town center. Jessica Ross, a young tour guide, directed us through the building. It was her first day after working at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, another historic tourism site, in nearby Tyronza.
“You must really like being here,” I enthused, excited about my newfound connection with the legendary country singer. Ross concurred, but she had one reservation: “I sure am going to miss eating lunch every day at Tyboogie’s,” said Ross, whose new job is now 15 miles away from the restaurant. “I’m crazy about that place.”
Enthusiasm like Ross’ for Tyboogie’s Café’s pimento cheeseburgers, chicken salad wraps, and hearty plate lunches is exactly the kind of community sentiment owners Keith and Jill Forrester hoped to grow when they purchased a 4,800-square-foot building on Tyronza’s Main Street. Once a busy mom-and-pop grocery store called Betty and Ed’s, the lonely space had been vacant for about 10 years, and its restoration demanded vision, hard work, and a healthy dose of hometown love.
“There was an old single-wide trailer that had been converted to a double-wide sitting where Tyboogie’s deck is located now,” said Keith Forrester, who grew up four miles from the restaurant on his family’s cotton and soybean farm. “The building was pretty rough.”
Open since April for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, Tyboogie’s is named after the Forresters’ affectionate moniker for Tyronza and creates a charming persona that customers from Trolley Stop Market, the Forresters’ restaurant in Memphis, will likely recognize. Tables covered in colorful floral oilcloths complement kitsch memorabilia, and an upright piano waits patiently against the restaurant’s front wall.
Yet despite similarities, Tyboogie’s feels unique, matching American food and special-event catering to Arkansas Delta tastes. Servers dish up enchiladas, pot roast, veggie casseroles, fried okra, catfish on Fridays, and fried chicken on Sundays from a friendly cafeteria line, while the kitchen prepares burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas to order. Some recipes duplicate Trolley Stop favorites with subtle changes. Pimento cheese at Tyboogie’s, one of the Forresters’ signature dishes, doesn’t include the cayenne pepper kick popular in Memphis.
“Country people like simple things,” Forrester said. “They don’t need a three-cheese blend on their grilled cheese. Velveeta will do just fine.”
While Velveeta might suffice at home, grilled cheese sandwiches at Tyboogie’s update with cheddar, and the menu’s refinements (locally sourced vegetables, strawberry shakes, specialty pizzas, and a propensity for scratch baking) are attracting attention from across the state. Recently, a group of 15 Japanese farmers studying the rice industry in Arkansas stopped by Tyboogie’s for lunch. Other international groups from Pakistan and Finland have found their way to Tyronza, as well.
“Opening our farm to the public has always been part of our big plan,” said Jill Forrester about the couple’s Whitton Farms, where they grow 10 acres of flowers, herbs, and organically inspired specialty crops. In fact, Jill hopes to sell her country-garden bouquets of zinnias, sunflowers, peonies, and hydrangeas, already fixtures at Memphis-area farmers markets, at Tyboogie’s next year to coincide with an extended schedule of farm tours for international visitors and local school groups.
Located about midway between Tyronza and the Dyess Colony Museum, Whitton Farms will enhance the symmetry of history, family, and food that has directed the couple since they left jobs as public school teachers (Jill taught algebra; Keith taught phys ed) a decade ago to return to the Forrester family farm.
“We’ve been blessed, we’ve worked hard, and we’ve had a lot of success,” Keith Forrester said. “But the farm drives everything we do.”