All things Arkansas Razorback state's White House link purely hog heaven

April 14, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Their most famous export is already here. But Arkansans, eager to capitalize on their state's newfound appeal, followed favorite son President Bill Clinton to Washington yesterday, turning up with catfish, fruit cobbler and the conviction that America's interest in all things Arkansas will bring them big business.

The "Especially Arkansas" trade show at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel -- which Mr. Clinton attended -- was just one way, though, that the Razorback state is selling itself. The Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce has doubled the number of marketing trips it will make nationwide this year and created a $3 million economic development program to entice international visitors and minority companies to the state.

Nearly anyone who makes a product there -- whether it's barbecue sauce or scented soap -- is rethinking how to play up the Arkansas connection in advertising. And even New York-based Bloomingdale's is toying with the idea of creating an Arkansas promotion in its 14 stores around the country.

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Clinton country, tourism was up nearly 9 percent last year, with travelers pumping $2.7 billion into the state, according to Tyler Hardeman, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

Tourism offices in Hope, Hot Springs and Little Rock have all recently created self-guided tour booklets to presidential landmarks, after being deluged with calls about where the president worked, slept or ate a hamburger while living there. A picture of Mr. Clinton even replaced an ad for the great Passion play in Eureka Springs ("The Largest Religious Outdoor Drama in the Country") on the inside cover of one tour booklet.

"People have an insatiable interest in Arkansas now. It's our time," says Dave Harrington, executive director of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

All of this is a far cry from 10 years ago when the state created a $3 million campaign just to let people know where it was on a map.

"For years and years, we attempted to tell the public where we were," says Mr. Harrington. "Interestingly, even five or 10 years .. ago very few people knew. They placed us near Idaho, by Mexico."

Compounding that was the perception of Arkansas as an unsophisticated place.

"People thought we were a bunch of hillbillies and hicks running around with no shoes on," says Lenore Shoults, owner of Ozark Gourmet Specialties in Mountain View, Ark.

That created difficulties, especially when trying to entice vacationers.

"You asked people what came to their minds when you said Arkansas and they said nothing. When they talked about vacations, they'd say, 'I might go to Colorado' or 'I might go to New York City.' People didn't say, 'I might go to Arkansas.' It wasn't on their list. Clinton has put Arkansas on a lot of lists," says Hallie Simmins, spokeswoman for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even Hollywood has noticed. Inquiries to the state's motion picture development office increased 400 percent during the last six months of1992, according to William Buck, director of the office in Little Rock.

General Motors Corp. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. are currently filming commercials there, and the movie, "The Firm," based on the John Grisham novel and due out this summer, was partially shot in East Arkansas, says Mr. Buck.

He credits Mr. Clinton, along with Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, friends of the first family and creators of such TV shows as "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade," with adding glamour to Arkansas.

But perhaps the area that's received the most attention, thanks to a McDonald's-loving president and a growing interest in Southern cuisine, is Arkansas food.

Before January, Ray "Red" Gill sold his Razorback barbecue sauce in 30 states. But since Mr. Clinton came into office -- and Mr. Gill's company, River City Spice, helped with inaugural week festivities -- he's sold his sauce and seasonings to retailers and restaurateurs in 12 other states, including Alaska.

Mr. Gill now even features a photo of himself with Mr. Clinton in his promotional packets.

His competitor, Stubby's Barbecue Restaurants, has tried a different approach, renaming menu items for Mr. Clinton and his family. There are Socks' Deviled Eggs, Hillary's Hallowed Beans and even the Presidential Special featuring a whole chicken, a pound of ribs, two deviled eggs, a pot of beans, cole slaw and potato salad.

"We called it that because of the president's reputation for eating a lot," says Susan Dunkel, owner of the business.

At Good Old Days Foods Inc., where they make six different kinds of cobbler, spokesman Jim Fletcher has a similar success story.

"We've been in business for 20 years, and we hadn't sold 10

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