Bella Vita launched a blog titled “Boss Lady” in March 2017 - after years of being inspired by the women that we are friends with, work with, or do business with, that are building their empire doing what they love.  Running a business takes work, and getting started takes courage. At Bella Vita, we wanted to take this opportunity to praise and encourage some of the great female entrepreneurs we have met over the years and we hope to inspire more young women (and men) to follow their instinct/talent/passion and become entrepreneurs.  

My team and I are reaching out to the woman owned businesses that inspire and amaze us on a daily basis.  We will start with a brief background, then dive into the nitty gritty of running a business, what keeps them inspired, and everything else in between.

Kamiya Merrick and Helen Grace King and Leila King (Left to Right) 

Helen Grace King: I was born and raised in Pine Bluff and attended Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at The University of Mississippi and Grad School at Clinton School of Public Service.  I’ve always wanted to make an impact in the world and I have taken a lot of detours to lead me to where I am today. My passion? People. This led me to study psychology and ultimately get a master’s degree in public service. The day I moved downtown to start grad school is the same day that we journeyed next door for lunch at the previous restaurant where @ The Corner is located. That day we made an offer and within 1 month, the place was ours. I used to think that impact happened only on a large scale: end poverty, provide clean water to the world, etc.  It wasn’t until opening a restaurant that I wholeheartedly realized that impact happens at the small scale, the every second, the little moments. And that’s what I do. Some people might say, “It’s only a restaurant”, but to me, it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the world by making a difference in just one person’s day. My goal: every person that enters @ The Corner leaves with their day made a little bit better whether through a healthy meal or a hope-filled conversation. My motto: The energy we put out in the world, is the energy we will receive. Energy is contagious. Positive energy leads to positive change.

Kamiya Merrick: I was born and raised in Barrie, ON Canada where I remained until graduating high school. In 2009, I was recruited as a division 1 soccer player for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock where I studied marketing. I never believed my path would lead me to Arkansas where I would meet my now fiancé, and ultimately open a restaurant with his family, which I now consider my own family. I have always had the aspiration to open a restaurant as the executive chef, but I never believed it would happen at the young age of 24. This is just a strong beginning for my career. Eventually I would love to take some time to travel and train in other restaurants to gain invaluable experience and learn new techniques and cuisines.

Leila King: I was born and raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I went to McGill University in Montreal, Quebec... hence the poutine! path has definitely been an interesting one!  I have always aspired to own a restaurant, however, never, ever did I dream that I would be doing that at the tender age of 33. My goal is three restaurants by the age of 35. I’m very much so a goal-oriented individual.  I work with my family, day in and day out. I would never decide to open a restaurant without the help of family. Family you can depend on, least that is my family’s truth. We are as thick as thieves. My sisters are my life.  I actually live and breathe family. I’ve been told I am the passion behind @ The Corner… all I do know is that I am passionate about taking care of my family. Nothing matters more in life to me than family... and horses!  I’ve been an avid Equestrian for most of my life and riding horses is my passion.  Spouse? Insert Questioning Emoji…. Non-existent. As this article currently goes to print, I am still finding myself search of my one, true, life-partner. Where is he??? I’m actually still looking for the man that is willing to walk 1,000 miles to lie down next to me…. and without my English Bulldog, Ruby Elizabeth, I wouldn’t be complete. She is my absolute joy!

  1. Give us your elevator pitch.  We are 3 sisters and a mother that created @ The Corner, Modern Diner in the heart of downtown Little Rock. When our journey began in 2014, we dreamed of opening more than just a restaurant. We wanted to revolutionize traditional recipes, transform farm-to-table, inspire a “Make Yourself @ Home” vibe, and to ultimately modernize the diner in exciting and unconventional ways. With little restaurant experience and knowledge of starting a business, @ The Corner has become a staple in the Little Rock food scene; setting food trends, creating unique customer service experiences, and ultimately inspiring other females to chase their dreams and start their own business.

  2. What is your business?  @ The Corner Modern Diner, Little Rock’s only Modern Diner.

  3. When did you start your business?  March 2015. We just hit our 3rd year mark which is a huge milestone in the restaurant industry. Stay tuned for birthday updates.

  4. What inspired you to make the leap?  Honestly, opportunity. We all had different paths ahead. One worked in sales for a recycling agency, one was buyer for a high-end women’s fashion boutique, one was in grad school for public service, and one was a volunteer in the community. But we had a vision and an opportunity, and together we created @ The Corner, Little Rock’s only modern diner.  When our journey began in 2014, we dreamed of opening more than just a restaurant. We wanted to create a space that welcomes families, friends, strangers, travelers, and humans of all shapes and sizes.

    Our modern diner revolutionizes traditional recipes, transforms farm-to-fork, and ultimately tells a story of hope and possibilities.  To us, @ is more than a place to eat; it combines our passion for food with the love of each other and this world, in hopes that when people join us for breakfast, lunch, weekend brunch, they can truly feel the love every minute, leaving not just with full tummies, but a spark of inspiration.

  5. What helps you get started each morning? Coffee, diet coke, 10 mile jog, meditation?? 
    Helen Grace: a walk down my steps. I live in the neighborhood and there is something about walking down the marble steps of the lofts that wakes me up. Like starting gates or something. This is then, of course, followed by coffee, hot tea, or warm lemon water. It just depends on my mood & current health trends. 

    Kamiya: There is nothing that gets my day started better than waking up next to my fiancé and our little girl, Milli, a 15 month old Weimaraner. Having these two to wake up to reminds me to cherish the day and these moments help push me through any challenges that day may present. Nothing wakes me more than a hot shower, this gives me a fresh start to my day and allots me the personal time to reflect on the day ahead. 

    Leila: My morning starts pretty early! And I love nothing more than waking up to morning cuddles with my English Bulldog, Ruby Elizabeth. I’ve always been a morning person, in fact, this drives my sisters absolutely insane. I wake up loud, happy, and energetic! Momma always said, “The Early Bird gets the Worm,” and that has always resonated strongly with me. I like to refer to it as “Grind Time”.  After a few cups of strong coffee (with lots of cream) I’m ready to tackle what @ Life has in store. Holla!

  6. Tell us about a day in the life of running your business.  A day is never the same @ The Corner. Being in the heart of downtown Little Rock, we have the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life whether they are locals, world travelers, business men & women, families etc. which is one of the things we love that about @. Some days are slower than others, which allows us to get caught up on bills, emails, paperwork and all the other behind the scenes stuff that it takes to run a business. Other days are slammed but we have a very good system that allows us to “control the chaos”. One thing to note about the day-to-day of @ is that the owners are always there. Leila or Helen Grace tag team taking the orders, running food & bussing tables, while Kamiya is our head chef and busy away in the kitchen. This is a part of who we are and who we want our brand to be. When customers walk in, they are directly working with the owners, every single day. With that said, we are still only as strong as our team. In the beginning it was just us 4 women doing EVERYTHING. Taking orders, cooking, running food, cleaning, taking out the trash, bills, social media, etc. Now we have a strong team that makes our days not only doable but enjoyable.

  7. What keeps you motivated?  Creativity. Being a female owned and operated business is still very unique in this society. Not only does that inspire us to wake up and show up, but as a female owned and operated business, we are constantly inspired to inspire: to tell the universe and other females and young girls that if you have a dream and are willing to give it your all, you too can have a business.  But our motivation doesn’t stop there. Every day, our unique and beautiful opportunity demands us to tell the universe that we are here to not just stay, but to create, to set trends, to set the bar, to tear down walls, and do it all over again the next day.

  8. Describe your dream day.  That’s a tough one. Right now, we are each living a dream of owning a restaurant. That doesn’t mean we don’t have our nightmare days because we definitely do. But I think for us waking up with the attitude to give the day our all with each other side by side is a dream in itself.

  9. What is your greatest strength/super power?  We all have different strengths which makes us our own type of super power.  Kamiya is very creative, Leila is passionate, Helen Grace is rational, and Mom is the firecracker.

  10. Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat?  Instagram.

  11. What do you do in your free time? (ha! What is free time?!) We actually spend a lot of our free time together. Whether it’s a power yoga class, taking our dogs to The Bark Bar or visiting another local restaurant for dinner & drinks, we often find ourselves soaking up a lot of each other’s free time. Which means 1) We must like each other and 2) Its more time to talk about @.

  12. If an investor gave you 1 million dollars to use toward your business, how would you spend it?  Phase II of @! It’s time to expand the brand.

  13. What’s the biggest risk you ever took; how did it go?  Opening a restaurant. Absolutely. More than half of restaurants opened, fail. It’s not only a very strenuous business but it’s extremely risky. It’s going very well and we get stronger every day. This is our first business to ever own so we are constantly learning how to be smarter operators, better bosses and stronger team leaders.
  14. Name something you hate doing but must do for the good of your business. How do you make it tolerable? 
    Helen Grace: Taxes, taking out the trash and refilling glass ketchup bottles.
    Leila: Inventory 
    Kamiya: Waking up early

    How do we make it tolerable? We each played sports growing up. And at times, when we are exhausted, its like the last couple of minutes of the game... where you have to just dig deep, hustle and fight. Sometimes, we have to completely re-find our inner purpose for why we are here and why it's the small things that truly matter and make a business successful. Other times, when we've hit that wall, we truly lean on each other.

  15. How do you handle discouragement?  Control thoughts. Gain perspective.  We believe in constructive feedback. So every review or comment, whether positive or negative, we take to heart and consider it feedback and find ways to use it constructively.  Want to hear a neat story? Every time we have ever felt really down or discouraged, even to the point of wondering if we should give up, the universe will send us 10 people the very next day to tell us we are doing an amazing job and to not give up. It sounds so strange, but there have definitely been tears shed with random strangers just for their perfectly timed words of encouragement. #thankyouuniverse

  16. Do you have a favorite, inspiring quote?
    Kamiya: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.  
    Leila: The only time to look into the rearview mirror, is to see how far you have come.
    Helen Grace: Be the change you want to see in the world.

  17. If you could choose anyone to pick as a mentor, who would you choose? 
    Helen Grace: The best version of myself? If that’s a thing. I have such a strong vision of who this person is and every day I try to take steps necessary to become her.
    Leila: Gwyneth Paltrow, duh!
    Kamiya: My dad. He’s my rock.  We have a very unique and beautiful father/daughter relationship. He’s the first person I go to when I need comforting.

  18. Who are you in your next life?  
    Helen Grace: Next life or next 20 years? I like my life. Next step: own and operate a boutique hotel.
    Kamiya: a butterfly
    Leila: Curator of Art, owner of an art gallery

  19. Any secrets on how you balance the ins and outs of running a small business? For us it’s simple: Family. Create a strong team and surround yourself with a kind, strong and reliable support group. To us, that’s our family and our team.

  20. What’s the best advice you have for other women wanting to be entrepreneurs?  You will come across many negative forces at various stages in your business, not just the beginning. The forces may be roadblocks with the bank, someone in a similar field laughing at you, the dream coming to fruition and looking differently than you imagined, journalists negative reviews, or not getting the support you need from localists, etc. Don’t ignore them, let them empower you. Let them strengthen the fire that is already burning inside of you. Let them be what makes you not stop. 

Visit @ The Corner in person
at 201 E. Markham Street, Little Rock, AR 72201
on social media:
All Photos By: Saira Khan
April 09, 2018 — Brandy McNair

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