Looking Up
Amber Brewer designs meaningful spaces that beg consumers to look up and be present. Hence, the high, open ceiling at Big Orange Midtown and the unique tractor wheel light fixture at Heights Taco & Tamale Co. Here, Brewer holds Pocky, a nod to her love of Japanese culture and food, and a peeled orange, an obvious nod to Big Orange, among other things.

Valentino dress from Barbara/Jean Ltd., Cynthia Rose fur from B.Barnett, rings from Bella Vita Jewelry and necklace from Scarlet; hair and makeup by Angela Alexander.

It was never about the cereal, or even the prize inside the box, for Amber Brewer. For Brewer, the prize WAS the box.

“From a very early age I’ve been obsessed with packaging,” says Brewer, creative director/brand manager for Little Rock restaurant group Yellow Rocket Concepts.

Brewer recalls trips to the grocery store as a 9-year-old and being enchanted by the designs on the cereal boxes. Every Cap’n Crunch or Trix rabbit she saw represented not some magical land or wacky adventure, or even a part of a balanced breakfast; for Brewer, the pictures on the boxes meant opportunity.

“Someone got to put the picture on the cereal box,” she says.

Brewer, 35, has gone on to satisfy her jones for packaging and presentation in her professional life, first as a graphic artist and now as the person responsible for the look and feel of some of Little Rock’s trendiest and most popular eating and drinking establishments. From the signage to the salad forks, from the textures to the floor tiles, Brewer has brought her design sensibilities — which include a pinch of history and a dash of nostalgia — to the look and layout of ZAZA Fine Salad and Wood Oven Pizza, Big Orange Burgers and Shakes, Local Lime, Lost Forty Brewing and Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

It began innocently enough when Brewer was asked to do a logo for ZAZA, owned by partners John Beachboard (now Brewer’s husband), Scott McGehee and Russ McDonough. A one-time art director at Cranford, Johnson, Robinson, Woods before going solo and then joining Arkansas Business Publishing Group as (full disclosure) art director for Soirée, Brewer accepted the job and soon was being asked her opinions on paint color and interior layout.

From there Brewer completely designed and put together the look of the first Big Orange and Local Lime, both located in west Little Rock’s Promenade at Chenal.

“It was a handful,” says Brewer, who was keeping up a full-time magazine schedule while her restaurant design career blossomed.

When the Yellow Rocket partners were signing the lease on the second Big Orange location in Midtown, Brewer decided to focus strictly on her restaurant projects.

“I was like, ‘I’ve got to make a decision,’” she says.

Brewer first worked from a home studio, and now she and Yellow Rocket have moved into 2,000 SF of space adjoining the tap room at Lost Forty, located at 501 Byrd St. just east of Interstate 30.

Lost Forty represents not only Brewer’s and Beachboard’s personal love of craft beer, but a chance for Brewer, for the first time in her new career to actually package a product, to, in effect, box her own cereal.

Packing And Packaging

Brewer was born on a pecan farm in Fairhope, Alabama, lived there until she was 4 and continued to visit on summers and weekends. Influenced by the silos and farm machinery, she maintains a passion for collecting rustic items and notes that everything in Lost Forty is made from scrap metal, a pile of which she keeps in Yellow Rocket’s headquarters.

Brewer was always drawing as a youngster and also did set design for high school drama productions. Hoping to be an illustrator, she accepted a presidential scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design and took a double major in graphic design and creative writing.

Along the way she took a packaging and design course and, naturally, loved it.

“I’m a consumer,” Brewer says. “I love packaging. I can be sold. … Packaging to me is really setting up an expectation for what’s inside.”

Brewer left Savannah to take her art director’s job at Cranford, designing ads and websites, but also, at 26, making pitches.

“That’s why I love Arkansas,” she says. “It’s still growing so much people like me get these opportunities.”

In pursuit of such opportunities, Brewer branched out on her own, doing work with colleagues for Dillard’s, Heifer International, UAMS and Hendrix College. An avid reader, there was no project with which Brewer felt she couldn’t become familiar, so she didn’t turn much down.

“I’m the kind of person who says ‘Yes’ even if I don’t know how to do it,” she says. “Then I go figure it out.”

After three years on her own, Brewer opted for the stability of Arkansas Business Publishing Group and Soirée, then the ZAZA logo job came her way.

As she designed logos and chose colors, Brewer earned the trust of the Yellow Rocket partners, who began to ask questions like “Well, what would you do with the plates?”

What’s Cooking?

As her role expanded, Brewer became the final word on the look of Yellow Rocket’s projects, contributing eye-catching, original designs that have helped enhance Little Rock’s fast-growing restaurant scene.

The first question Brewer usually asks is “What’s on the menu?” Sometimes she’ll have the chef prepare a dish or two.

“Once I know what I’m going to be giving them, I can wrap it,” Brewer says.

For Big Orange, for example, Brewer chose clean, white, edgeless plates to contrast with a potentially messy food like a cheeseburger. For Heights Taco & Tamale Co., in which the Yellow Rocket team partnered with Ben Brainard, Brewer chose to have the food served in metal skillets to reference the southern and Mexican roots of the “Ark-Mex” cuisine.

Once Brewer has tried the food, she then reads up on it. Admittedly not a partaker of Tex-Mex, and wanting to avoid the cantina-style cliches found in the look of many such places, Brewer read a history of the cuisine by Chef Rick Bayless.

Brewer learned that Mexican food, as it journeyed from its native country through Texas toward Arkansas, was often served at drugstores, and her design for Heights Taco & Tamale Co. reflects that journey and Tex-Mex’s mercantile tradition, which can be seen in the look of the bar and its anchored, vintage-looking stools.

The restaurant’s wallpaper applies design patterns used by Mexico’s Otomi people.

For Lost Forty — a collaboration that includes Albert Braunfisch as partner — Brewer wanted to reflect the industrial look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood, which includes a nearby scrap yard.

She incorporated the wall of an old firehouse; the light fixtures are made from leftover pipe; the food is served on metal trays and an awning hangs over the bar.

“All of the design, when you walk in there it feels like it’s always been there,” Brewer says.

For the name, Brewer and the Yellow Rocket team tapped into some Arkansas history, naming Lost Forty after a sacred, 40 acres in Calhoun County that managed, through a series of happy accidents, to survive the timber boom.

In that neck of the woods “Lost Forty” became slang for knocking off work and going drinking, something that, according to legend, surveyors did when they couldn’t find the acreage and allowed Lost Forty to disappear from maps and miss the cut.

First impressions matter, and Brewer says her goal in this day and age is to get people to enter a restaurant and immediately look up “because they’re always doing this,” she says, grabbing her smartphone in the time-honored, two-thumbed grip.

That explains the high, open ceiling above the bar at Big Orange in midtown, Brewer says, and why she used Otomi wallpaper and flooring from Heights Taco & Tamale Co. and flipped it upside down for her photo that accompanies this story.

“It’s kind of a perceptual shift,” she says.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS (clockwise, from top left): In all of Yellow Rocket’s restaurants, visual presentation is key. The extreme attention to detail is apparent in the way the salsas are served at Local Lime; the rustic modern, inviting feel of ZAZA in the Heights; and the open, airy ceiling over the bar at Big Orange Midtown.

The Big Board

Brewer’s day starts before she even gets out of bed.

With one eye barely open she updates 35 different social media accounts (not an exaggeration) then heads to Lost Forty, where the “big board” prioritizing her various projects hangs on one wall.

“If you don’t get to the bottom you try tomorrow,” she says. “It’s always a bottomless list. There is no 5 o’ clock.”

Brewer works and consults with welders, flooring experts, tile makers and craftsmen while also keeping an eye open for useful materials that have some meaningful connection to the project at hand.

“Handmade elements are important to me,” Brewer says. “The fun is not in the selection. It’s in making.”

It probably helps the relationship that Brewer shares her busy schedule with her husband. While doing some work for McGehee at Boulevard Bread Co. she met Beachboard and the couple was married four years ago.

Rather than have a blowout wedding, they traveled to Thailand to tour cooking schools and “just eat our way through Thai cuisine.”

Brewer, who adores Japanese culture, advertising and styles, got to visit Japan with Beachboard the following year.

Lost Forty is the result of the couple’s home brewing collaborations and Yellow Rocket’s efforts to make Big Orange bar focused, with a multitude of craft beers available.

Craft beer, Brewer says “has always been a part of our lives.”

Lost Forty also represents Brewer’s very limited plans to expand beyond Little Rock. They might sell Lost Forty beers outside the state, Brewer says, but very few other projects are under consideration.

“We really want to just be a part of the community, make the fabric of Little Rock rich,” Brewer says.

There is still plenty of room for growth within the local, booming restaurant scene, Brewer says, and she is thrilled to be involved. People, Brewer included, now have somewhere unique to go every night in the city and, thanks to Little Rock’s startup spirit, people are understanding the connection between local businesses and good communities, Brewer says.

“More than ever people understand how these things connect and how it makes your town stronger and more attractive to visit,” Brewer says. “I’m so excited just to be a part of that upswing.”