After spending 10 months in COVID-19 pandemic isolation, Arkansas Tech University alumna Kat Robinson just had to get out of the house in late January 2021.
Her path led to Mel's, a dairy bar just south of Malvern that she had visited in her youth.
Maybe it was the ice cream. Maybe it was the nostalgia. Whatever it was, the visit sparked an idea in the mind of one of Arkansas' foremost food chroniclers.
"The next morning I woke up and I thought, maybe the dairy bar is the perfect pandemic model," said Robinson. "You have the social distancing. You don't have the person-to-person contact quite the way you do at other restaurants."
Next thing she knew, Robinson was back on the road with a quest to visit all 95 of Arkansas' dairy bars and write a book detailing the food and people that make dairy bars essential elements of the communities in which they are located.
Along the way, her friends at Arkansas PBS called wanting to brainstorm some programming ideas.
Soon after she mentioned the dairy bar book, Robinson and a film crew were retracing her steps to 13 dairy bars representing every region of Arkansas. Filmed over three weeks in March and early April 2021, "Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats" will make its broadcast debut at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 19, on Arkansas PBS.
"About half of these locations are on the main thoroughfare in their town," said Robinson. "So many of them have been around forever and they've become part of the fabric of the towns they are located in. And for the most part, they are located in our smaller towns. I'm from Little Rock, and we don't have any dairy bars left. But if you talk about Clarendon, they've got the Lion's Den and it is thriving. You would think the pandemic would have been the worst thing in the world for these small dairy bars, but you find they managed to not only hold on but to keep going in such an amazing way.
"I discovered that for many of the people who run these dairy bars, their staff became their family pods during the pandemic," continued Robinson. "They made decisions not to go on vacation and not to go great distances out of town to see family. They limited their contact so they could keep their crew safe, and it worked."
Robinson enrolled at Arkansas Tech in 1991. She played French horn in the ATU band and was originally a music major, but she soon discovered her love for storytelling and became a journalism major.
After graduating from Arkansas Tech in 1995, Robinson became a television producer at stations in Jonesboro (1995-99) and Little Rock (1999-2007).
In 2007, she embarked upon a new career that has grown to include credits as a blogger, author and filmmaker. She wrote books such as "101 Things To Eat in Arkansas Before You Die," "102 More Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die" and "Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State."
Her website, Tie Dye Travels, has more than 1,200 food-related articles that she has written.
Pie has been a frequent muse for Robinson. She wrote "Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State" and "Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State."
Her film "Make Room For Pie; A Delicious Slice of The Natural State" was nominated for an Emmy award.
Robinson is a committee member for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame and has been published in regional and national publications including Food Network, Forbes Travel Guide and Serious Eats.
Given the career she has carved out for herself, it's not surprising that it all began with a boost from one of the best-known eateries in the town where she attended college --- Feltner's Whatta-Burger of Russellville.
"Back when I was a student at Tech, Mr. (Bob) Feltner was always out and about in the community in Russellville," said Robinson. "He would meet a college kid and write a note on the back of a card for a free burger or fries, whatever it happened to be. He raised a lot of students' spirits that way. When I started working at KXRJ (the ATU student radio station), I was trying to figure out how to get more people to listen to my show. He and I had a chat about it, and he gave me a huge stack of those cards. He said 'if it helps, it's done it's job.' He just wanted to help me succeed.
"In many ways, he helped spark my entire career," continued Robinson. "It meant a great deal to me. He was extraordinary, and the family are wonderful folks. I've known Missy (Ellis) for years and it's wonderful to sit and chat with her. It's something truly special, and Tech is really blessed to have that connection to Feltner's that it does."
The journey comes full circle in "Arkansas Dairy Bars: Neat Eats and Cool Treats." Feltner's Whatta-Burger is among the 13 restaurants featured in the film.
"Dairy bars are hard work, but if you dive in with both feet it's a legacy and a beautiful way to celebrate your community," said Robinson. "It's a lifestyle."
Learn more about Robinson's film at www.myarkansaspbs.org/programs/dairybars.