How one family business takes every event to the Next Level
January 1-7, 2018
By Becca Bona
There is no ‘long story short’ when it comes to the exposition behind Next Level Events, a venue tucked away in Little Rock’s Historic Train Station. Coming up on 25 years of business, owner Steve Shadid looks back over the years with a mixture of disbelief, incredulity, and achievement.
“All of my children worked here as well as my wife,” he says, “And if that hadn’t been the case I don’t know where I’d be, because I wouldn’t have seen them with all the time that I’ve put in here.”
Born and raised in North Little Rock, Shadid found himself in the food industry early on. He moved around a bit, working in a few establishments in Texas before coming back to the Natural State to raise his family.
He was working as the bar manager for Murry’s Dinner Playhouse when he got a call from a customer one day that would shape his future.
“They asked me if I could do a private bar for a private event,” he says, “I was extremely ignorant on what to do and how to do it, but instinct took over and it turned out alright.”
Not even a month later he was getting more calls, and somehow he knew he was heading in the right direction.
“I turned to my wife Brenda, and I said maybe we should name this thing and get some cards printed because there might be something here,” he remembers.
Thus, Barflys was born, and Shadid got a consulting license with the city of North Little Rock and worked his side project while still working at Murry’s. It wasn’t long after that he got the opportunity to help design the bar on the then-new riverboat known as Gators On The River.
“I invested so much of myself into it … [doing] some of the best professional work of my life designing that bar,” he recalls. And even though it was an overwhelming success, his vision didn’t necessarily match the owner’s vision, so after the job was complete, he felt a little burned out.
At that point he had three small children and didn’t know what was next.
“I’ve always thought that God takes care of fools and children, and at that time, I had a house full of both,” he remembers. Luckily, he got a phone call from a new client detailing a mutli-day event. He took the opportunity and made more money at that one event than he likely had in the last year.
That was the push he needed to operate Barflys full time. He was able to stay home with his children during the day, and then when his wife came home from work, he would go to work in the evenings and on weekends.
“Even to this day, it was the best time of my life,” he recalls. “I will never do anything that gave me more satisfaction, more fulfillment, reward me more, than that period of time in my life where I was able to stay home and serve my wife and children.”
He was working that particular schedule in ‘94 when he met John Bailey. Bailey had just bought the Union Station and had a vision for a Children’s Museum to one day be housed on the second floor. Shadid was working a fundraising event for him and struck up a conversation.
“I asked if Buster’s and Slick Willy’s were still here […] He said that Slick’s was. I said, well is Buster’s still down there, and he said no, that space is empty. Do you want it?”
Shadid turned him down, but Bailey was curious what Shadid would do with it if he did have it.
“I said I’d probably look at it from a private event standpoint because that’s what I’ve been doing the last few years,” Shadid remembers.
Not long after, Shadid found himself at another fundraiser for the same Children’s Museum, and as soon as Bailey arrived he made a beeline for the bar. He couldn’t shake the idea of an event space in the Train Station, and convinced Shadid to do a walkthrough of the old Buster’s location.
Shadid gave in and did the walkthrough. An offer was made, but he went and crunched numbers before countering.
“They had no hesitation on my counter whatsoever,” Shadid remembers, “So we opened the doors on April 1, 1994.”
And while the deal gave Shadid time to get Next Level Events up and running comfortably, he details the early success as also fringed with failure.
“I take full and total responsibility for that – growing into the business, I just failed miserably both on a professional and personal level the first three or four years,” he says.
Nevertheless, he came out stronger and more fluid. One of the best things he did was cultivate a team around which the strength of the business began to rely on, and still does to this day.
By chance, Adriane Stramel, his family’s babysitter, came down in ’94 to help out, and has been signed on ever since.
“She began to develop an ability to deal with clients, guests, and situations. She got her degree – and I told her like I told all three of my children, get an education and run as far and fast away from this business as possible,” he says.
These days, however, Stramel is still a part of the team, and if Shadid had to break down the company with titles, she would be COO. His wife Brenda would be the CFO, and their son Christian would also be an integral piece of the puzzle. Starting at the business from age 12 in the dish pit, Christian began to take on managerial roles, and was able to express himself through music as a DJ, an integral part of Next Level’s evolution. Shadid also happens to have an excellent cook by the name of Marvin Taylor who he “wouldn’t trade for ten classically trained chefs.”
The team forms a nexus around which the business operates. “We are all somewhat interchangeable and that is by design,” Shadid explains. Their success lies largely in their motivation, as he adds, “We are all compelled by a fear of failure, and that’s what drives us.”
In 2001, Shadid began to get the seven year itch, and through a series of events, had the opportunity to negotiate the Slick Willy’s location next door.
“I came over one night and sat on a step in the bar area,” he recalls. “If you open yourself up to a venue or space, it’ll speak to you. It’ll tell you what it’s capable of, and what it wants.”
And that’s when Shadid knew the time was right to expand, and he went home to tell his wife. “We’d already risked everything that we owned once to build a nice little thing,” he laughs, “But … we went back and negotiated another deal with the landlord, anyway.”
Once they fully opened the second space, Shadid felt that they had found their niche. “[W]e had evolved. Food, beverage, décor, coordination – we literally do everything but a cake or photography for any given event.”
That’s partly why Next Level Events is attractive – everything is housed under one roof. The challenge lies in the perfect execution, which Shadid says is likely his favorite part of the job. That, and the continual opportunity for expression.
“Everything we do is about creation. It is one of the most clinical yet most emotional things that you can do for a living. It allows me to exercise the alpha in me and the feminine, as well.”
At the time of this interview, Shadid and his team had just completed 31 events in 19 days. In the past, this busy time of December would be followed by a cathartic weeping of sorts.
“It’s like coming close to some fatal accident, but you barely miss it. That’s what its like, because the stakes are always so high. It really doesn’t matter how perfect you were over the last 31 events, the question is, can you be perfect today for this one?”
These days, he doesn’t weep anymore, he just keeps on rolling.
No matter who walks through the door looking to celebrate a milestone, host a fundraiser, or have their wedding reception, Shadid greets them with open arms.
“We make bonds with our clients,” he says. “We have clients that come to us once a month and clients that come to us once a lifetime and nobody gets treated any differently.”
While he’s seen shifts over the years – phrases like gluten free appearing on menus, along with other themes and motifs – he says each year has its own specific pattern. Through it all, he strives for the success of each individual moment.
“Everythig has its own importance in its own time to you and your guests as you experience it. The key to a successful event is when your guests walk away they say that was a successful event – without adding any buts.”
Here’s to hoping that in another 25 years, the business is still alive and well.
Located in the bottom of Little Rock’s Historic 1920s Union Station, the team at one of the city’s premier venues knows how to take every celebration to the next level. (Photo by Bobby Burton)