For the Love of Food and Community: Jessica Gomez Brings Attention to the Central Arkansas Food Scene
If anything can bring a community together, it’s food. Jessica Gomez, a self-described food enthusiast, is combining her love for food and community as a local social media influencer, highlighting restaurants and food trucks across central Arkansas through her Instagram account, @eating_with_jess_.
From pizza to pupusas and everything in between, one scroll down Jess’ Instagram profile will leave your mouth watering. Before she began sharing her dining adventures on social media, her passion for food and cooking made her the go-to person for friends looking for a good place to eat. In response to these requests, Jess started an Instagram account for easy reference. Once she realized the positive impact her posts were making on restaurant owners and mobile food vendors, she shifted her focus to shining a light on underrepresented small business owners.
“My purpose is to encourage us to connect with our community by showcasing the diversity of food establishments within our own towns that really do give us great food,” she said.
The Chicago native relocated to Arkansas in 2005. A mother with a busy career in the mortgage industry, Jess sought a slower pace to give her more time with her young children. She was attracted to Arkansas after visiting her brother and sister-in-law, who came to the state to do missionary work for Spanish-speaking populations. She eventually moved to Conway and ultimately landed another job in the mortgage industry that gave her more flexibility.
“There was just something about Arkansas,” she said. “I felt such inner peace, which makes sense; it is The Natural State after all.”
Jess also took note of the community-mindedness she experienced in Arkansas compared to the hustle and bustle of the Windy City. She credits her Hispanic heritage and outgoing personality with her commitment to supporting others and bringing people together.
“There are so many relationships I have now that I would have never gotten if it weren’t for this Instagram page. I’ve met some amazing people who are now friends, like the owners of BMB Creations, Kassi’s Cookies, and Squizito Tasting Room,” she said. “And if a local farmer and a local restaurant owner begin working together because I was able to connect them, that gives me purpose and brings me pleasure.”
Jess takes pride in knowing that people have discovered new places to eat from her Instagram account. On multiple occasions, her followers have been enticed to try something new after seeing one of her posts.
“Even if I can send one new customer to an establishment, that person might tell someone else, and then you have a domino effect,” she said.
Her Instagram profile also has caught the attention of community organizations, including the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau, which partnered with Jess on an Asian Food Week social media campaign in May 2022.
“When the Conway CVB reached out to me as an influencer, that was a surreal moment and a humbling experience,” she said. “I was honored to be a part of it.”
In addition to building relationships with small business owners, Jess hopes her social media presence challenges misconceptions about the Conway food scene – one mouth-watering post at a time.
“People think there are not enough places to eat in Conway; that it’s all Mexican and barbecue,” she said. “There are so many hidden gems within our city, but the issue is that it’s hard for people to get out of their comfort zones and try something new. We have so many phenomenal places here.”
Jess said that even among the barbecue and Mexican restaurants, you will find variety.
“Everyone has their own style. When it comes to Mexican food, Los Gallos Taqueria y Birria is different from Los 3 Potrillos, which is different from La Huerta,” she said. “And people may assume that El K’iche on Dave Ward Drive is a Mexican restaurant, but it’s Guatemalan.”
Depending on how often you dine out, Jess encourages people to try at least one new place every week or every month, especially a new food truck. Mobile food vendors are often immigrants and people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds who bring authentic tastes that often are not available in smaller cities.
“A lot of times we complain that there’s nothing to do in Conway or that there’s nothing new or that there aren’t enough food establishments,” Jess said. “But then we don’t support what we have. To keep things growing, we have to support.”
The Conway area offers food and cultural experiences that go beyond eating a meal. Squizito Tasting Room sells premium olive oils and balsamic vinegars at its downtown Conway location and offers cooking and olive oil classes at its primary location in nearby Cabot. The Conway Art Walk, which takes place one evening a month on the first Friday, is an opportunity to experience live music and art demonstrations while enjoying drinks and food from local establishments.
At the end of the day, Jess said it’s all about building relationships and building community.
“Food unites us and is a universal language,” she said. “It’s rewarding to play a small part in bringing different people and cultures together.”