By Joel Phelps
The decision to re-open Fish Net was a “no-brainer” to restaurant heiress Jenifer Spears, whose late father, Ronnie O’Keefe, opened the staple Caddo Valley eatery known throughout the state for its catfish plates.
Fish Net closed its doors in early December, immediately following a car crash that claimed O’Keefe’s life. O’Keefe operated the restaurant for 36 years. Though it was a difficult decision to make, Spears said she uprooted her life in Dallas to keep Fish Net going and to keep her father’s legacy as a restauranteur going.
“I saw the love, I saw the compassion from the community,” Spears said, “and I knew I had to keep his passion alive.”
Spears had made a career as an interior decorator in the Dallas area. She was in the midst of her busy season when she got the news on Dec. 2 that her father’s life had come to an abrupt end. “My life changed forever that day,” she said.
Since his death, Spears has juggled her personal grief with what she feels her dad would have wanted: to keep the family business going. The decision was to re-open as the same restaurant O’Keefe had worked his entire life to maintain. Spears is in the process of moving to Hot Springs to manage the restaurant. Staying behind in Dallas will be her husband, Ronnie, and their daughter, Lilly, who is a junior in high school. Spears said she plans to travel back and forth as family matters — such Lilly’s upcoming prom — arise.
Spears is no stranger to Fish Net or the food industry. “Since the third grade, I grew up in Fish Net. The restaurant business has been in my family for generations,” she said, noting her grandparents, too, operated a family restaurant. “But it never crossed my mind as a young adult that I would want to get back into this.”
Starting Thursday, April 14, Fish Net will again be serving up its famous catfish plates and various other menu items. Spears said she hopes the restaurant will be back in full swing by that Sunday, which happens to be Easter. Spears guaranteed everything will be the same as it was when her father was in charge, even down to the kitchen manager, Josh Gershner. “We will continue to use the same recipes that have been in my family all these years. I still have his personal recipe book.”
One attribute that really stood out was O’keefe’s presence at his restaurant. “People have said they’re really going to miss seeing him,” Spears said. “His was the first face you saw as you came in the door. One of my biggest goals is that people will see my face. I hope I can be as friendly and warming as my dad was. I just want to make him proud.”